by Matt Wiggins – MMAWeekly.com

One of the methods I’ve used the most over my 15-plus years of training is “pyramiding.” With pyramiding, I can work on strength, overall work capacity, some muscular and strength-endurance, and even put some muscle on (given that my diet is in check).

Basically, a pyramid is a set/rep scheme in which you increase the weight and decrease the number of repetitions done per set. For the most part, pyramids are nothing new (but then again, what is?). There are various types of Pyramids: 10-8-6-4-2; 5-4-3-2-1; and how most of you might attempt a 1RM (one repetition maximum – i.e. – the most you can lift for one rep) are all types of pyramids.

How I do mine is a little bit different.

First, you do a set with just the bar for 10-15 reps. You might even want to do another one. Add a small amount of weight to the bar, but not too much. Crank out 10 reps or so. Add a little more weight to the bar (but again, not too much). Crank out 4-6 reps. This should all be VERY easy.

At this point, you drop down to singles (sets of one rep). Add weight in increments that make you feel comfortable. This could be as little as 20 lbs. for an exercise like presses, and as much as 90 lbs. for exercises such as squats or deadlifts. When it starts to get heavy, add weight in smaller increments – again, this will vary depending on the exercise you are performing. What you are doing here is basically going for your 1RM. When you get close to it, how you proceed from that point will really depend on whom you’re working out with.

If you train by yourself, or have to grab somebody from the gym to give you a spot (and don’t necessarily know how they’ll spot you), then just go for the 1RM. Once you hit that 1RM, repeat it. Do it for anywhere from 2-5 sets, depending on how strong you feel. Be sure to rest plenty (at least 2 minutes) between sets. After that, go back down the pyramid… more on that in a minute.

If you’ve got a training partner or somebody to spot you that you trust, you can go into “helping mode.” This starts maybe a set or two before you would hit that 1RM set. What ends up making you fail on a 1RM attempt is a “sticking point.” This is the point at which you just can’t get past.

Your sticking point is usually not just a point, but rather a short ROM (Range of Motion). For example, let’s say that you’re bench pressing and you get stuck about three inches off your chest. Now, let’s say that if you could get it past that point, and to the point where it was six inches off your chest, you could complete the rest of the rep yourself. Many times you’re just missing your lift and hitting that sticking point. Say you could take just a pound – maybe two – off the bar, you could blast the entire rep yourself. Well, that is what you’re training partner is going to do.

These are called “forced reps.” Essentially, what your partner is going to do is give you JUST ENOUGH help to get through your sticking point, but NO MORE. If all you need is just a touch, then all he gives you is just a touch. I’m not talking about him grabbing the bar and doing most of the work while you hold on for the ride – I mean just that little bit you need. And he shouldn’t wait until the bar stops moving before he helps out, either. His job is to not only give you that little bit of help, but to keep the bar moving in a smooth motion – as if he wasn’t even there.

You see, while he is helping you through that sticking point, you’re still doing the work through the rest of the rep. You’re still exerting force and still getting stronger. What eventually happens is that sticking point gets smaller and smaller. We said that a sticking point might be the 3-6 inch ROM off the chest. Over time, the sticking point might be the 3.5-5.5 inch ROM, then the 4-5 inch ROM, then maybe just the 4.5 inch spot itself. Then, BOOM – the sticking point is gone, and you’re doing the entire rep (at that weight) yourself with no help. But, by this time, if you’re still increasing the weight, your partner is still helping you at that 3-6 inch ROM, because it’s still your sticking point – just with a heavier weight.

Your partner can help on 2-4 sets, depending on how much he has to help. Although it’s all intuitive, if you want an idea how much your partner is helping you, have him lift a small weight plate. If it feels heavier to lift a 2.5 lbs. plate, then you’re fine. If it’s more than that, then he’s helping too much and you need to cut back. No, it’s not exact science, but it still works…

After you hit the “peak” on the pyramid, time for a few sets on the way down. Strip off some weight and do a set of 6-8, 8-10, and 12-plus. These are just guidelines – there is nothing “hard and fast” about these rep ranges. These sets shouldn’t be to failure, rather just a rep shy. Three total back-off sets should be enough, but if you want to add another set in there at one of the ranges, that’s fine.

So, let’s take a look at an example workout. Back when I used to bench quite a bit (high school and college), a workout might have looked like this:

Set 1: bar x 10-15 reps

Set 2: 135 lbs. x 10

Set 3: 185 x 4-5

Set 4: 225 x 1

Set 5: 245 x 1

Set 6: 255 x 1

Set 7: 275 x 1

Set 8: 295 x 1

Set 9: 305 x 1

Set 10: 315 x 1

Set 11: 335 x 1 (spot starts “forced reps” here)

Set 12: 345 x 1

Set 13: 355 x 1 (spotter-assisted 1RM)

Set 14: 355 x 1

Set 15: 355 x 1

Set 16: 275 x 6-8 (no more spotter help)

Set 17: 225 x 8-10

Set 18: 185 x 12+

As you can see, it’s a long workout (the stronger you are and more heavy ramp-up sets you have to do, the longer your workout will be). Rest periods should be anywhere from 1-3 minutes, depending on where you are in the pyramid. Your first few sets you should only need a minute or so. The heavier ones maybe a little longer. The heaviest longer still. Your back-off sets should be done with no more than 90 seconds rest between sets.

How many times per week could you do a pyramid workout? Sheesh, back when I was in high school, was eating a ton of good food, and had the raging hormones of an 18-year old, I used to pyramid as many as 5-7 workouts per week, many times actually doing 8+ pyramids per week! However, I wouldn’t recommend that to everybody!! When I designed “Working Class Fitness – The Programs,” I made pyramids an integral part of Program #4. Pyramids are done only two workouts per week.

Obviously, you can’t do this kind of workout forever. Go for a hard 3-4 weeks, take a week off and do something different if you’re not changing exercises. The powerlifting gurus over at Westside Barbell have found that they can train for 1RMs (basically, the ramping up portion of the pyramid) all the time, as long as they switch exercises every other week or so.

What else do you need for strength work other than your pyramiding? Not much – if anything. A little accessory work here and there to hit the muscles missed by your pyramided exercises maybe. For those muscles that your pyramid targets, if you need more work, then you’re not doing your pyramids right. A good change up would be to switch exercises for the way back down, though. For example, with bench press, bench press all the way up to your 1RM, and then do your back-off sets with dips or incline pushups.

Try it, and let me know what you think.

Train Hard, Rest Hard, Play Hard. 

Matt “Wiggy” Wiggins is a strength coach and author living in Cameron, NC. Having trained 15+ years, Wiggy is a strength moderator at mma.tv, columnist for MMA Weekly, and an avid fan of Mixed Martial Arts Training. His site, Working Class Fitness.com, is dedicated to designing low-tech, high-result MMA Workouts, Navy SEAL Workouts, and programs for “regular joes.”

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