"Variety is the spice of life" - Ah, how true.
Variety can be the "spice" of your training life also - or a death sentence depending on how you apply it. And most trainees simply don't 'do it' right. They routinely change programs, exercises, loading protocols, etc without any more reasons then simple boredom or in an attempt to find the 'golden fleece' of training programs.
To change the aforementioned parameters (and others) on a haphazard basis is 'insensible' variety. This road leads nowhere. A year of training later and the trainee is the same size and same strength. Another year wasted. How pathetic. How common.
One of the basic ways that I introduce sensible variety into a program is to simply change the loading parameters of the program. For instance after a trainee has utilized 3 sets of 5 reps (3 x 5) for 3 to 12 months and has 'neurologically' run out of gas I'll switch him to 2 or 3 x 3 with a backoff set of 8 reps - and the gains start pouring in again. He'll be able to sustain progress (as long as he is eating and recovering properly) for at least another 3 months. Beginner to intermediate trainees can repeat 'cycles' of this type of loading parameters and can make great gains for three to five years without any other form of variety! In this example, variety in the form of a different loading parameter is introduced every 3 months or so.
An intermediate to advanced level trainee may need variety introduced more often. And when I say 'need' I am not referring to changing 'something' because the trainee is the type who needs to be entertained by doing something different - because he gets 'bored'. I'm referring to the serious trainee whose nervous system - due to years, maybe decades of training is very developed. An advanced nervous system will quickly adapt to a stimulus - getting fast results - and then plateauing just as fast. To prevent this, the trainee needs to change things more often. And again I'm not referring to insensible variety and completely changing exercises, frequency, programs etc. I'm talking about changing one thing; the loading parameter again. For this trainee I'll simply change the rep goal from week to week for a 4-week cycle as follows:
Week #1: 3 sets of 5 reps (3 x 5)
Week #2: 3 x 3
Week #3: 3 x 1
Week #4: 2 x 8
As you can see the nervous system is exposed to a different loading parameter every week for 4 weeks. I've had trainees who were already pretty big and strong last a year or more on this particular program.
Enter the Pyramid
Pyramids are one of the greatest ways to introduce variety into a program for intermediate to advanced trainees. They can also be implemented by a beginner if they have been training consistently a year or more and have gained a significant amount of muscle mass and strength.
Pyramids are great in that instead of the nervous system getting exposed to a different loading parameter every 3 months or every 7 days (as in the two examples above); it gets 'hit' with something new within every set of a particular exercise. Pyramids change the rep goal from set to set. This creates what I call 'intra-exercise' variety. By changing the rep goal and the subsequent weight every set the bodies' nervous system is 'shocked' by a new stimulus. This 'shocking' forces the body to a new level of adaptation - it doesn't allow the nervous system a chance to stagnate.
Below is a typical 'five set' pyramid.
After performing warm-up sets the trainee would perform one set of 5 reps (representing the base of the pyramid) rest 3 to 5 minutes, then perform 1 x 4, rest again and perform 1 x 3. This sequence is followed for the remaining two sets with the trainee finishing the pyramid with a top set of 1 rep. The weight is increased from set to set by approximately 2 to 5% dependant on the exercise being used and the strength of the trainee. This is what most trainees associate with being a typical pyramid - or the only type of pyramid - which isn't the case. Let me introduce you to several different kinds of pyramids.
Different Strokes for Different Folks
Pyramids need to be adjusted according to the trainees' goals and limitations. If a trainee is interested in increasing absolute strength (the ability to display one-rep strength) the pyramid above will do a good job. It can be altered though for the trainee who can't perform five work sets due to time constraints or lack of recovery ability. In this case a 'shorter pyramid' should be used which has the trainee performing three sets: 1 x 5, 1 x 3 and 1 x 1.
A good way to increase relative strength (strength within a particular rep range) and create some hypertrophy (due to the volume; more sets) is to use 'stacked' pyramids. This really shakes up the nervous system as you alternate between two intensity levels.
A Pyramid that emphasizes the development of both sarcoplasmic and myofibular hypertrophy (mass gains) would look like this:
I really like inverted pyramids because of the 'trick' they play on the nervous system. With an inverted pyramid the first set is performed with the heaviest weight for the lowest rep goal - which is the opposite of a regular pyramid. Subsequent sets are performed for more reps and increasingly lighter weights. The 'trick' inverted pyramids play on the nervous system is that by starting with the relatively heaviest weight for the exercise the body recruits the most number of fibers that it'll need for that entire exercise. When the second, lighter set is performed the body still thinks that the trainee is using the weight used in the first set (which isn't the case - it's lighter), so it recruits more fibers than it actually needs. This makes the second set feel much, much lighter than it would feel if you had started this particular exercise with the rep goal of second set. For instance performing a set of 5 after performing a set of 3 makes the set of 5 feel 'light' relative to if you started the exercise with a set of 5 reps. This neurological phenomena feels great. Immediately you will be able to use more weight for 5 reps, and with better technique, using this method than you have ever used before.
