Article & Podcast by Glenn Cranham B.Sc


In ‘Using Set Systems 1’ we looked at Basic sets as the building block of your session, we then discussed several set systems that minimised rest periods by combining exercises. In this article, we shall discuss the systems that involve increasing or decreasing either the load, reps or both. 

Pyramid training:

Pyramid training is one of the better-known systems and involves manipulating the load and repetitions over the course of multiple sets of the same exercise. It can be performed in three distinct ways: ascending pyramids, descending pyramids, and complete pyramids.

Ascending pyramids adopt a light-to-heavy approach, whereby each successive set is performed with a heavier resistance for fewer repetitions. The descending pyramid starts with the fewest repetitions and the heaviest load (following an appropriate warm-up) and for each subsequent set a percentage of the load is removed. The complete pyramid combines the ascending and descending approaches. Starting light the client builds to the peak over a number of sets, then attempts to repeat the same repetitions on the descending phase.


Exercise Set System Sets Reps % 1RM Rest
Squat Ascending Pyramid 1 15 67 45secs
    1 10 75 90 secs
    1 5 85 3mins
    1 3 92
  Descending Pyramid (Warm up first) 1 3 92 4mins
    1 5 85 90secs
    1 10 75 60 secs
    1 15 67
  Full Pyramid 1 15 67 45secs
    1 10 75 90secs
    1 5 85 3 mins
    1 3 92 4mins
    1 5 85 90secs
    1 10 75 60secs
    1 15 67

Pyramid Set System Example

Notice that in the ‘Pyramid Set System Example’ the rest periods have been changed as well as the load and reps in order to reflect the necessary rest periods associated with endurance, hypertrophy and strength training.

It is this crossing of training ranges that critics of the pyramid system argue against. Zatsiorsky (1995) contends that few contemporary elite strength and power athletes utilise the ‘outdated’ pyramid approach to training. The reason given is that the early sets in ascending pyramids cause accumulative fatigue, negatively affecting performance when training with maximal loads at the top of the pyramid. He suggests that the majority of elite strength athletes prefer to progress quickly to the main training load in order to train with maximal intensity.

Poliquin (2001) contends that the majority of individuals that employ the pyramid system utilise intensity increments that are too wide to elicit the desired response, as the body would have a hard time figuring out exactly what the training stimulus is. Poliquin (2001) suggests that the intensity spread employed should be no more than 10% as this presents the body with a stimulus that will elicit a specific adaptive response. Note that the example below is a complete hypertrophy based pyramid.


Exercise Set System Sets Reps % 1RM Rest
Squat Ascending Pyramid 1 12 72 45secs
    1 10 75 60 secs
    1 8 80 90secs
    1 6 83

Hypertrophy Pyramid Set System Example 

Utilising the pyramid system in this way allows the client to work through the whole potential hypertrophy range. This can be very useful as clients to to hypertrophy at different intensities. It also works very well in a transition phase between training ranges. In this example, the client is moving from hypertrophy towards strength and allows them to get familiar with using higher loads.


Ladder training is a variation of pyramid training where the number of reps performed varies from set to set in a progressive fashion.  However, unlike pyramid training, the resistance used stays the same

Ladders lend them self very well to bodyweight exercises or exercises where only relatively fixed resistance is available (e.g. training in the home with limited equipment/loading).

In this example, imagine chin/pull ups are being performed. Our client can normally perform 3 sets of 8 reps totaling 24 reps when sets/reps are performed in the traditional manner. However, considerably more reps can be achieved when reps are performed in a ladder. Rests between “rungs” are intuitive unless indicated i.e. one may rest just a few seconds after performing reps 1,2, and 3, slightly longer for reps 4 and 5 but maybe 30-45 seconds before reps 6. It is important to get to a degree of fatigue which prohibits another increase in reps (in this example managing 7 reps).


Set 1 Set 2 Set 3
1 rep 1 rep 1 rep
2 reps 2 reps 2 reps
3 reps 3 reps 3 reps
4 reps 4 reps 4 reps
5 reps 5 reps Can’t perform 5 reps
6 reps Can’t perform 6 reps  
Can’t perform 7 reps   Total reps 46
On completion of each ladder rest 90-120 seconds

Multiple Ladder Set System Example

Because the initial stages of a ladder sequence are relatively easy, it is possible to perform a higher volume of work than traditional setting methods permit. This is beneficial in two ways. It provides an exposure to high volumes of work, which is closely related to sarcoplasmic hypertrophy and it adheres to the law of repeated effort which states if we wish to get better at an exercise we need to perform a lot of repetitions.


