Hey, here’s a question. Once your overall workout routine is set up and you’ve figured out which exercises you’ll be doing and how many sets and reps you’ll do for each… how exactly do you structure it all?
What I mean is, are you going to lift the same weight each set? Increase the weight from one to the next? Decrease the weight each set? Do more reps in later sets? Do less reps in later sets? Do the same number of reps each set?
Or will you just wing it and hope for the best?
If you don’t have a good answer to this question (and “just winging it” definitely isn’t a good answer), or you just can’t explain how the hell you came to the answer you do have, then you’re kinda being a dumbass because this is a surprisingly important aspect of your weight training routine.
There’s actually quite a few methods for structuring the sets, reps and weights you’ll use for a given exercise, and some will definitely be more or less ideal for you than others based on your goals, experience level and individual needs.
Today I want to cover what are probably the 3 most simple and common set structures of all:
- Straight sets.
- Pyramid sets.
- Reverse pyramid training.
Let’s now take a look at each and figure out which is best for you…
Doing “straight sets” (which people also refer to as “sets across”) means lifting the same weight for all of your sets of a given exercise. In the traditional sense, you’ll have a set/rep goal of something like 3 sets of 8 reps, where you’ll use the same weight each set and try to get 8 reps each time.
When you successfully do that, you’d then increase the weight being lifted (aka progressive overload) and then try to get 3 sets of 8 reps with a new slightly heavier weight.
Using 3×8 as the example, here’s how traditional straight sets would look…
Traditional Straight Sets
As you can see, the same weight is used in all of the sets of this exercise. It’s not increased or decreased at any point.
You’ll also notice that the number of reps being done (or at least attempted as the goal) remained the same as well. While this is definitely a common way of doing it (hence the “traditional” nickname I’ve given it), it’s NOT a requirement for doing straight sets.
In fact, I most often recommend a modified version of straight sets in the workouts I use and design for others, and a lot of other people do the same. The main modification being made is the use of a rep range rather than one exact rep amount.
So, for example, instead of prescribing 3 sets of 8 reps as the goal, I might prescribe 3 sets of 6-8 reps. Here’s an example of how that might look…
Modified Straight Sets
As you can see, it’s still considered “straight sets” because the same weight is being used in each set. The difference is that your goal isn’t just an exact 8 reps anymore. It’s now a range of 6-8 reps. That means you could get 8, 7, 6 like I’ve shown above and your set/rep goal would have been reached just the same (at which point you’d increase the weight being lifted).
What’s the point of the modification, you ask?
Well, the main reason I (and many others) prefer a rep range is because a lot of people suck at maintaining reps from set to set unless the weight being used is lighter than it should be or you’re stopping each set well short of failure and just not working hard enough.
What often happens instead for these people (and I definitely include myself in this group) is that you end up losing a rep from one set to the next as a result of natural fatigue. So rather than taking forever (if ever at all) to work up to straight sets of the same amount of reps, I prefer to see a rep range used which basically builds what your body is naturally capable of right into the progression itself.
You could still get 8, 8, 8 of course. You could also get 8, 7, 7 or 8, 6, 6 or 8, 7, 6 like I’ve shown and most like to see before the weight gets increased. This modified version just allows for a much better progression than traditional straight sets in my experience.
Straight Set Recommendations
Straight sets tend to be the default set/rep/weight structure I (and most others) recommend for the majority of the population. Some people prefer it done the traditional way (and have no problem maintaining reps like that), while others prefer the modified version that uses a rep range instead. As for me, I definitely prefer the modified version.
The traditional text-book definition of pyramid sets involves increasing the weight each set while decreasing the number of reps being done. For example…
Traditional Pyramid Sets
As you can see, as the weight goes up, the number of reps being done goes down (hence the name “pyramid” sets). This example shows it being done over a rep range of 6-10, but it can just as easily be done over a smaller or larger range (4-12, 3-6, 8-10, 6-8, etc.) by using smaller or larger increases in weight.
In this case, your program wouldn’t prescribe something like 3 sets of 8. It would either call for 3 sets of whatever the rep range is (6-10 in this example), or specifically say something like 1 set of 10, 1 set of 8, and 1 set of 6 with guidelines to increase the weight by a certain amount each set.
Now, this traditional form of pyramid training is probably still the most common set structure you see these days in typical bodybuilding routines and fitness magazines/articles, and it’s practically the only one you ever saw years ago.
It also tends to be the default method that most people just start out using or eventually end up using, kinda like how Monday somehow just becomes “chest day.”
But the funny thing is, despite this popularity, pyramid sets are the dumbest set structure of them all.
You see, what traditional pyramid sets essentially cause you to do is greatly fatigue your muscles and nervous system BEFORE you reach your heaviest weights. You end up lifting the lightest weights when you are at your strongest and freshest, and are then at your weakest when you finally get to your heaviest weights. Yeah, real smart.
