The pyramid system is one of the most popular training methods used by athletes, fitness enthusiasts and those who want to build muscle and get stronger. The problem is that it’s not the most effective way to warm up for heavy weights.
In an ascending pyramid, sets progress from lighter weights with a greater number of repetitions in the first set, to heavier weights with fewer repetitions in subsequent sets. For example, Set 1: 50 pounds x 10 reps, Set 2: 60 pounds x 8 reps, and Set 3: 70 pounds x 6 reps. The lighter sets with higher reps serve as a warm-up for the heavier sets and lower reps. An additional benefit is the sense of confidence you gain from the illusion that you are getting stronger as the workout progresses.
Although an ascending pyramid is certainly effective in getting muscles warm and may be fine for beginners to use, it’s not so good for those who are already strong. For example, if you can squat 400 pounds and want to do several heavy doubles, a warm-up using an ascending pyramid could look like this: 135 x 10, 185 x 8, 230 x 6, 270 x 5, 305 x 4, 335 x 3, 350 x 2 x 2. This means that before hitting your primary training weight, you’ve already performed 36 reps – that many reps is certain to create a lot of fatigue that will affect how much weight you can use on your heaviest sets. Also, performing sets of 5-10 reps takes longer than performing sets of 3 reps, especially in complex exercises that work several muscle groups, such as the squat. Why waste your time? There’s a better way.
When you’re ready to squat heavy, you should perform just enough reps to stimulate the nervous system and get your timing down to prepare for the heavy working sets. Someone with a 400-pound squat max could warm up as follows: 135 x 5, 185 x 3, 230 x 2, 265 x 1, 295 x 1, 325 x 1, 345 x 1, 355-365 x 2 x 2. This approach means you would perform less than half as many reps compared to the conventional method mentioned in the previous paragraph (14 rather than 36). As a result, you will be less fatigued; in this case, instead of a working set of 350 x 2 x 2 with the conventional ascending pyramid method you should be able to handle a heavier weight, say 365, as suggested in the latter scenario.
Another popular method that was used by the Bulgarian weightlifters – and subsequently introduced to the US bodybuilding scene in the 1970s in Muscle Builder/Power magazine – was to get the primary working sets in after hitting a max single. For example, if a Bulgarian weightlifter could snatch 300 pounds, he might work up to 290 pounds for the day, and then drop down to 270 and hit some doubles. One advantage of this method is that when you drop down to a lower weight, the resistance often feels much lighter than if you warm up in the conventional manner (through an effect sport scientists refer to as post-tetanic potentiation).
Of course, many other factors influence how many warm-up sets are necessary. For example, if you just performed several sets of overhead dumbbell presses, you probably do not need to perform very many sets of heavy singles on a bench press to reach a max. Decades ago, weightlifters often found that after performing snatches, they were ready to perform heavy jerks; and powerlifters could often sneak in a few sets of heavy leg presses after some squats without much of a warm-up. In fact, 1971 AAU Mr. America Casey Viator took this idea to the extreme when he once performed 20 reps in the leg press with 750 pounds, followed immediately by 20 reps in the leg extension with 225 pounds, followed by 13 full squats with 502 pounds!
Finally, the environment you are training in influences the number of warm-up sets you need. If your gym is as hot as the Sahara, chances are you probably don’t need to perform many warm-up sets to work up a sweat; whereas, if your gym keeps the AC on full blast, then most of the year you would probably need a much more extensive warm-up.
As you can see, deciding on the number of warm-up sets you’ll need requires that you factor in how your workout is designed and the conditions under which you are training. Look at it this way: It’s just one more way to get more from your warm-ups, your workouts and your body.