You've heard the rules.
Doing high rep sets at the beginning of a workout will increase lactate levels and inhibit the recruitment of high-threshold motor units, thereby decreasing strength; there's an inverse relationship between reps and sets – the higher the reps, the less sets required and vice versa; and pyramiding the weight from high reps to low reps crosses too many borders and confuses the body.
There are a million of them. For the most part, I agree with a lot of these rules and advocate them on a regular basis, but what would happen if you did the opposite of most of these rules?
Let's go on a journey and find out.
My son was born in December of 2009, and a month later we started getting visitors.
A couple that we've been friends with for years came over with their kids one Sunday afternoon. Something was wrong between them – there wasn't any communication and you could tell they were having problems.
She wasn't happy and he'd gained a lot of weight and seemed depressed. If there was ever a classic example of "andropause," it was sitting right across from me.
Fast Forward Seven Months
The following summer we returned the favor and visited those same friends.
When we arrived, their kids were swimming in their pool, so my daughters wanted to join them. It was cold, but my buddy (let's call him G) offered to go in with them.
A few minutes later, out comes G wearing a Speedo! But it's not the same guy I'd seen the winter before. Instead, he was completely jacked and he wanted to show off what he'd accomplished.
I said, "Holy cow, G, you've put some muscle on!'
"Yeah," he said, "I've been lifting quite a bit over the last few months. I'm in the gym at least 5 or 6 times a week."
"What about your joints?" I asked.
G used to have quite a few problems with his knees, shoulders and elbows. He was no slouch in the weight room though. At a buck eighty-five, he'd benched 4 plates a side and apparently can still do it, but he gave up lifting a few years ago because his joints were just killing him.
"Well, I tell you," said G, "I don't lift too heavy any more. I train 2 body parts a day and keep the reps fairly high, anywhere between 10-20 per set. I always get a good pump. I do enough sets and my body keeps growing, and the best part is that I've had no problem with my joints at all!"
Obviously, G was doing something right with his training. Not only was he a different person physically, but he was on a whole new level mentally and emotionally. The guy had really transformed himself and I was happy for him.
Success leaves clues and it got me thinking, maybe G is on to something (or maybe G is on something, who knows?). I'd just completed a phase of "short-term" overtraining with my infamous Get Lean Quick Scheme and I was ready to embark on a new program, one that I've coined "The Size Pyramid."
I'd experienced some nice success training more frequently just prior to the holidays and G inspired me to go a little lighter with the weight, which would permit a greater frequency.
Since the load would be lower, I'd compensate with greater acceleration to maintain a high force output (i.e., force = mass x acceleration) and encourage the involvement of fast-twitch fibers. That means using a fast concentric and eccentric tempo – still controlled, but fast!
Two pairs of exercises per workout (4 exercises total) and two body parts a day is perfect. I would sequence the exercises in an antagonistic fashion, and make sure to pick as many of the big boys [exercises] as possible.
Well, it worked great, and I've been doing it ever since. Here's the gist of it:
The success of the plan lies in exercise selection: there are some single-joint movements, but the emphasis is on multi-joint movements.
The workouts would be split in this manner:
|Workout 1||Workout 2||Workout 3|
The 3-day split pattern of chest/back, legs/abs, and arms is repeated 4 times for a total of 12 different workouts. This provides plenty of variety and allows enough recovery for growth. (By the way, there's plenty of work for shoulders on this plan, as you'll soon discover.)
The frequency is 3 workouts in 4 or 5 days. Always include a rest day following arms to separate the two upper body workouts.
Depending on your schedule and recovery ability, you may need to insert a rest day before the arm workout as well. I encourage you to try the 3 days on, 1 day off approach if you can.
As daunting as that frequency may seem, you may be pleasantly surprised with your performance and the subsequent outcome. Try it. If it's too much, add another day of rest.
Two key ingredients for hypertrophy are volume and variety, and the rationale for this plan is as follows:
- Volume: pick the right exercises and present enough sets to grow.
- Variety: there are plenty of exercises in the entire routine and a wide number of reps are used to grow different fibers.
