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A pyramid set is one following a scheme like 1 rep, 2 reps, 3 reps, 2 reps. I've seen this advised to train pull ups if you manage only very few.

I looked at the hundred push ups program, here and in the similar programs there's a kind of pyramid set (10, 12, 10, 8, ...).

I haven't seen this advised with weights. Why is this advised for bodyweight exercises? Is there a scientific reasoning behind this?

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Maybe it's because it's hard to scale bodyweight exercises and easy to decrease the weight on a bar. With weights, we scale the weight. With BW, we sometimes scale by using a variation of the exercise, and sometimes scale the volume by using multiple low-rep sets. –  Dave Liepmann Jul 5 '12 at 13:42
This is done with weights all the time. –  Dave Newton Jul 5 '12 at 16:15
@Sancho and Robin Ashe, Let's be fair now. Given the limitations of body weight exercises, a pyramid program can be a perfectly valid way to structure a workout for people who do not have a good base strength (and thus cannot do many reps) as well as people trying to break through a plateau. –  Moses Jul 5 '12 at 19:28
@Moses It's perfectly valid, but I don't think it has advantages over several sets to failure. This is just a guess, though. –  user3085 Jul 5 '12 at 20:51
@JohnP - most of the exercises that they did either pyramid or as you call them "strip" sets on were using dumbbells. When you're trying to work to the point of failure, dumbbells are a heck of a lot safer... –  Nathan Wheeler Jul 5 '12 at 21:17

1 Answer 1

up vote 10 down vote accepted

The problem with body weight exercises

In the world of free weights, you have something called a one-rep max (ORM) which defines the maximum amount of weight you can lift at your current level of strength. Using the ORM you can calculate the intensity of any workout with a simple formula, which if I recall correctly is (reps * weight) / orm. What's noteworthy here is that if you want to adjust the intensity of your workout, you can either adjust the reps or the weights (or both). This makes tweaking and fine-tuning the intensity of a workout quite easy, and by extension it greatly reduces the need for a pyramid program.

However, in the world of body weight (BW) exercises, things are completely different. By removing ORM and weights from the equation, the only way to increase the intensity for any particular workout is to increase the number of reps. If I want to improve my strength and disrupt homeostasis, my only option is to do more reps than I did in the previous workout. At this point the problem should be transparent: you can only increase the number of reps for so long before you hit a plateau.

This is why the pyramid approach exists and is so effective for BW exercises: because it makes it easier for you to increase the total number of reps per exercise and break through plateaus. The specific factors that contribute to this programs effectiveness are:

Beginner friendly

BW exercises can be extremely anti-novice due to their high starting weight versus FW where you can start with as low as 1 lb weights. A beginner doing push-ups to exhaustion may only be able to do 2-3 reps per set, and as a result an increase in intensity becomes exponentially harder in the beginning stages. In the above example, simply adding 1 rep would end up being a 33-50% increase in intensity. Pyramid address this by dispersing the added reps across many sets, for example 4/1/3/2/2 instead of 4/4/exhaust and give up.

Increased intensity

Let's say you do 4 sets of 5 push-ups, where 5 is your exhaustion point. How do you increase intensity? You have to go to 6, but doing so would be a 20% increase in intensity, quite a large gap to jump. Perhaps this gap is so large that you can not jump it by simply staying at 4x5 to build strength. Doing 4x5 might only be enough to increase your strength by 15%, not the 20% needed, and now you're at a point where doing 4x5 is no longer enough to disrupt homeostasis and build muscle; you need to increase the intensity to do so (catch-22!). This is why the pyramid program exists, because it allows you to increase the intensity of BW exercises at a quicker but more manageable pace, and thus build strength faster.

Less frustrations

If you are stuck on a certain rep for a long enough time, psychological barriers can come into play that convince your body not to go past that rep, regardless of whether or not you are able to. By taking intensity increases in smaller and more manageable chunks, you will hit fewer walls and be less frustrated with your progress. As a result, psychological barriers will be far less significant of a factor in your progression.

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Excellent, excellent explication. –  Dave Liepmann Jul 6 '12 at 4:08
yes, that's good stuff! –  mart Jul 6 '12 at 6:43
"the only way to increase the intensity for any particular workout is to increase the number of reps" -- I don't think that's entirely accurate, that is if you don't mean 'particular' in a very strict sense. There's a long way to go from push-ups with hands on the wall to handstands, for instance. (There's no formula, that much is certainly true.) –  Raphael Feb 23 at 7:24
@Raphael I left variations on BW exercises outside the scope of my answer, since the question was more concerned with the reason why pyramid was useful. But yes, for some (though not all) exercises, you can make it more intense by adding weight (weighted dips vs dips) or by using a different variation of the exercise (1 hand push up vs standard) –  Moses Feb 23 at 21:22

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