This of course is completely ass-backwards from the way it should be for most people to make their best progress. Plus, in many cases, those early sets serve more as warm ups rather than actual work sets that are truly challenging for you and are truly capable of creating the training stimulus you’re working out to create in the first place.
Granted, if you’re not warming up properly then I guess pyramid sets could serve a purpose in that regard. But then again, you SHOULD be warming up properly. You shouldn’t be turning your work sets into borderline warm up sets to make up for the fact that you train like a moron.
Pyramid Set Recommendations
For the majority of the population, none of what I just described is very ideal. And for that reason, traditional pyramid sets are typically the worst possible set structure to use. Can it work? Sure… assuming everything else is done right. But is it best or even remotely smart? Nope.
The one possible exception here would be beginners who are still learning proper form. In this case, pyramid sets serve the same purpose as training wheels on a bike. You get to start off each exercise by “practicing” with a lighter weight, and then continue to practice with slightly heavier weight as you go from set to set.
But beyond that, it’s just a stupid way to train. I don’t recommend it.
Reverse Pyramid Training
The traditional text-book definition of reverse pyramid training involves decreasing the weight each set while increasing the number of reps being done. For example…
Reverse Pyramid Training
As you can see, it’s the complete reverse of traditional pyramid training (which means the International Workout Method Naming Department did a damn fine job on this one).
As the weight goes down from set to set, the number of reps being done goes up. This example shows it being done over a rep range of 6-10, but it can once again easily be done over a smaller or larger range (4-12, 3-6, 8-10, 6-8, etc.) by using smaller or larger decreases in weight.
And just like pyramid sets, your program wouldn’t prescribe something like 3 sets of 8. It would either call for 3 sets of whatever the rep range is (6-10 in this example), or specifically say something like 1 set of 6, 1 set of 8, and 1 set of 10 with guidelines to decrease the weight by a certain amount each set.
The main difference between reverse pyramid and traditional pyramid training is that here you’re NOT training like an idiot. You’re starting with your heaviest weight and then working down to your lightest weight, which makes MUCH more sense than traditional pyramid sets where you do the opposite.
This way is just much more ideal for creating progressive overload (which is really your #1 goal).
In addition to allowing you to start with your heaviest weight (which straight sets also do), some people may also like the fact that the weight gets lighter from set to set (which straight sets don’t do).
Why? Because as you naturally become more fatigued from one set to the next, the weight being lifted is reduced in a way that almost compensates for that fatigue.
This could be especially beneficial for certain people based on age, genetics or just personal preference, as well as people in an already reduced state of recovery/work capacity, such as those in a caloric deficit for the purpose of losing fat.
I have a feeling this is a big part of why Martin Berkhan uses reverse pyramid training (and quite successfully, I might add) as part of his IF/Leangains approach. It’s probably at least partially responsible for reverse pyramid training’s increase in popularity in recent years, even though it’s been around forever.
Reverse Pyramid Training Recommendations
Simply put, I like it. In fact, I like any set structure that involves starting with your heaviest weight at the point when you are at your strongest, freshest, and most capable of using and progressing with it.
Reverse pyramid training does exactly that AND has a built in way of dealing with potential performance drop-off from set to set (sort of like modified straight sets does, just to a larger degree). I probably wouldn’t recommend it to beginners, but for anyone at the intermediate or advanced level, it’s definitely one of many options to consider.
Are There Any Other Methods? Which Is Your Favorite?
Yup, there are other set/rep structures out there besides traditional pyramid sets, reverse pyramid training and straight sets, although these definitely seem to be the 3 most popular among the average person.
As for which one I like the most of the three, it’s usually the modified version of straight sets done using a rep range (although the traditional version might be better suited for beginners). However, I also REALLY like reverse pyramid training and have personally gotten good results using both set structures.
That’s why these are the 2 methods of progression I prescribe for most of the workouts included in my new premium program, Superior Muscle Growth.
Traditional pyramid sets on the other hand are the clear loser in my opinion. I spent my first few years training this way and I consider it one of the (many) dumb things I’ve done that hindered my progress. It’s not a training method I recommend often, if ever.
But if you really want to know what my personal favorite set/rep structure is, then it’s actually none of the methods I’ve mentioned in this post.
Instead, I’ve personally gotten my best results using a method that can best be described as a linear and nonlinear combination of straight sets AND reverse pyramid training that I tend to refer to as modified reverse pyramid training.
Don’t worry, you’ll definitely be hearing more about this training method in the future.
How’s that for a tease?
(UPDATE: It’s taken me a while, but I finally added a complete breakdown of this new method into Superior Muscle Growth. Feel free to check it out if you’re interested.)