The Size Pyramid

Break All the Training Rules
by John Paul Catanzaro

Rule #1: Doing high rep sets at the beginning of a workout will increase lactate levels and inhibit the recruitment of high-threshold motor units thereby decreasing strength.

Rule #2: Pyramiding the weight from high reps to low reps crosses too many borders and confuses the body. Keep the intensity within a narrow range.

Rule #3: There is an inverse relationship between the number of maximum reps performed and the rest interval. Lower reps require more rest, and vice versa.

Rule #4: Workouts should not exceed one hour to optimize anabolic hormone levels and minimize catabolic hormone levels.

Rule #5: Keep the tempo slow and controlled to minimize momentum and decrease the risk of injury.

Rule #6: The greater the training age, the lower the average number of reps per set. Advanced level trainees with many years of training experience should use low rep brackets predominantly in their workouts.

Rule #7: There is an inverse relationship between reps and sets. The higher the reps, the less sets required and vice versa.

Rule #8: Natural trainees should not train more than 2 days in a row, and split training (i.e., more than one workout a day) should be used sparingly.

Rule #9: Most individuals will make progress on a program for 3-4 weeks before they stagnate. On average, change the routine every month.

Rule #10: Carbohydrates are not required to build muscle. You can put on plenty of size and strength following a low-carb approach.

For the most part I agree with these rules and advocate them on a regular basis, but what would happen if you did the opposite. Let’s go on a journey and find out.

The Birth

JP and son.It all started early this year. My son was born in December of 2009, and a month later we started getting visitors.

A couple that we have been friends with for years came over with their kids one Sunday afternoon. It was a very interesting visit to say the least. Something was wrong between them – there was no communication and you could tell they were having problems. She was not happy, and he had gained some weight and seemed depressed. If there was ever a classic example of “andropause”, it was my buddy sitting across from me going through a mid-life crisis. I had never seen him this down or out of shape. It was a pretty sad scene!

Fast Forward Seven Months

Now fast forward to the summer of 2010. This time it was our turn to visit our friends. We had not seen them for quite awhile and I had no idea of what to expect.

It was a rare Sunday afternoon – the weather was overcast and cold. We had great weather all summer long except for this particular day.

Our friends own a pool. When we arrived, their kids were swimming so my daughters had to join them.

No problem, but I wasn’t planning to go in with them. It was freezing and I did not bring my bathing suit, but my 5 year old insisted that she wanted to go in the deep end. Now that was a problem because she could barely swim! There was no way she was going in there without an adult.

All of a sudden, my buddy (let’s call him G from here on in) pops out of nowhere and says, “I’ll go in with them, John Paul.”

It was weird! G looked different – a lot better and he had this huge smile on his face.

With much relief, I exclaimed, “Great! Be my guest.”

A couple minutes later, G returned and then things got even weirder…

Here’s my buddy standing in front of me in a Speedo. (That is not a typo, and apparently they still exist!) I’m looking at this guy – he is completely jacked and he wants to show it off!

I said, “Holy cow, G, you’ve put some muscle on!"

To which he replied, “Yeah, I’ve been lifting quite a bit over the last few months. I’m in the gym at least 5 or 6 times a week.”

“What about your joints?” I asked. G used to have quite a few problems with his knees, shoulders and elbows. He was no slouch in the weight room though. At a buck eighty-five, he’s benched 4 plates a side and apparently he can still do it, but he gave up lifting a few years ago because his joints were just killing him.

“Well, I tell you,” said G, “I don’t lift too heavy any more. I train 2 body parts a day and keep the reps fairly high, anywhere between 10-20 per set. I always get a good pump. I do enough sets and my body keeps growing, and the best part is that I’ve had no problem with my joints at all!”

Now get this, G is half French and half Portuguese, so you can’t say he’s got great genetics! Obviously, he was doing something right with his training. Not only was he a different person physically, but he was on a whole new level mentally and emotionally. The guy had really transformed himself and I was happy for him.