Drop sets (strip sets):

A drop set is a resistance training system that is popular among bodybuilders. It is particularly well suited to hypertrophic gains and allows a client to continue a set past the point where it would usually terminate. Drop sets, sometimes referred to as stripping, involves performing a set to failure, then removing a small percentage of the load and continuing with the set. This procedure can be repeated several times (2 to 3 drops in load per set is standard). A set to failure followed by three successive load decrements performed with no rest would be referred to as a triple drop.

Guidelines for planning a drop set

·    decide how many drops are going to be performed (a higher number of drops will increase sensations of fatigue and discomfort)

·    select which exercise(s) are going to be used in conjunction with the drop sets system. Note that machine and dumbbell exercises are more convenient forms of lowering the resistance when using drop sets

·    perform all planned sets of the exercise as normal (if multiple sets are used, the final set will usually incorporate the drop set system)

·    when concentric failure is reached, lower the load by a small amount (5-20%) and continue the set immediately without rest

·    repeat for as many drops as desired. Note that only a small number of repetitions should be possible with the new load once the weight has been lowered

Example: for a client training for hypertrophy the following drop set procedure could be employed:

Drop sets
Set Reps Load %1RM Recovery (sec)
1 10 75 60
2 10 75 60
3 10 75 60
4 10 (to failure) 75 None
Drop 1 Max (to failure) 70 None
Drop 2 Max (to failure) 65 None
Drop 3 Max (to failure) 60 N/a


It should be noted that as drop sets extend a set beyond the usual point of termination (i.e. concentric failure), it can be considered a demanding training technique and liable to cause Delayed Onset of Muscle Soreness (DOMS).

I often utilise this system for the last exercise per body part of a hypertrophy session, ensuring that the exercise allows for very rapid weight reduction (i.e. fixed bars, dumbells, machines or suspension training).

Many individuals overuse systems such as drop sets by including them in every set of every workout. This approach is then likely to lead to rapid burnout and stagnation of results.


Descending Sets:

Descending sets are a modification of the basic set system that plans for a reduction in either load or reps in order to ensure each set is to failure, without incorporating lengthy rest periods. Useful with beginners that lack the muscular endurance to complete multiple sets of the same load, and with experienced clients looking to increase volume whilst maintaining intensity in a session.


Exercise Set System Sets Reps % 1RM Rest
Bench Press Descending 1 10 75% 40secs
  (reducing reps) 1 9 75% 40secs
    1 8 75%
  Descending 1 10 75% 40secs
  (reducing load) 1 10 73% 40secs
    1 10 70%

Descending Set System Examples

Notice the relatively short rest periods that would allow more sets or exercises to completed in a session. Often this system will be utilised by necessity rather than design when the session plan is for a basic set but the client can’t achieve the full number of reps with the same load. 


Here’s a good workout for you to try that incorporates these set systems.


Exercise Set System Sets Reps % 1RM Rest
Dynamic stretch, Warm up 6 mins CV       4-5 RPE  
Power Clean & Press Ladder 1 Up to 7 75 As needed
Bent Over Row Ascending Pyramid 4 12,10,8,6 72,75,79,83 1 min
Bench Press Ascending Pyramid 4 12,10,8,6 72,75,79,83 1 min
Back Squats Full Pyramid 5 10,8,6,8, 10 75,79,83,79, 75 1 min
Wide Grip Pull Ups


Superset Ladder 1 Up to 10 Bodyweight As needed
Cable Upright Row Triple Drop Set 3 + 3 drops 10 75

(70,65,60 drops)


Dumbell Chest Press Triple Drop Set 3 + 3 drops 10 75

(70,65,60 drops)


Leg Extensions Triple Drop Set 3 + 3 drops 10 75

(70,65,60 drops)


Cool Down & Stretch          

Push, Pull & Legs Hypertrophy Workout

Strength Specific:

Much like bodybuilding, there is a myriad of proposed set systems that have come from a purely strength training perspective (Olympic lifting, power lifting & strength, and conditioning). Many of these systems will incorporate a reduction of load or reps in order to ultimately improve the clients 1 Rep Max (1RM). These systems generally work on multiple sets of between 1 & 5 reps. Due to the volume of systems and their numerous variations, these will be discussed in a separate article.