Training Tips: The Hourglass or the Pyramid?

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Training Tips: The Hourglass or the Pyramid?

In an earlier post I wrote about the benefits of using low reps AND high reps, if you are beyond the beginner stage.

Here I’ll go a step further and describe how to do this effectively in one workout.

To sum up quickly the principles for best muscular development are:

  1. Low reps with heavy weight help condition your Central Nervous System (CNS) and target the muscle fibres themselves
  2. Higher reps (maximum 15) increase the volume of the ‘plasma’ surrounding the fibres.
  3. To achieve the maximum development (both strength and muscular size), you need to develop both parts.

How can you do this in one workout?  By using a ‘pyramid’ system.

Who can use this technique?

This should be followed if you are an intermediate or advanced trainer who has developed a decent base level of strength and good form.

Evidently it is focused on those who want to get as strong and muscular as their genetics allow.  Coupled with the right nutrition, recovery and most importantly time, using this method will be a good way of progressively increasing your strength levels as well as giving yourself the best chance for muscular growth.

If you are a beginner or not looking for maximum strength gains then you can just stick with getting progressively stronger in the 8-10 rep range.

How to do it

As I summarised above this is a well-worn training principle that will allow you to get the most out of your workouts in terms of strength and size.

Basically the idea is to ‘pyramid’ up the weight while lowering the reps, like so:

Bench press example:

  1. Warm-up
  2. 12 reps of 40 kgs       I I I I I I I I I I I I    (12 reps)
  3. 10 reps of 60 kgs         I I I I I I I I I I
  4. 8 reps of 70 kgs              I I I I I I I I
  5. 6 reps of 80 kgs                I I I I I I
  6. 4 reps of 85 kgs                   I I I I
  7. 2-3 reps of 90-95 kgs          I I I

This is the protocol I used to train with for many exercises.  It is logical because this means you get to do plenty of reps but also heavy weights.

This type of pyramid is pretty well-known among lifters.  The problem with this traditional way of pyamiding is that it’s not the most efficient use of your energy.

With the method outlined above you’re putting a lot of energy into your lighter sets- by the time you’re on your 5th or 6th set you’re not going to be able to use as heavy a weight as you might be able to if you were fresh.

Obviously you can’t just jump into heavy weight without getting warmed up, or you’re asking for an injury.

But if you want the most response out of your muscles you have to try to go as heavy as you (safely) can.  It’s a fine line between expending too much energy for the warm-ups and not being warmed up enough.

So how can you maximise the amount of weight you lift in the session whilst also working through the higher rep range, and do it effectively?

The best way to use the pyramid

The hourglass: Build up quickly to your heavy weight set without doing too many reps.

Instead of doing a lot of working sets that pyramid up to your heaviest set, at the start of the workout treat the build-up sets as warm-ups.

Cut down the number of reps you do and just use them to ‘feel’ the weight, before you go all out on your heaviest set, which becomes your first working set.

Here’s what I mean, using the bench press example above:

  1. Warm-up
  2. 8 reps of 40 kgs                                                                    I I I I I I I I
  3. 5-6 reps of 60 kgs                                                                    I I I I I
  4. 2-3 reps of 80 kgs                                                                       I I I
  5. 4 reps of 100 kgs     (1st working set)                                    I I I I
  6. 4 reps of 100 kgs                                                                       I I I I
  7. AMRAP (As Many Reps As Possible) x 80 kgs                   I I I I I I I I

Using this method you should be fresh and primed by the time you get to your working sets, while being warmed up, which means you’ll be able to move a heavier weight.

As you can see, this is more of an ‘upside-down pyramid on top of a tower’ or hourglass sort of shape.  The benefits are that you can move more weight for more reps whilst still getting some volume in with the lighter sets.

What’s more you can take advantage here of the ‘overloading’ principle I outlined in a previous post: if we take the two examples above the 80 kgs using the ‘hourglass’ method should feel lighter and easier than the traditional method, simply because you approach it after having used a heavier weight.

The result is you should be able to do more reps, and thus, make your muscles work harder and provide more cause for adaptation.

Related article: A ‘trick’ to increase your lifts

Back in the day I made a lot of progress through using the traditional pyramid, and you can certainly use it to help build up your strength.

Once you get to a certain level of lifting however, i.e. when your maximum starts to become heavy (such as 100 kgs + in the bench press, 180 kgs + deadlift, 150 kgs + squat, as a rough example for an adult male experienced lifter) you might benefit more from using the ‘hourglass’ method simply because it allows you to save your energy for your top weights.

Remember that you need both reps and heavy weight to increase your strength, which will in turn help you to build muscle.  High top weight strength will help you rep more at a lower weight; being able to do more reps at a lower weight can help you increase your maximum.

It has helped me both in the strength and size department, and I’m sure it can help you too, if those are your goals. 


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