You know success leaves clues and it got me thinking, maybe G is on to something (or maybe G is on something, who knows?) I had recently experienced some decent results with my training as well, and I wondered if I could combine the two experiences to form a super potent plan.

In order to continue the journey, we need to take a Pulp Fiction moment and go back in time. Bear with me.

Rewind Two Weeks

It was the beginning of August and we were heading up to the cottage for a week. Just prior to the trip, I decided to induce a state of “short-term” overtraining with my infamous Get Lean Quick Scheme. I trained 6 days straight on that program and it never fails, no matter how much you eat or drink, the first few days away are always fun. As you supercompensate, those muscles fill up like balloons – you grow and you look good! After that, it’s a different story.

We returned home on a Saturday. Sunday is when we met up with G and his family. Monday I intended to start a new routine. And that’s when I came up with a plan. You with me so far?

I had been doing quite a bit of relative strength training for awhile using fairly low reps and slow eccentrics, which generally requires more recovery time. It was time for a change.

I had experienced some nice success training more frequently just prior to my holidays and G inspired me to go a little lighter with the weight, which would permit a greater frequency. Since the load would be lower, I would compensate with greater acceleration to maintain a high force output (i.e., force = mass x acceleration) and encourage the involvement of fast-twitch fibers. That means using a fast concentric and eccentric tempo – still controlled, but fast!

Two pairs of exercises per workout (4 exercises total) and two body parts a day is perfect. I would sequence the exercises in an antagonistic fashion, and make sure to pick as many of the big boys as possible. The success of this plan lies in exercise selection – there are some single-joint movements, but the emphasis is on multi-joint movements.

The workouts would be split in this manner:

Chest/Back #1 → Legs/Abs #1 → Arms #1
Chest/Back #2 → Legs/Abs #2 → Arms #2
Chest/Back #3 → Legs/Abs #3 → Arms #3
Chest/Back #4 → Legs/Abs #4 → Arms #4

The 3-day split pattern of chest/back, legs/abs, and arms is repeated 4 times for a total of 12 different workouts. This provides plenty of variety and allows enough recovery for growth. (By the way, there is plenty of work for shoulders on this plan as you soon will discover.)

The frequency is 3 workouts in 4 or 5 days. Always include a rest day following arms to separate the two upper body workouts. Depending on your schedule and recovery ability, you may need to insert a rest day before the arm workout as well. I encourage you to try the 3 days on, 1 day off approach if you can. As daunting as that frequency may seem, you may be pleasantly surprised with your performance and the subsequent outcome. Try it. If it’s too much, add another day of rest.

Two key ingredients for hypertrophy are volume and variety, and the rationale for this plan is as follows:

a. Volume – pick the right exercises and present enough sets to grow, and
b. Variety – there are plenty of exercises in the entire routine NOT in one workout, and a wide number of reps are used to hypertrophy different fibers.

Here’s what the program looks like:

Day 1
A1) 45º Incline Db Press (pron)
A2) Wide-Grip Pull-Up
B1) Flat J-Press
B2) Seated Cable Row (neutral)
 
Day 7
A1) 50º Incline Bb Press
A2) One-Arm Row
B1) Standing Cable Crossover
B2) Wide-Grip Pulldowns (pron)
 
Day 2
A1) Back Squat
A2) Lying Leg Curl
B1) Romanian Deadlift
B2) Sicilian Crunch
 
Day 8
A1) Front Squat
A2) Glute-Ham Raise
B1) Low Cable Pull-In
B2) Standing Calf Raise
 
Day 3
A1) Parallel-Bar Dips
A2) Mid-Incline Hammer Curls
B1) Standing Military Press
B2) Seated Zottman Curls
 
Day 9
A1) Decline Close-Grip Bench Press
A2) Mid-Incline Dumbbell Curls
B1) Standing Rope Pressdown
B2) Standing Cable Curls
 
Day 4
A1) Bent-Over EZ-Bar Row (sup)
A2) 30º Incline Db Press (neutral)
B1) Sternum Pulldowns (neutral)
B2) Flat Rope Flyes (pron)
 
