If you’ve been going to the gym for a while, it’s a good bet that you’ve used pyramid training without even realizing it. In a traditional pyramid, you begin with a lighter weight and higher reps, and with each set you add weight as you decrease reps. But here’s the thing: Traditional pyramids are technically pre-exhausting. Starting with lighter weights and building up from there depletes your energy stores so by the time you’re ready to perform your heaviest set(s), your energy is sapped and the lactic acid buildup in your muscles interferes with your strength capacity.
So what would happen if you performed a pyramid in reverse, beginning with your heaviest weight and low reps and decreasing the poundage with each subsequent set as you increase reps? Ah, now we’re getting somewhere.
“Reverse pyramiding allows you to build strength and muscle very effectively because the most important strength-building set is the first one,” says Josh Bryant, CSCS, a world record-holding powerlifter and the 2005 Atlantis Strongest Man in America (joshstrength.com). “You are 100 percent fresh and haven’t burned out on light weights during the building sets.” This means you’ll have a better chance of making strength gains, building muscle and improving force production.
But there’s another reason to try this technique called post-activation potentiation (PAP). “Although most studies on PAP are done on things like heavy squats followed by vertical jumps, the same holds true when moving from a maximal weight to a submaximal weight,” says Bryant.
Here’s how it works: Lifting a heavy weight induces a high degree of central nervous system activity, thereby activating high-threshold motor units (HTMUs) that stand at attention, ready for you to lift another heavy load. So when you decrease the weight as in a reverse pyramid, the HTMUs fire just as strongly as with the heavier load, giving you a greater muscular contraction and making the weight feel lighter than it should. “When you perform a three- to five-rep max and then follow it with lighter sets, those subsequent sets and reps will be more explosive,” says Bryant. “Explosive reps equal a more efficient recruitment of HTMUs, which have the most growth potential.”
Before you head to the squat rack to get your lift on, remember that a proper warm-up is essential when doing reverse pyramids to prevent blowing your joints apart with max lifts right out of the gate. Do 10 minutes of light cardio to elevate your core body temperature, then perform five to 10 minutes of dynamic stretching (see page 30), focusing on the muscles you’ll use most in your lift. Then start pumping.
“The best way to warm-up for a lift is by doing that lift at submaximal intensity,” explains Bryant. Do three to five sets of your chosen move using a lighter weight, then get right into your working sets using your heaviest weight for your first working set. Rest two to five minutes between working sets to fully recover, and “the stronger you are, the longer you’ll need to rest,” Bryant says. Use this technique for any bodypart that needs a shock treatment or for overall strength gains.