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I have noticed in the gym that more experienced guys lift weights in a double-pyramidal order. For example, they do 5 sets using 15 kg in the first set, 20 kg in the second set, 30 kg in the third set, 40 kg in the fourth set and 10 kg in the last set.

I have seen guys doing this for every exercise (in which is possible) bench press, squats, curls... Some others do it only for bench press.

What is the purpose of this?

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Sets of...what exercise? –  Dave Liepmann Aug 14 '12 at 13:48
    
@DaveLiepmann Good question. I have seen guys doing this for every exercise (in which is possible) bench press, squats, curls, ... Some others do it only for bench press. –  Newbie Aug 14 '12 at 13:50
    
this type of training is highly effective. We would call it PAP...post activation potentiation. If timed and done right with the correct lifts, especially with the squat, clean and bench your nervous system is ready to fire at an extremely high level and you could get a personal record in a throw, jump or even sprint... There are many ways of utilizing this kind of training but it is important to work in your neural adaptation phase of 90% or more of your max to maximize your potential. Olympic Weightlifters (esp. russian, bulgarians) do this before their competition lift... –  Andreas Aug 14 '12 at 23:34
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2 Answers 2

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It sounds like they're warming up with 15, 20, and 30, doing one work set with 40, then doing what's called a "back-off" set with 10. They do the warm-ups in order to safely get up to a heavy weight. They do the heavy weight because heavy weight is the most effective. They do the back-off set because they're tired from the heavy weight and they want to get another set in.

Mark Rippetoe, who has what one might call a slight pro-strength/anti-bodybuilding bias, has this to say about back-off sets:

Back-off sets at a lighter weight can only add volume to the workout, and are usually done to focus on a technical problem within that lift that can benefit from some concentrated attention being paid to correcting it. A lighter weight done as a back-off set cannot drive up the weight on the work sets.

...Volume can drive progress for a short while, but the main work must be done in the rep range and with the weight called for by the adaptation you want to drive. If you want strength, 3s-5s are what you have to do and lighter 12s will not make that adaptation occur, whether done as a back off or as work sets. If you begin to rely on your back-off sets as the primary stimulus, you will stop progressing.

Personally, I've found back-off sets quite useful in two scenarios:

  1. Working on max singles and doubles as well as the 3-5 rep range. I'll work up to several sets of 1 or 2 reps each, but if I find my form degrading before I get enough total work done for that exercise (say, only 2 reps in the deadlift, or 6 or 8 total reps in the squat), I'll sometimes add a lighter 3- to 5-rep back-off set that's still challenging.
  2. Overwarm singles. I'll work up to one really heavy rep right at the edge of my ability, then do one or more lighter 3- to 5-rep sets. The heavy "overwarm single" is actually part of the warm-up, since it prepares me for the mental and neurological challenge of the work sets, which are still heavy but feel much more doable.
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Thanks for your answer. When you say "heavy weight is the most effective" you mean that this is effective for ... –  Newbie Aug 14 '12 at 13:54
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Excellent point, that's a major omission on my part. Most effective for developing strength primarily, but also for stimulating growth. Lifting light didn't get Ronnie Coleman any muscles. (He might do light back-off sets in order to get another set in, however.) –  Dave Liepmann Aug 14 '12 at 14:14
    
I see, many thanks for the clarification. –  Newbie Aug 14 '12 at 14:20
    
Agreed. Back-off sets are very useful for form work, but not for effective increase in volume when the goal is strength. –  user3085 Aug 14 '12 at 17:09
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To further stress the muscle/muscle group, to get that final pump, to force more blood into the mucle.

I can't search for efficacy studies at the moment. Personally, I just think it feels good to really work the muscle to completion, but it's not something I do all the time.

Also bear in mind that just because "experienced" lifters do something it doesn't mean it's effective, safe, or something done all the time. Also note that it is not necessary to do pyramids all the time (and most lifters don't always follow the same routine).

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@Newbie I'd wait to accept the answer--it's likely someone will come along with more-helpful info :) I think it'd be more likely to increase growth than strength, if anything, but it should help with muscular endurance. How much is a different issue, and I don't have an answer for that. –  Dave Newton Aug 14 '12 at 13:23
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