Here's what The Size Pyramid program looks like:
|1||45° Incline Dumbbell Press (prone)||Wide-Grip Pull-Up||Flat J-Press||Seated Cable Row (neutral)|
|2||Back Squat||Lying Leg Curl||Romanian Deadlift||Sicilian Crunch|
|3||Parallel-Bar Dip||Mid-Incline Hammer Curl||Standing Military Press||Seated Zottman Curl|
|4||Bent-Over EZ-Bar Row (sup)||30° Incline Dumbbell Press (neutral)||Sternum Pulldown (neutral)||Flat Rope Flye (prone)|
|5||Trap-Bar Deadlift||Decline Sit-Up||Russian Good Morning||Hanging Leg Raise|
|6||Low-Pulley Reverse Curl||Close-Grip Bench Press||Close-Grip Chin-Up||Decline Dumbbell Triceps Extension|
|7||50° Incline Barbell Press||One-Arm Row||Standing Cable Crossover||Wide-Grip Pulldown (prone)|
|8||Front Squat||Glute-Ham Raise||Low Cable Pull-In||Standing Calf Raise|
|9||Decline Close-Grip Bench Press||Mid-Incline Dumbbell Curl||Standing Rope Pressdown||Standing Cable Curl|
|10||Close Neutral-Grip Chin-Up||Seated Dumbbell Press (neutral)||Seated Cable Row (prone)||Flat Dumbbell Press (neutral)|
|11||Bent-Knee Deadlift||High-Pulley Crunch||Standing Good Morning||Side Flexion|
|12||Seated Preacher Dumbbell Curl||Lying EZ-Bar Triceps Extension||Standing EZ-Bar Reverse Curl||Kneeling Rope French Press|
Here are the general guidelines:
- "A" Exercises: 6-10 sets, 60-90 second rest intervals
- "B" Exercises: 3-5 sets, 30-60 second rest intervals
If you can break up the A and B exercises into 2 sessions, it's even better.
Here's the novel part of The Size Pyramid that I think will get you excited:
For reps, use an ascending-descending pyramid scheme.
In simple terms, you start with a light weight and high reps. Increase the load and decrease the reps each set as you climb up the pyramid until you reach a peak–which is no less than 5 reps on this plan–and then do the opposite coming down.
The actual numbers will vary depending on the individual and exercise. For instance, you can start as high as 20 reps with back squats and dips, but good luck getting that high on bent-knee deadlifts or pull-ups – your grip will give on the former and if you're over 200 pounds, your pull-up form will end up being terrible!
Of course, use straps when doing high-rep deadlifts, but 12-15 reps is as high as you'll want to go on those exercises.
Say you're doing back squats, you'll start off with 20 reps. Then, you'll increase the weight and do 15 reps. After a brief rest, you'll add weight and shoot for 12 reps. You'll keep adding weight and lower reps until you reach, say, 8 reps.
At that point, you'll start to go back up the ramp again by decreasing the weight and increasing the reps until you hit 20 again.
It may sound confusing at first, but I've given some sample progressions below.
You may take up to 6 sets to "climb up," and then only 4 sets to go back down. That's fine. I've noticed that sometimes performance declines a bit on the way down (due to fatigue), but sometimes it actually improves (due to post-activation potentiation). The back-off sets have an anabolic effect so don't neglect them.
The key is every set must be taken to failure – don't leave any reps in reserve!
With a little experience you'll know how to manipulate the loading parameters.
Below are some sample progressions.
Sample Back Squat Progression
|Workout #1||Workout #2||Workout #3||Workout #4|
|225 x 20||235 x 20||245 x 20||255 x 20|
|255 x 15||265 x 15||275 x 15||285 x 15|
|275 x 12||285 x 12||315 x 10||325 x 10|
|295 x 10||305 x 10||335 x 6||345 x 6|
|315 x 8||325 x 8||315 x 10||325 x 10|
|295 x 10||305 x 10||275 x 15||285 x 15|
|275 x 12||285 x 12||245 x 20||255 x 20|
|255 x 15||265 x 15|
|225 x 20||235 x 20|
The number of sets will decrease as you progress. Make sure you have an oxygen tank nearby!
Sample Pull-Up Progression
|Workout #1||Workout #2||Workout #3||Workout #4|
|BW x 12||20 x 11||40 x 10||50 x 9|
|20 x 10||40 x 9||50 x 8||60 x 8|
|40 x 8||60 x 7||70 x 6||70 x 7|
|40 x 7||60 x 6||70 x 5||70 x 6|
|20 x 9||40 x 8||50 x 7||60 x 7|
|BW x 10||20 x 10||40 x 9||50 x 8|
You tend to drop a rep or two with the same loads on the way down the pyramid. If the drop is 3 reps or more, terminate the exercise for the day.
