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!