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The traditional method of set progression in the world of bodybuilding/fitness revolves around what is known as “pyramiding.” This simply involves beginning with a lighter weight for higher repetitions and adding some weight/lowering the reps on each successive set. Using the bench press as an example, here is a look at what might be a typical pyramid scheme for a 300 lb. (1-rep max) bench presser:
Set 1: 95 x 20
Set 2: 135 x 15
Set 3: 185 x 12
Set 4: 225 x 8*
Set 5: 255 x 6*
Set 6: 280 x 3-4*
*Indicates maximum effort “work-sets.”
While this is certainly a “tried and true” method of progressive weight training that has helped produce many awesome physiques, there is an alternative method that I believe is even more effective. The problem with traditional pyramid schemes is that the first few sets are normally not maximum efforts and are meant to simply warm up the muscles for the heavier sets to follow. However, while you are performing all of these reps, you are also sapping valuable energy that could be better utilized for the heavier, “work” sets. When one uses light weights in order to perform high reps, high levels of lactic acid is produced within the muscles. This lactic acid, among other waste products, will actually make you weaker and reduce performance for your later sets. The problem here is actually two-fold – not only are the earlier “warm-ups” decreasing strength needed for your max sets, but they are also making unnecessary inroads into your recovery ability, which will only slow hypertrophy.
An alternative method to the pyramid seen above is what is known as the “reverse pyramid.” The difference here is that the warm-ups are very brief, but will effectively gear your mind and body for the heavier weights to come – without tiring you out or producing large amounts of lactic acid. Sets of 12-20 reps are not necessary to prepare you for your maximum effort work sets. All that is needed are a few progressive sets of 2-3 reps – just as long as proper precautions are taken beforehand.
The first thing you should do upon entering the gym is to “systemically” warm-up on a bike, elliptical or treadmill for 5-10 minutes in order to raise core body temperature. This is perhaps the most important preventative from injury. Next, some simple callisthenic exercises like shoulder rolls, arm rotations, side bends, etc, will help to loosen the joints and get blood flowing to the tendons, ligaments and muscles. Now you should be more than ready to tackle your first exercise. Again, let’s look at the bench press as an example:
Set 1: 95 x 3
Set 2: 135 x 3
Set 3: 185 x 3
Set 4: 235 x 2
Set 5: 285 x 4*
Set 6: 265 x 6*
Set 7: 245 x 8*
*Indicates maximum effort “work-sets.”
As you can see, with the reverse pyramid you jump to your heaviest work set immediately after your warm-ups are completed. Since you will not have drained your strength with several sets of high reps you should not only be able to max out at a higher poundage but even perform more reps with the increased weight. While your second and third work sets will be somewhat lighter, they will more than likely still be heavier and for more reps than what they would using a traditional pyramid scheme. Heavier weight + more reps = MORE GROWTH!
Note: Once you begin your second exercise for the same body part you should only need 1-2 preparatory warm-up sets before once again attacking your first max-effort set.
Personally, this is how I prefer to train at every workout, and since I started to do so (many years ago), my muscle growth has never really “hit a wall.” So, if you have been stuck in a rut with your own training, and cannot seem to push from XL to XXL, give the reverse pyramid a try. It could just be the plateau buster you’ve been looking for!