Day 10
A1) Close Neutral-Grip Chin-Ups
A2) Seated Db Press (neutral)
B1) Seated Cable Row (pron)
B2) Flat Db Press (neutral)
 
Day 5
A1) Trap-Bar Deadlift
A2) Decline Sit-Ups
B1) Russian Good Mornings
B2) Hanging Leg Raises
 
Day 11
A1) Bent-Knee Deadlift
A2) High-Pulley Crunch
B1) Standing Good Mornings
B2) Side Flexion
 
Day 6
A1) Low-Pulley Reverse Curls
A2) Close-Grip Bench Press
B1) Close-Grip Chin-Ups
B2) Decline Db Triceps Extensions
 
Day 12
A1) Seated Preacher Db Curl
A2) Lying EZ-Bar Triceps Extension
B1) Standing EZ-Bar Reverse Curls
B2) Kneeling Rope French Press
 

Here are the general guidelines:

"A" Exercises: 6-10 sets, 60-90 second rest intervals
"B" Exercises: 3-5 sets, 30-60 second rest intervals

If you can break up the A and B exercises into 2 sessions, it's even better.

For reps, use an ascending-descending pyramid scheme. In simple terms, you start with a light weight and high reps. Increase the load and decrease the reps each set as you climb up the pyramid until you reach a peak which is no less than 5 reps on this plan, and then do the opposite coming down. The actual numbers will vary depending on the individual and exercise. For instance, you can start as high as 20 reps with back squats and dips, but good luck getting that high on bent-knee deadlifts or pull-ups – your grip will give on the former and if you are 200+ pounds doing that many reps of pull-ups then I can guarantee your form is terrible! Of course, use straps when doing high-rep deadlifts but 12-15 reps on the high-end is enough for those exercises.

Make sure to descend after you reach a peak. You may take up to 6 sets to climb up, and then only 4 sets to go back down. That’s fine. I've noticed that sometimes performance declines a bit on the way down (due to fatigue) but sometimes it actually improves (due to postactivation potentiation). The back-off sets have an anabolic effect so do not neglect them.

The key is every set must be taken to failure - do not leave any reps in reserve!

With experience you will know how to manipulate the loading parameters. Below are some sample progressions.

Sample Back Squat Progression

Workout #1: 225 x 20, 255 x 15, 275 x 12, 295 x 10, 315 x 8, 295 x 10, 275 x 12, 255 x 15, 225 x 20
Workout #2: 235 x 20, 265 x 15, 285 x 12, 305 x 10, 325 x 8, 305 x 10, 285 x 12, 265 x 15, 235 x 20
Workout #3: 245 x 20, 275 x 15, 315 x 10, 335 x 6, 315 x 10, 275 x 15, 245 x 20
Workout #4: 255 x 20, 285 x 15, 325 x 10, 345 x 6, 325 x 10, 285 x 15, 255 x 20

Sets will decrease as you go on. Make sure you have an oxygen tank nearby!

Sample Pull-Up Progression

Workout #1: BW x 12, 20 x 10, 40 x 8, 40 x 7, 20 x 9, BW x 10
Workout #2: 20 x 11, 40 x 9, 60 x 7, 60 x 6, 40 x 8, 20 x 10
Workout #3: 40 x 10, 50 x 8, 70 x 6, 70 x 5, 50 x 7, 40 x 9
Workout #4: 50 x 9, 60 x 8, 70 x 7, 70 x 6, 60 x 7, 50 x 8

You tend to drop a rep or two with the same loads on the way down the pyramid. If the drop is 3 reps or more, terminate the exercise for the day.

Sample "B" Exercise Progression

Workout #1: 20, 15, 12, 15, 20 reps
Workout #2: 15, 12, 10, 12, 15 reps
Workout #3: 12 ,10, 8, 10, 12 reps
Workout #4: 10, 8, 6, 8, 10 reps

Ballistic Does Not Mean Ugly!

