Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Pyramid Power!

Aztec Serpent, copyright Boris Vallejo, 1983

Recently, someone asked me what is the best and fastest way to build muscle. During the late 80's when I was competing in lots of bodybuilding contests, this was my primary fitness goal and I made it my business to find out everything I could about it. Of course, since that time, there has been a ton of updated information to check out, but, based on my own experimentation with my own body, I still think the basic premise that I worked with in the 80's remains true--lift heavy weights, use basic exercises, and get enough volume of repetitions and sets to get your muscles as pumped up as they can get. One way that I accomplished this at the time was through the use of pyramid sets. I brought up this subject back in a February post, but here's a more thorough explanation.

Most often, I worked the Pyramid principle with 5 sets. You can do it with more sets (sometimes I would do 10 sets in my pyramid) or with less (maybe 3), but working with 5 demonstrates the concept best. Let's say you're doing
one of my favorite exercises, the basic bench press.

Set 1: Start with a very light weight, maybe even just the bar, and do 15 repetitions (reps).

Set 2: Add a little more weight and still do 15 reps.

Set 3: Add more weight and do 10 reps.

Set 4: Add your heaviest weight and do 6 to 8 reps.

Set 5: Go back to the weights you used in set 2 and do 20 reps.

I don't like to rest too long between sets so that my heart keeps going and I get a better overall conditioning effect, but if you rest a minute or more, you'll be able to handle heavier weights (assuming that's your goal).

If you're working out with the intention of really building strength and size of muscle isn't so important, you can even go heavier and do 2 to 4 reps in your heaviest set. I never recommend going so heavy that you can only lift the weight one time because if you do this regularly, seriously, it's only a matter of time before something you value (like your joints and tendons) give out!
The idea is to work up in poundage to close to your maximum weight and lift very few reps, then immediately decrease the weight and crank out a bunch of reps to flood the muscle with lots of blood.

At this point, I'm just about to turn 52 years old and my goal is no longer to build muscle with bodybuilding competition in mind. Instead, it's to be strong, flexible, and healthy for the rest of my life. I'm so glad that I built all the good quality, natural muscle (no steroids or growth enhancement craziness) that I did when I was younger. It's pretty easy to maintain naturally built muscle once you've put it on, and the more active muscle tissue you have, the better your metabolism and blood sugar regulation works. It's never too late at any age to add some muscle, so pick up something heavy and go for it!


  1. Thanks for this! I just started lifting again and it's great to find a breakdown with simple principles that makes so much sense. And it's especially cool to hear it communicated by a legendary artist like you!

  2. Thank you, Mike! I'm so glad you find this idea helpful!

  3. Hi Julie,

    I've never been entirely clear on what is meant by a "set". Is it the number of repetitions of one particular exercise? I did put the Pyramid principle to the test this weekend at the gym and was able to do a bit more than usual, which was a great benefit!

    Another question; is there any way to get fewer snaps and pops from ones joints the day after exercising? I always sound like a bowl of rice crispies 12 hours after my hour at the gym.Maybe a supplement would help?

  4. Hi Jen: Rice Crispies! Ouch! A lot of people seem to get good/great results from glucosamine paired up with chondroitin. I have to say that in my experience, I've tried it several times and really wanted it to work for me, but it just never seemed to make any difference. I've come to the conclusion that if you've made your joints hurt with a workout, you probably pushed for too much too soon. It's so easy to cross that fine line and overdo it--especially when you feel enthusiastic to try a new technique or workout.
    As for what a set is, you are absolutely correct that it is a group of repetitions for a certain exercise. For instance, 3 sets of 10 repetitions of pushups would mean that you do 10 pushups for the first set, rest for maybe 30 seconds or a minute, do 10 more for the second set, rest, then do 10 more for the third set.

  5. I am not a bodybuilder by any means, but I knew something was working with regards to my training when a fellow gym member came up to me one day and asked: "What are you taking?" I've never taken drugs nor will I ever, but my reply to him was "Heavy Duty" :) What's your take on that type of training, as I'm sure you have heard of it given your bodybuilding background. This is basically what Mike Mentzer (R.I.P.) espoused for many years.

  6. Hi Rene,
    My understanding of the Heavy Duty system is that you do only one set of a given exercise, as heavy as possible, and take it to failure--just completely go for it and give it all you've got. For any exercise theory to work its magic, you will have to use it for at least a few months to see what kind of results you get. I have experimented with a workout here and there using this idea (back when I was younger and didn't worry about the consequences of such heavy training!), but I can't say I ever gave it enough time to see how well it might work. It just doesn't appeal to my logic. I like a higher volume of repetitions as well as sets. Every person's body is going to respond differently, but it's still ALWAYS important to listen to your body's ongoing communication. Please believe me, our bodies are way smarter than we are!

  7. Hi Julie,
    Thanks for the reply! I have to say I did volume training for years with no results. I ate, took protein drinks, the whole bit but never progressed...because I was grossly over training. Some people have a fantastic recovery ability. I think the Schwarzenegers, Haneys etc. are blessed with this and can train 7 days a week up 2 or 3 times a day. Since I finally realized I can't train like that, I made the best progress of my life when I only worked out once every 3-4 days, with maybe only 6-8 total sets per workout (shot up in body weight from 175 lbs. to 195 lbs. in about 3-4 months, naturally). They don't have to be heavy weights, but it does have to be INTENSE. I discovered that by really digging in for those 6-8 sets, it was pointless (even detrimental to my progress) to perform anymore exercise since my entire body needed time to 1)replenish what it had spent and 2)recover after that. For anyone asking about what is the fastest/best way, they may want to consider that "less is more" may very well work for them. Anyway, I find this such a fascinating topic and thank you for sharing your experiences with us all! I look forward to seeing more great artwork from both you and Boris!