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Pyramid Power: Secret to Size and Strength

Performing negative-accentuated sets—lifting in one second and lowering in six—creates microtrauma, which sets off a fat-to-muscle effect, and also acts as a density stimulator to hit the important type 2A muscle fibers.

Q: I just got The Ultimate Power-Density Mass Workout and The X-traordinary X-Rep Workout from Tremendous! I’ve already read them both twice—undoubtedly the best bodybuilding info I’ve ever seen. I noticed that in the programs in both e-books you rely a lot on pyramiding the weight on the compound exercises. Is that better than just using the same poundage on all work sets and going to exhaustion?

A: I believe that in most cases adding weight on each successive work set so the rep count decreases—9, 7, 5, for instance—is the best way to build a balance of both mass and strength, for three reasons:

1) Neural drive. A stair-step increase in weight forces the nervous system into a more heightened state on each successive set, which forces more fiber engagement.

2) Unique fiber activation. A recent Brazilian study showed that varying the rep range with a change in load “recruits different muscle fibers, which lets you train your muscles completely.” In other words, the different loads and rep ranges get at different fibers—perhaps different fiber types—and the more fibers you get at, the bigger your muscles become.

3) Intensity. As the weight gets heavier and your muscles fatigue, you’re forced to generate more force and intensity to get your reps. For example, if you get nine on your first set and then add weight, you still have nine on your mind. That means you’ll put out more effort with the heavier poundage, even if you stall at seven. Intensity is the key to gains, and a pyramid is a good way to get more of it.

I realized the amazing size-and-strength-building power of the pyramid back when I designed and prescribed the Positions-of-Flexion Power Pyramid Program for trainees looking for both mass and strength. It’s a simple two-way split over four days per week. Here’s how the Power Pyramid biceps routine looks:

Midrange: Barbell curls 3 x 8, 6, 3-4

Stretch: Incline curls 1 x 8-12

Contracted: Concentration curls 1 x 8-12

You can apply that protocol to any bodypart. Use a pyramid on the big exercise. Then do one or two sets each of the stretch- and contracted-position moves—and go for higher reps on the secondary exercises. Does it work? Here’s a quote from an early adopter of the POF Power Pyramid:

“I’m 31 years old and started lifting weights shortly after I graduated from high school. Recently, I decided to do the Power Pyramid Program because I was looking for both mass and strength—and that’s exactly what I got. I went from 195 to 215 in two short months [almost 20 pounds of muscle in eight weeks]! My bench press went from 340 to 405, squats from 460 to 515 and deadlifts from 375 to 435. I’ve never felt better, and my strength and power are unbelievable. Thank you very much for 3D POF. Without it I might have given up.” —K.T., Fostoria, OH

A more streamlined, time-sensitive, big-exercise-only program is the Basic X-traordinary X-Rep Workout in our new e-program. It’s a simple three-way split:

Workout 1: Chest, delts, triceps, abs

Workout 2: Quads, hamstrings, calves

Workout 3: Lats, midback, biceps

And each workout only takes about 40 minutes because you use only the single ultimate exercise for each target muscle. You do a power pyramid; then you do a final set with a lighter weight—but you make it a drop set. For chest the ultimate exercise is decline presses.

Decline presses (X Reps) 3 x 9, 7, 5-6

Decline presses (drop set) 1 x 10(6)

It’s a simple, efficient and effective method for building muscle mass and strength. With that single exercise you engage multiple mass-fiber bundles with the various rep ranges, then finish with a drop set, which hits the often neglected density mass-building element.

Remember, the key fiber type in the biggest, freakiest bodybuilders has recently been found to be 2A. Those are-dual capacity fibers—they have both a power and an endurance component. You must train both to stimulate extreme muscle size increases.

Most bodybuilders train the power side only, with heavy weights and low reps. By using the drop set as a chaser, you get an extra application of mass stimulation with a higher-rep drop set. That’s the density component. [Note that in the POF Power Pyramid you cover the density component with the stretch- and contracted-position sets, which have continuous tension for endurance-component stimulation—and you do up to 12 reps on each.]

The above programs are designed to be as complete as possible, even if they contain only one exercise per bodypart. Including a Power pyramid is key, as is some type of density strategy. Whichever of the programs you choose, I’m sure it will help you get huge.

Note: The POF Power Pyramid is the first program outlined in The X-traordinary Muscle-Building Workouts, an e-book available at the X Shop at

Q: I read that performing negative-accentuated sets [one second up and six seconds down on every rep] works well as a density method for the endurance side of the 2A mass fibers. I’m using the Basic Power-Density Mass Workout, one ultimate exercise for each muscle, and was thinking about doing a power pyramid first, then for density adding a drop set on the last heavy set. I’d drop to a negative-accentuated set. Is that a good plan?

A: I really like it when bodybuilders think and create innovative combos. In this case, however, there’s a problem, as I’ll explain—but I’ve got a better size-building solution.

To clarify your progression suggestion, let’s apply it to a specific exercise. Say you’re doing incline presses. After a couple of progressively heavier warmup sets, you start your power pyramid:

Set 1: Take a weight that gives you nine reps, and do the set; then rest 2 1/2 minutes as you add weight.

Set 2: Drive out seven reps with the heavier weight; rest 2 1/2 minutes and add weight again.

Set 3: Blast out five tough reps—with a few end-of-set X-Rep partials. Then immediately reduce the weight and continue repping, but do every rep of your drop set with a one-up/six-down cadence—negative-accentuated style.

That last heavy set with the negative-accentuated drop is a good density stimulator. The problem with it is fatigue. Because your pecs and nervous system will be hammered from an all-out five-rep set, you won’t be able to do justice to the negative-accentuated set that immediately follows. You’ll be forced to use a weight that’s too light—and you may be shaking like crazy trying to slow down the negatives.

That’s not bad if you’re just going for density. I assume, however, that you want to get enough microtrauma from the negative-accentuated set to trigger fat-to-muscle effects—as well as density to trigger type-2A fiber size. You want it all, right? I know I do.

So a better solution is to rest after set 3 in your power pyramid. During your rest, reduce the weight enough so that after a 2 1/2-minute break you can crank out about eight negative-accentuated reps. Because of the rest you’ll be able to use more weight—plus you’ll get almost a minute of tension time, the perfect density chaser for type 2A size effects.

So your revised power-density upper-chest workout will look like this:

Power: Incline presses (X Reps) 3 x 9, 7, 5

Density: Incline presses (negative-accentuated) 1 x 8

If you want a supercharged density effect, you can do a rest/pause on the negative-accentuated set. Do your normal set of one up/six down, as shown above. Then rack the weight for 10 seconds. Now use the same weight, and do a final pure-density burnout set with a one-up/two-down cadence. As we discuss in the Power-Density e-program, Arnold loved burnout sets with short rests on the big exercises like bench presses. And who can argue with Arnold’s results?

Editor’s note: Steve Holman is the author of many bodybuilding best-sellers and the creator of Positions-of-Flexion muscle training. For information on the POF videos and Size Surge programs, see the ad sections beginning on pages 132 and 248, respectively. Also visit for information on X-Rep and 3D POF methods and e-books.   IM

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