By Stefan Ianev
While there are many sets and reps schemes for different goals, they can all be categorized into 4 main categories.
One you understand the benefits and drawbacks of each type of loading scheme, you will have a better understanding and appreciation of how and when to program them in, and it will simplify your programming.
So, without further ado here are the 4 main types of loading schemes:
- Ascending Load Schemes
Ascending load schemes involve increasing the load from set to set. As the load increases the reps can either decrease or stay the same. Typically, the first few sets are submaximal and only the last set is taken to failure or close to it.
An example would be an ascending pyramid where you increase the weight and decrease the reps each set, or the DeLorme method where you increase the weight each set but keep the reps constant.
Figure 1. Example of a classic pyramid beginning with a couple of warm-up sets then the first working set beginning at an RPE of 7 out 10. Only the last set is taken to failure or close to it.
Increasing the weight and keeping the reps the same may not make much sense to a lot of people but this is typically how most pro bodybuilders train. They pyramid the weight up each set while keeping their reps constant.
The reason for that is because once you work up to a high level of strength you need more submaximal sets to prepare your body for your top weight, even when working in moderate rep ranges. Ascending load schemes are the preferred method for advanced lifters especially on the big compound lifts where they are moving more weight.
Additionally, because advanced lifters are quite strong and they can generate greater intensity each set, they don’t need to take too many of their sets to muscle failure. One to two all out sets per exercise usually does the job.
- Descending Load Schemes
Descending load schemes involve decreasing the load from set to set. This is typically to account for fatigue when you are keeping the reps constant and each set is taken to failure, or when the reps are increasing from set to set.
An example would be a reverse pyramid where you increase the reps and reduce the weight each set or the Oxford method where each set is taken to failure and you have to reduce the load to stay within the target rep range. Drop sets would be another example of a descending load scheme.
Descending load schemes are generally more taxing than ascending load schemes and in my opinion are best used sparingly on isolation exercises when you are fully warmed up.
The argument for descending load schemes is that you can hit your heaviest weight first when you are fresh, but from my experience and that of many other top coaches, if you go to failure too soon in your workout, you significantly limit the overall volume you can handle.
I used to train like that earlier in my career, and I found that once I stopped taking each set to failure and started doing more submaximal sets and working up to only one all out set, my results were significantly better.
- Constant Load Schemes
Constant load schemes involve maintaining the same load across all your sets. The first couple of sets are generally a few reps short of failure, and by the last set you are approaching failure due to cumulative fatigue.
An example of a constant load scheme would be the 10×10 or 8×8 method. However, you can apply this concept to any load scheme such as 3×10, 4×8, 5×6 etc. Basically, if you can hit the target reps for all your sets with the same weight then you can increase the weight at your next workout.
The constant load method is ideal for beginners because they require more repeated efforts with the same load. They also don’t need a lot of sets to work up to their top weight. This method can also be effective for advanced lifters to get move volume on their supplementary movements once they are properly warmed up.
- Hybrid Load Schemes
Hybrid load schemes involve a combination of any of the above methods. For example, you can pyramid the weight up in the first few sets of an exercise with an ascending loading scheme, then either pyramid back down or maintain a constant load for the remaining sets.
The first scenario would be an example of an ascending-descending pyramid while the second would be an example of a flat pyramid. Both are great methods for an advanced lifter to prepare their body for their heavier sets by pyramiding the weight up, then focusing on getting in more volume.
Figure 2. Example of a flat pyramid for hypertrophy beginning with a warm-up set and working up to a constant load at an RPE of 8 out 10. By the last set the RPE will reach 9-10 out of 10 with that load due to cumulative fatigue.
I like to use the flat pyramid method when I am feeling burned out from working up to a maximum weight each session and trying to hit a PB. Instead of pyramiding up to a max weight, I will pyramid up to a submaximal weight and get in more volume. After spending a couple of workouts on that weight and increasing my work capacity I am then ready to go up in weight again.
The flat pyramid can also be a great method for intermediate lifters on their main movement because they don’t require that many primer sets, and they can benefit from more repeated efforts with the same weight.
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