Sample "B" Exercise Progression
|Workout #1||Workout #2||Workout #3||Workout #4|
|20 reps||15 reps||12 reps||10 reps|
|15 reps||12 reps||10 reps||8 reps|
|12 reps||10 reps||8 reps||6 reps|
|15 reps||12 reps||8 reps||10 reps|
|20 reps||15 reps||12 reps||10 reps|
Ballistic Does Not Mean Ugly!
For tempo, all concentric reps are performed explosively and the eccentric is a fast but controlled 1-2 second lowering: 1 second for short-range movements like arm curls and extensions, and 2 seconds for long range movements like squats and chin-ups. Do not drop like a bomb and do not bounce at the bottom.
As loads increase, velocity of movement may decrease but the intent must always be explosive. Form does not need to deteriorate just because you're going fast. If your form does deteriorate, terminate the set.
You don't throw a punch hoping to connect. You throw a punch with the intent to connect! Every repetition you perform should be under control at any speed.
Rather Than Question It, DO IT!
TC once said when you write a training article make it apply to 2/3 of the population, 2/3 of the time. For the third of the population that this article might not apply to, try to take something from it nonetheless.
For instance, you may not understand the pyramid schemes presented and perhaps the reps are too high for your liking. If so, use the exercises as a template and incorporate your own set-rep scheme.
If there's an exercise or two that you don't like, then change it – substitute a suitable alternative. Perhaps the frequency is too much. If so, insert a rest day or two in between. If you've been lifting slow, try making your reps more dynamic.
All sets are taken to failure. I know, you're going to fry your CNS, it will decrease strength, you should manage fatigue, Brett Favre may or may not retire this year, blah, blah, blah. Just do it!
Train as often as possible – 3 days in a row and even twice a day if you can. I know, natural trainees with a life can't recover, you're going to fry your nervous system again, bring on the sickness, you will get weaker, your mother-in-law will move in with you, blah, blah, blah. Just do it!
Ride That Horse
I've had a few workouts that were over 90 minutes in length; one even lasted two hours. I wasn't making friends, I was just really into it! The BCAAs and glutamine made sure I wasn't catabolizing too much tissue and really helped reduce any post-workout soreness.
Then again, I had one workout where, after my first set, performance dropped like a bomb, so I stopped. No big deal. I came back the following workout even stronger.
You have to listen to your body. When the horse wants to gallop, let the reigns go! If you're not up to it one day, don't force the issue. The key is to make progress every workout.
Jump to the Present
I was fully expecting a lightning bolt to the head on this program. Instead, it was like a pat on the back from Thor himself. I was not laid out on a hospital bed receiving chemo. I did not look like an anorexic marathoner with a potbelly. And I did not resort to the pink dumbbells by the end of this little experiment. I packed on some muscle. I felt strong. And I had plenty of energy!
Believe me, prior to this program you could count on one hand the average number of reps I generally performed in a set, and many times I could say my full name twice before completing a repetition!
So this strategy was bit of a shock to my system; a pleasant shock, one that stimulates muscle growth (not the hairs on the back of your neck!).
My arms, shoulders, chest, back, thighs, abs, calves, forearms, and ego exploded. What really caught peoples' attention, though, were my chest and arms. I received a lot of compliments there. And just the other day my massage therapist said that she's going to stop working on me if my legs got any bigger, so I plan to do even more leg work, just to piss her off!
Break The Monotony!
Training is like a long-term relationship. At the beginning, things are amazing and there's some serious passion. After a while things get stale and monotonous. This program is like that fling on the side with a super hot and adventurous chick. You know what I'm talking about.
After the fun, you can go back to relative strength training with tight tempo and duration restrictions. It's the right thing to do, I guess. But every once in a while when you need some excitement, you can call on the pyramid program and it'll take you to new heights (pun intended).
I want to leave you with one more piece of advice: work hard! I repeat, WORK HARD!!!
I have to admit, there were a couple of times coming down that Size Pyramid where I wimped out. Then again, I've had some absolute killer workouts where I really pushed myself.
Picture someone holding a gun to your head, or worse to the head of someone you love, and you'll pump out those extra reps.
After the set, picture yourself kicking the shit out of that guy! I promise you, if you truly give it your all, you will be rewarded for your efforts.
Best of luck with your training.