Anyone who has spent time in a fitness center's weight room has probably heard the term pyramid sets thrown around, which can elicit a variety of responses to the training method. Pyramid sets are essentially a training regimen in which the bodybuilder or athlete starts his training routine with lighter weights and more repetitions. As the workout progresses, the athlete moves onto heavier weights with fewer repetitions until he or she reaches his or her max weight and does only one repetition. The pyramid sets can be stopped before reaching a max weight as well. Starting with heavier weights and working down to lighter weights is called a reverse pyramid set.
Pyramid sets are intended to exhaust the muscles, which generally helps build new muscle fibers. The benefits of pyramid sets are often seen after only a short time doing them, but the risk of injury is also high. A pyramid set also encourages an athlete to push beyond the comfort zone and venture into higher weights than he or she is used to. The muscles then adapt to the new weight and become used to lifting heavier burdens.
One of the biggest problems with pyramid sets is the change in the athlete's form at higher weights. If an athlete is lifting weights beyond his or her comfort zone, he or she may inadvertently change his or her form while executing a lift. Proper form is necessary to prevent injury and maximize muscle growth, and if the form is altered, injury may occur and the effects of the exercise may be negated. A trainer or coach is helpful in such situations, to monitor the athlete's form and progress throughout the workout.
Critics of the pyramid set argue that while the workout is good for building muscle mass, it is not especially good at building muscle definition. As an alternative, many people recommend rep and weight consistency. The athlete should choose a specific weight range he or she wants to use to work out, and stay in that weight range, doing a consistent amount of reps at a consistent speed. This prepares the body for the stress of a certain range, and the muscles begin to adapt specifically to that range. The body will gain strength as opposed to just muscle mass, which is what a pyramid set promotes. Most pros recommend combining a pyramid set workout with other types of workouts to balance the growth of muscle mass with toning and strength training.