Looking to make changes to your training? Not sure where to start? Look no further. This is best place to start and learn about pyramid training.
Bodybuilders and fitness enthusiasts around the world commonly employ a training method known as pyramid training. There are many different types of pyramid programs. Most notably there’s the Oxford and DeLorme methods. Both of these types and one other will be examined. We’ll look at their benefits and drawbacks. In the end, you’ll know all you’ve ever wanted to know about pyramid training for your gym workout routines.
So if you’re looking to make changes to your program, this info should be very helpful in making your decision.
The Oxford Pyramid Technique
The Oxford pyramid technique is by far the most common technique seen in gyms today and commonly used pyramid training workout. The lifter picks an exercise and a starting weight. For example, he could pick the bench press and 135 pounds and perform 10 reps. On the next set, he could do 155 for 8 reps. Then on the next he could do 175 pounds for 6 reps, followed by 195 for 4. That’s the ascending part of the pyramid.
After the ascending part, the lifter then would drop the weight to 175 and do 6 reps again. That would be followed up with 155 and 8 reps, then down to 135 and 10 reps, making sure to get adequate rest in between sets. While this may seem to be an effective way to do your gym workouts, doing a decreasing number of reps with each weight increase, it’s a bit haphazard.
It’s not based on a percentage of a one-rep max.
The only way to ensure a positive response to training is to make sure the lifter and muscle groups are receiving an optimal amount of stimulus from the nervous system. One way to do that without attaching an EMG (a machine that measures amount of stimulus a given muscle is receiving) to the lifter is to use Prilepin’s table, based on the study of thousands of Russian weightlifters, which we’ll discuss later.
One plus of the Oxford technique is that it does train the muscle system very well. While one may not gain much strength directly from this technique, increased muscular cross-sectional area (bigger muscles) does mean more pulling power from that muscle, so strength increases can occur. But, the main determinant of strength is the nervous system. So the only way to really ensure strength gains is to stress that system through other methods.
Another glaring weakness of the Oxford technique is that it has not been extensively studied. Thus, no pro or college strength coaches use it. Most research on the technique has been inconclusive in trying to prove how effective it is. That’s mostly because it is not based on percentages and therefore is not relevant to every participant in a double-blind, peer-reviewed study.
As a practicing pro strength coach, I can personally say I would never use this technique because the primary goal of my athletes is to perform well on the athletic pitch. While hypertrophy training (training to increase muscle size) has been shown to improve athletic performance, there is more transfer onto the field from strength increases due to development of the nervous system, since they take place faster than muscle size increases and tend to last longer.
Muscles left idle are subject to atrophy (loss of size).
Plus, the nervous system training for athletes focuses on their ability to produce power. This allows them to move fast. Of course, the one thing that every athlete needs is more speed. In fact, most NFL combine preparation training focuses on sprint mechanics and running economy (how to run faster through technique and power increases due to lifting weights).
As a mentor once said, “you can’t stop what you can’t catch.”
As someone who used to use this technique before going to college and studying exercise science, I can tell you that, initially, this worked. I wanted to get big, and I achieved bigger muscles through use of the Oxford pyramid technique. But, when I started to use a more athletic form of training (use of Prilepin’s table and one-rep maxes when writing a program), my strength shot up faster than ever before and I began to steadily gain weight (muscle) at a rate of about two pounds per month, which is still constant.
The DeLorme Pyramid Technique
The DeLorme pyramid technique would be another way to train the nervous system. One study performed in Australia proved that the DeLorme pyramid technique did in fact, lead to greater strength increases than the Oxford method. The DeLorme technique, like the Oxford pyramid technique, is also not based on percentages. Instead, it is based on your last workout.
Going back to the bench press example, the lifter might perform sets of bench press, however for the same number of reps, increasing from 135 to 195 in 20-pound increments, making sure to rest adequately in between sets. If 195 pounds is the one-rep max, then the lifter would want to do one rep on each set leading up to 195. Therefore, that would make 195 pounds for one rep the only real working set of the workout, and using such a heavy weight would be direct focus on the nervous system.
One thing worth mentioning is that powerlifters commonly use a method quite similar to the DeLorme technique that utilizes percentages. For example, a powerlifter might take a five-rep max and do five reps at 50% of the five-rep maximum, then a set of five at 75% of the five-rep maximum and then a final set of five at 100% of the five-rep max. It is well known that powerlifters are some of the biggest, strongest people around so it is clear that this method leads to great strength increases.
Pyramid Workout: Prilepin’s Table For Strength
If strength is your goal, there is an even more effective way to increase strength. This is through the use of a pyramid based on Prilepin’s table.
