Kick Starting The Hypertrophy Process
So in my last article I talked quite a bit about the roles of mechanical tension and metabolic stress development in muscular hypertrophy. Moreover, it was suggested that a minimum level of training intensity (~60-65% of 1RM) would likely be needed to generate a threshold level of mechanical tension required for the muscular hypertrophy process. Once this point is reached, then metabolic stress could act to have an additive effect which maximises the muscle growth response. In order to achieve optimal levels of mechanical tension as well as metabolic stress, resistance training with moderate intensity loads with moderate repetition ranges (6-12) would likely be a sweet spot for maximum muscular hypertrophy.
However, as well as intensity and repetition ranges, I also briefly talked about training sets and how arranging your inter-session sets might play an important role in maximising the hypertrophy response. In this article, I just want to briefly review a paper that just came out investigating the influence of training sets on muscular hypertrophy responses.
Traditional And Pyramid Training Sets
There are quite a few ways that people like to play around with when it comes to training sets, but two of the most common ways are : traditional (TD) and pyramid (PD) sets. A set is really simply to understand, it essentially just tells you information about how you are going to go about executing a particular exercise at a given time. For instance, if I perform a press movement for 5 sets at 12-15 repetitions at 70% of 1RM, then each set tells you that you will be performing 12-15 repetitions, using a weight that is equal to 70% of your 1RM. That’s it! So what are TD and PD sets?
⇒This is the most common way of planning your work within each training session. Essentially, a TD set might look like this: say you perform an exercise with 5 sets at 8-12 repetitions, with a constant load (% of 1RM). As you can see, each exercise set will be done with 8-12 repetitions with the same load.
⇒This is another common way of performing your resistance training sets. Essentially, a PD set might look like this: say you perform 5 sets of an exercise with repetitions of 12/8/5/3/1 and every set you increase the load. As you can see, every exercise set you do, the repetitions change (they get lower), while the load also changes (gets higher). Basically you start off with moderate repetition ranges and loads and work up towards much heavier weights and lower repetition ranges.
Why Is This All Relevant To You?
Well, given that maximum hypertrophic responses rely on a nice combination of mechanical tension and metabolic stress, how you plan your exercise sets might provide another way of managing training volume and intensity to bring about this optimal combination. We have a good idea now on what intensity ranges and repetition ranges are likely to maximise muscle size increases, but little is actually known on the influence of resistance training sets on this area. Is there actually an optimal way of performing your exercise sets in order to maximise muscular hypertrophy? Who knows! The research at this point is pretty thin. But some stuff is starting to emerge in the literature.
What Is The Verdict On Different Training Set Schemes For Hypertrophy?
•The Non-Sciencey Version•
It was suggested that PD sets would lead to greater gains in muscle size over TD sets. This was simply because PD sets would allow for greater training intensities to be used without drastic reductions in volume. In a TD set system, higher intensities could only be utilised by lowering the training volume. As a result, PD set systems are likely (given the ability to use higher intensities plus maintain sufficient levels of training volume) to optimise both levels of mechanical tension and metabolic stress needed to maximise muscular hypertrophy.
Interested in the scientific study? Then read on below.
What Does Science Tell Us? A Study By Schoenfeld et al (2017)
So Schoenfeld et al (2017) investigated the influence of TD and PD set training systems on muscle strength, muscle mass and hormonal responses in 25 untrained older women. In this crossover design study, participants carried out both TD and PD set system resistance training programs (RT) over an 8 week period. The TD system RT program consisted of 3 sets of 8-12 repetitions, with a constant load (% of 1RM) for each set. The PD system RT program consisted of 3 sets, of 12/10/8 repetitions, with the training load increased each set.
⇒For both TD and PD system RT programs, participants exhibited significant increases in muscle strength in the 1RM chest press, knee extension and preacher curl exercises as well as muscle size. There were no significant differences in muscle strength or size between the two groups. Furthermore, no significant changes were seen with respect to circulating blood concentrations of hormones IGF-1 and testosterone.
⇒Both TD and PD system RT programs are equally effective for increasing strength and muscle mass in older women.
Schoenfeld et al (2017). Figure shows the increases in 1RM strength and muscle mass following both 8 weeks of PD and TD set RT programs. No significant differences between them.
Given the past research on mechanical tension and metabolic stress, it was hypothesised that PD set systems would likely produce the greater gains in muscle size and strength due to allowing for higher levels of intensity without comprising training volumes. However, the results don’t prove this. Schoenfeld et al (2017) suggested that because the lower weekly volumes in the PD set RT program group were lower, the higher intensities at the top end sets would have compensated for this, ultimately balancing out the gains between the PD and TD set RT program groups. There are also some study limitations to consider:
⇒Participants were untrained older women. Who knows what the study results could have been for trained participants, younger participants.
⇒The time period was short, 8 weeks. What happens in the long-term is unknown
⇒Participants were untrained. Since untrained individuals are ‘hyper-responsive’ to training stimuli, it’s difficult to establish the true effects of these two set systems
Schoenfeld et al (2017). Figure shows the average weekly volume between the TD and PD set RT programs. Weekly volume was lower with the PD set RT programs. This might of been a cause for similar findings from the study.
My Take On TD and PD sets
If you are a beginner, then I believe TD sets are more than enough to stimulate gains. As a beginner, you are hyper-responsive to training stimuli which means you are likely to respond easily and rapidly to training. However, given that at this stage your ability to handle lots of volume and work loads will be relatively poor, TD sets probably provide an optimal level of work at this stage and thus sufficient levels of mechanical tension and metabolic stresses without compromising recovery. The situation changes as you get more advanced and you need larger workloads to carry on making size and strength progress. This means that you need to generate larger amounts of mechanical tension and metabolic stress through more volume and intensity. PD sets seem a nice way to do this. PD allows you to maintain higher amounts of volume while aiming for higher intensities allowing you to achieve higher levels of mechanical tension and metabolic stress. Although depending on your current levels of work capacity, maintaining high levels of volume and intensities in the same session might be a bit of a challenge. It is something you need to work towards over time!
Although the current study does not fully support PD sets as superior system for maximum muscular hypertrophy, I believe that with more research, the results could change. After all, given previous research and the nature of PD sets, it makes total sense. But only time will tell. I do use PD set systems a lot in my training when I am looking to push my levels of volume and intensity higher and in my experience, it works. It is tougher on recovery, but as you become more experienced, it’s something that is definitely worth a try!