An inverted pyramid:
For the trainee who can only tolerate two work sets I would suggest an inverted short pyramid. Even though this doesn't look like much, it requires enough of a change in the nervous system to provide the necessary variety to keep the body adapting.
Another inverted pyramid that emphasizes hypertrophy:
A 'Double Pyramid' (one regular and one inverted) is another great variation. As you progress through the second inverted pyramid the nervous system has an easy time with the weights that were used in the first regular pyramid.
Pyramids Gone Bad
I work hard to make all the programs that I design efficient; no energy wasted spent doing something that doesn't achieve the trainees' goal(s). I want to hit the bulls-eye not just the target. So, keep in mind when designing your program that your training approach must prioritize/optimize the training effect.
For a pyramid to achieve this, the rep range from the first set to the last set must stay within a relatively short range that will elicit the desired adaptation. If the rep range becomes too long the nervous system has a hard time figuring out exactly what the stimulus is; which in this case the body will try to adapt to everything and end up developing little strength gains and some hypertrophy.
Here's a 'bad' pyramid. It has a long spread in the rep range. In strength training dogma it's known as a 'Narrow Pyramid' because it looks, well, 'narrow'. Compare this with the pyramids presented above which have a short-spread rep range ('Broad Pyramids' - shorter and fatter in appearance)
The 'rep range spread' is 9 reps. It's a bit of an oversimplification, but the body is not sure what you are trying to do. Again, compare this to the Broad Pyramids presented earlier in the article. The 'rep range spread' is limited to no more than 5 reps.
Micro-loading the Pyramid
Increasing the resistance from workout to workout is easy utilizing Micro-loading. It's a bit more complicated than if the trainee is using a fixed rep count, for instance 3 x 5 in which simply adding a specific load increase (2 1/2 lbs., 1 lb., or 1/2 lb.) to all three sets (dependant on the exercise used) is all that is required. When using a pyramid structure the proper weight increase required will be different for each set; for each rep goal. For instance if a 5-3-1 pyramid is used,
the trainee might have to add 1 lb. to the set of 5 reps, 2 lbs. to the set of 3 reps and 5 lbs. to the 1 rep set. When the going gets tough only 1 lb. may be added to both the 5 rep and 3 rep set with the set of 1 rep still going up by 2 1/2 lbs. To do this effectively the trainee should note in their logbook at the completion of each set how much weight to add - for that particular set. This may sound complicated, but once the trainee gains experience 'doing it', it becomes easy. I would recommend erring on the side of adding too little weight than too much weight to each set till you gain experience.
As a trainee gets more advanced - as his or her nervous system becomes more developed - the need for variety in a training program has to become more of a priority in the overall training scheme. A nervous system that has been subjected to a common stimulus over a number of years becomes much less responsive or not responsive at all, unless that stimulus is altered in some way. The flip side to this is that the stimulus can't be altered too much - kind of a catch 22. If so the nervous system has to re-learn an entirely new motor skill, or the bodies' tissues / biochemistry have to start from scratch to build a new foundation before gains in strength and size can take place. This is especially true for the weight trainee whose goals are very motor skill specific; powerlifters, Olympic lifters and certain strongman events. For the trainee who is advanced, and is after general size gains there is more leeway as to how much and what kinds of variety can be used.
Pyramids provide the 'right amount' of variety so that the body is forced to adapt to something 'different' without having to take a giant step back, and re-lay a new foundation. By changing the load from set to set the body becomes more responsive because the nervous system can't fall into a pattern of recruitment (a "pattern of recruitment" is a good thing at the right time and stage of training) - it has to change the number of fibers that it needs from set to set. This will actually 'teach' the body to recruit more fibers per set causing an increase in strength which can also result in an increase in muscle mass.
One final note; don't get distracted - even when using a sensible form of variety. The name of the game is to lift a little more weight each workout. You must add that little 'chunk' of iron, and be able to lift it each workout. You must eat great. You must concentrate when you workout. And most of all you need to dream of accomplishing your goals - dream big - and that'll give you the motivation to do everything right.