Prilepin’s table is as follows:
|REP RANGE PER SET
|OPTIMAL TOTAL REPS
|OPTIMAL REP RANGE
Percentages are based on a one-rep max. The rep range per set column shows how many reps the lifter would perform in a set. The optimal total reps column is what the lifter should aim to perform total for one move. Meanwhile, the optimal rep range is the range of reps in which the lifter would experience a positive response to training.
Doing less reps than the minimum in the optimal rep range would result in inadequate stimulus (not enough work) and lead to no development in muscle size or strength. Going above the maximum would result in the quality of rep decreasing (from breakdown) and thus a negative response to training. You don’t want this.
It could eventually lead to overtraining and adrenal fatigue.
Adrenal fatigue, although not well understood yet, is a condition that causes serious performance decrements and an inability to work out heavy until the condition is rectified. In many cases it leads to a loss of progress.
Doing a pyramid based on Prilepin’s table is basically performing a pyramid that focuses solely on the nervous system. That’s why if strength(opposite of how to get lean) is your goal, this is the way to go. Going back to the example of the bench press, let’s look at a lifter who can bench press 250 pounds as a one rep max. The pyramid aspect of that lifter’s workout would be the increase of percentages of that one rep max and the proper decrease in reps.
One method that I have found as a strength coach to work is increasing the percentage of weight used in each set by 5% of the one rep max, and doing two sets at the final percentage. For example, in the lifter’s first week of lifting, he would do six reps at 55% one rep max, six more at 60% of one rep max and then two sets of six reps at 65% one rep max. The following week he would start at 60% of his one rep max and gradually increase to 70% for two sets of five. Week three he would start at 65% and so on.
When basing a program on Prilepin’s table, a lifter can expect to see a strength increase of three to seven percent every four weeks. Of course, that’s as long as the lifter follows Prilepin’s table religiously and does not stray.
Another thing about programming based on Prilepin’s table worthy of pointing out is that one coach (who I am a devoted follower of), Gayle Hatch, has developed a method that seems to make the best use of Prilepin’s table. His style places a heavy emphasis on Olympic lifting and Olympic lifting progressions. This makes the workouts very intense and demanding, but the rewards are great. Lifters can expect to see increases in strength of 10 to 15% over an eight-week cycle following the Hatch method.
Pyramid Training & Drop Sets
With all of this said, I do realize that strength isn’t always the goal. That’s why drop sets are worth talking about. Although not formally recognized as a pyramid technique, drop sets can be very effective when it comes to boosting muscle cross-sectional area (building bigger muscles).
One principle commonly used when trying to build muscle is workout volume; that is, trying to do the most reps you can on a particular exercise or any number of exercises focusing on one muscle group. In doing so, one boosts the amount of muscle damage caused by increasing the amount of time that muscle is under tension. Hypertrophy (muscle building) is highly dependent on intramuscular damage. The more damage, the better.
But, it can make you feel very sore.
To do a drop set the lifter must select a weight that they can perform about six to eight reps with. This is easiest with dumbbells or on a pin-loaded machine (like the seated row) often used on many shoulder workouts. With the weight selected, the lifter would do the six to eight reps already mentioned. From there, the lifter would then decrease the weight by a little bit, usually five pounds with dumbbells or 10 pounds on a pin-loaded machine, and do another set of six to eight reps.
This decrease can be done any number of times until the lifter reaches a point where they want to burn out, or do reps of a given exercise until failure, or the point where they can’t do anymore. Then rest and repeat as many times as you want.
One risk of doing drop sets is the development of overtraining syndrome if they are used in every workout every day. Overtraining syndrome results in a loss of appetite, decreased libido (sex drive), decreased desire to train and general apathy towards many things in life. This is an extremely harmful condition that can eventually lead to adrenal fatigue (as explained before) or rhabdomyolysis.
This is a condition in which the muscle cells literally burst and their contents leak into the blood, resulting in a buildup of myoglobin (an oxygen-storing protein found in muscles) in the kidneys. It can lead to kidney failure and, if left untreated, even death. So proceed with caution when doing drop sets and make sure not to do drop sets on every workout. If you decide to do it anyway, at least limit the number of drop sets you perform.
The fact is that any training method can lead to overtraining. But, used in moderation, all of the pyramiding schemes we’ve just described have advantages. The truth is when deciding on what kind of exercise program to use, it’s really mixing and matching different theories and methods together to find what works for you. Now that you know all the basics of pyramid training, you can decide if it’s something for you.
By Michael Schletter, CSCS*D, NSCA-CPT*D