As explained in How many sets and reps should you do?, sets and reps represent the basic building blocks of weight training. Let’s now look at some of the different types of set.
A typical weight training program designed for muscular growth (hypertrophy) might ask that you perform, for example, three sets of 10 reps for the bench press, thus:
- Set 1: 10 reps
- Set 2: 10 reps
- Set 3: 10 reps
(Remember that the amount of weight you have to lift is expressed in the number of reps you have to complete, as explained in How many sets and reps should you do? For example, a training program that asks you to complete 10 reps is asking you to use a weight with which performing 10 clean reps is challenging. If you can’t do 10 clean reps, the weight is too heavy; if you can easily do 10 clean reps, it’s too light.)
These types of sets are known as straight sets because the number of reps and the amount of weight being lifted remain the same in each set. Straight sets can also have a rep range:
- Set 1: 8–12 reps
- Set 2: 8–12 reps
- Set 3: 8–12 reps
The rep range not only allows for daily fluctuations of ability but also the natural reduction in the number of reps that you can perform with each set.
Straight sets represent the basic method of training and work perfectly well, but you will also often encounter pyramid sets in weight training programs. In a pyramid set sequence, you reduce the number of reps and increase the weight:
- Set 1: 12 reps
- Set 2: 9 reps
- Set 3: 6 reps
Note that the first set should not be easy. For each and every set, you must choose an amount of weight that makes the set challenging and pushes you to near failure. The purpose of the pyramid sequence is not to warm up the muscle group and prepare it for the heaviest set at the end; you should have already warmed up before starting the sequence.
The pyramid set sequence is probably the most popular among experienced gym-goers. It has been extensively tried and tested, and it has proven to work well for numerous professional bodybuilders. However, some argue that it is not optimal and that you can get better results with straight sets or reverse pyramid sets (explained below). One of the reasons is that, when trying to build muscle (or curves if you’re a lady), your goal is to gradually increase the amount of weight that you lift, and pyramid training makes this difficult by draining your muscles before you get to the heaviest set.
Reverse pyramid sets
The reverse pyramid sequence is the pyramid sequence in reverse:
- Set 1: 6 reps
- Set 2: 9 reps
- Set 3: 12 reps
This sequence can be dangerous for beginners and should only be attempted after a thorough warmup.
Advocates of the reverse pyramid sequence say that it’s better than pyramid training because it’s more intense and allows you to tackle the heaviest weight when you’re fresh. It also allows you to better gauge an increase in your strength, which will be an indication that you can progress to a heavier weight.