Why is it better to pyramid up to your max during sets compared to starting out with your max and then slowing bringing down the weight after?

Obviously, this is after stretching and warmup sets (30%-50% of 1RM).

I would assume that it's better to try and reach your max/do your heaviest lifts on fresh muscles rather than trying at the end of your workout?

Example - 3x5 at 80%, 90%, 95% for pyramiding up vs 3x5 95%, 90%, 80%. Percentages are with your One Rep Max (1RM).

I can only think low to high build muscle mass and high to low for aesthetics.


Edit 1 - The question spawns from that I've been plateauing on OHP and starting thinking why I can't break my weight. Once I started thinking of the logic that my arms/shoulders are tired by the time I get to my ORM attempt, it made me ask the question of why not start heavy first.

  • What is the stimulus of "aesthetics" as distinct from "building muscle mass"? Apr 15, 2015 at 17:03
  • My assumption comes from the Arnold method of "shocking" your muscles. It deals with tiring your muscles then pushing them beyond what they're used to. So lifting heavy first then proceeding to higher rep/low weight targets the shape of the muscle compared to the density. I may have the incorrect definition... but that's why I'm the one asking the questions! =)
    – Luke
    Apr 15, 2015 at 19:37

2 Answers 2


This will depend largely on how you warm up. Starting with your max from the get-go is, as you well know, not a good idea. Warmups are essential to prevent injury. Warming up at 30-60% and then jumping up to 90-100% is going to come as a shock to your nervous system, because if you wrongly estimate how heavy it's going to be, chances are you'll mess up your form by spending way too much energy at the first few centimeters of the lift.

My best tip, is that when you do pyramids, go low-to-high-to-low, making sure that before the first low, you are properly warmed up.

I know, the idea of "tiring myself out before I hit max" might seem bad, but unless you're doing some serious hypertrophy work, it's not going to take away from your heaviest lift. Even competetive powerlifters go low-to-high with some insanely heavy lifts before their max. Not only for warming up, but also to ease into the weight, so the intensity doesn't come as a surprise.

Bottom line: Doing 3-5 rep sets while working your way up, will have very little effect on your performance at the top of the pyramid.

  • This is more along the lines of what I was looking for. Not the getting hurt (everyone understands that) but more so the shocking of the nervous system. I was more so trying to think of training and when you go for that "one day" when you try to find your ORM. I'll reword my initial post.
    – Luke
    Apr 15, 2015 at 19:32
  • @LukePavlic - Yeah, people think that their 1RM goes down when working their way up, but this is really only true if you do hypertrophy work, i.e. 8+ reps per set. I also find great value in warming up in the same way you want to actually work out, so if you're doing singles for your workout, you would do singles when working out too. But I do start my warmups at like 30% of max, and then I do 5-8s, then when I pop over 50%, I do however many reps I want to do for the actual workout.
    – Alec
    Apr 16, 2015 at 5:49

The only set to set workout supported by accredited strength training organizations is progressive, increasing workload from one set to another. No one recommends reducing workload from one set to the next.

Pyramid Workload

I do not read trendy articles regarding strength training. I have been reading research papers regularly for the past 20 years.

NOTE: The term workload does not refer to volume based but percentage of 100% of 1RM regardless of number of reps. Some refer to load, loading, and workload as the sum of reps times the resistance, which I would refer to as volume.

Set to Set

There is no current research, that I know of, that supports reducing the workload from one set to the next. If anyone knows of any research that supports a reduction in Workload from one set to another I would like to see it. I am not looking for somebody that just says this and that as if they are an authority. Research where it is based on outcomes from a well-designed controlled studies that provide a consistent pattern of findings. Research that had substantial number of studies involving a substantial number of participants.

Day to Day

For advanced training there is support for a variation, up and down in workload from one workout day to the next. This does include weeks with a pyramiding pattern of light and heavy days. This is referred to as Micro Periodization. A micro cycle is in the range of 2 to 12 workouts, typically one week.

Week to Week

A Periodization Mesocycle is a period of 3 to 6 weeks, typically 4 weeks. There is somewhat of a pyramid pattern. The first is an unload period where the workload is reduced 5-10% below current capacity. The next period, reload, ramps up to current capacity. The following two periods overload, and adapt is where progression ramps up. The ramp is steepest (5-8%) for novice untrained individuals. For advanced individual the progression is reduced to about 1%. This concept is nearing industry consensus.

Month to Month

There is no pyramid pattern in workload of Mesocycles within a Macrocycle. The variations in a mesocycles is volume and intensity. Research has not reached a consensus on the effectiveness of a variety of volume and intensity cycles.


The above is a very generalized description of Classical Periodization.

The question asked was about reducing workload within a workout. There is no evidence to support a pyramided daily workout. All research take a progression stance. Ramp up.

The link to Progression Models in Resistance Training for Healthy Adults near the top of my post supports what I have stated here. This report is a Position Statement from the American Academy of sports Medicine. It is based on a substantial number of studies.

When I think of pyramiding I am thinking set rep scheme. Where a pyramid is something like:

4 reps
7 reps
4 reps 

Inverse pyramid:

7 reps
4 reps
7 reps

The % of 1RM should always progress from set to set. At between 8% and 12% between each set.

This is a good paper on that subject:

Progression Models in Resistance Training for Healthy Adults

On the page the above link takes you to there is a full text PDF listed on top of the right hand column.

When making a routine you should start with your set rep scheme.

Let's say you are working out 3 day per week, High Intensity, High volume

set    1, 2, 3

day 1: 12,10, 9
day 2: 10, 9, 9
day 3:  9, 9, 8

The calculate your weight of each set:<br>
80% of 12RM  (.8 x .70 x 1RM) 
90% of 10RM  (.9 x .75 x 1RM)
9RM          (1  x .77 x 1RM)

This way you get the variation in reps per set while progressing the effective workload. While your set rep scheme gives you your Pyramid, Inverse Pyramid, Ramp Up, Ramp Down, etc.

  • 1
    +1, not sure what the downvote was for. If it was something specific, perhaps the voter could explain what it was.
    – Eric
    Apr 15, 2015 at 18:13
  • @EricKaufman Thanks, that would be a help, it's usually misplaced ego. My answer is backed by real research, not something I read in a magazine. Apr 15, 2015 at 18:17
  • The asker is clearly talking about pyramid in terms of weight, but this answer seems to be on pyramid in terms of reps. And for the record, I did not dv. But defaulting the assumption to someone having a misplaced ego, seems to be a case of misplaced ego. Don't let downvotes get to you.
    – Alec
    Apr 15, 2015 at 19:21
  • 2
    -1 for "No one recommends reducing workload from one set to the next." and the other several paragraphs that attempt to paint a perfectly absurd opinion in the colors of science. It is simply insane to say that back-off sets can't be productive. The claim is identical to saying that once you've performed your most intense (i.e. closest to 1RM) set then you can't do any more sets with less weight until the next workout. That's a claim that I say requires a positive study, not an absence of studies where it's not even clear what studies you're reading. Apr 16, 2015 at 1:40
  • 1
    If none of those studied back-off sets, then your statement that any set after reaching your max "will do very little to increase strength or muscle mass" is unfounded. Pointing me to a scattershot of 280 studies that may or may not include something related to the topic at hand is not exactly supporting your position with evidence! Regardless, I argue that 1) volume is a big factor in stimulating muscle mass growth, and 2) I know of no study that credibly supports the assertion that added volume after the heaviest set in a given workout is somehow invalidated as a training stimulus. Apr 16, 2015 at 2:24

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.