For tempo, all concentric reps are performed explosively and the eccentric is a fast but controlled 1-2 second lowering – 1 second for short range movements like arm curls and extensions, and 2 seconds for long range movements like squats and chin-ups. Do not drop like a bomb and do not bounce at the bottom.

As loads increase, velocity of movement may decrease but the intent must always be explosive. Form does not need to deteriorate just because you are going fast. If your form does deteriorate, terminate the set. You do not throw a punch hoping to connect. You throw a punch with the intent to connect! Every repetition you perform should be under control at any speed.

Rather Than Question It, DO IT!

TC once said when you write a training article make it apply to 2/3 of the population, 2/3 of the time. For the third of the population that this article does not apply to, try to take something from it nonetheless. For instance, you may not understand the pyramid schemes presented and perhaps the reps are too high for your liking, then use the exercises as a template and incorporate your own set-rep scheme. If there is an exercise or two that you are not a fan of or do not have access to then change it – substitute a suitable alternative. Perhaps the frequency is too much, then insert a rest day or two in between. If you’ve been lifting slow, try making your reps more dynamic.

All sets are taken to failure. I know, you’re going to fry your CNS, it will decrease strength, you should manage fatigue, Brett Favre may or may not retire this year, blah, blah, blah. Just do it!

Train as often as possible – 3 days in a row and even twice a day if you can. I know, natural trainees with a life can not recover, you’re going to fry your nervous system again, bring on the sickness, you will get weaker, your mother-in-law will move in with you, blah, blah, blah. Just do it!

Ride That Horse

I’ve had a few workouts that were over 90 minutes in length, one even lasted two hours. I wasn’t making friends, I was just really into it! The BCAAs and glutamine made sure I wasn’t catabolizing too much tissue and really helped reduce any post-workout soreness. Then again, I had one workout where after my first set, performance dropped like a bomb, so I stopped. No big deal. I came back the following workout even stronger.

You have to listen to your body. When the horse wants to gallop, let the reigns go! If you’re not up to it one day, don’t force the issue. The key is to make progress every workout. It may mean only one set that day as long as you’ve done more than the previous workout. If not, you’re not ready to train. Rest one more day and try again tomorrow.

Also, up your calories with this plan, and if you have been following a low-carb approach, up your carbs as well. Don’t go crazy – stick to better choices: instead of white rice have wild rice; instead of potatoes go with yams; instead of instant oatmeal use steel-cut oats; etc. Make sure to eat fruits and vegetables from all colors of the rainbow, but don’t be afraid to spike insulin every once and awhile with high-glycemic carbs, particularly post-workout. Insulin is quite anabolic – not only does it drive more nutrients into the muscle cell for growth, but it will also reduce sex-hormone-binding globulin to free up more testosterone for growth as well.

Jump to the Present

I was fully expecting a lightning bolt to the head on this program. Instead, it was like a pat on the back from Thor himself. I was not laid out on a hospital bed receiving chemo. I did not look like an anorexic marathoner with a pot-belly. And I did not resort to the pink dumbbells by the end of this little experiment. I packed on some muscle. I felt strong. And I had plenty of energy!

Believe me, you could count on one hand the average number of reps I generally perform in a set, and many times I could say my full name twice before completing a repetition! So this strategy was bit of a shock to my system – not like your kid accidently hitting you in the arm with an electronic fly swatter after you repeatedly told her to put it down, it’s not a toy – but a pleasant a shock, one that stimulates muscle growth (not the hairs on the back of your neck!) 

I’ll tell you what really grew on this program – my arms, shoulders, chest, back, thighs, abs, calves, forearms, and ego, nothing else. What really caught peoples’ attention, though, were my chest and arms. I received a lot of compliments there. And just the other day my massage therapist said that she will stop working on me if my legs get any bigger, so I plan to do even more leg work just to piss her off!

Break The Monotony!

It’s like a long-term relationship. At the beginning, things are amazing and there is some serious passion. After awhile things get stale and monotonous. This program is like that fling on the side with a super hot and adventurous chick. You know what I’m talking about.

After the fun, you can go back to relative strength training with tight tempo and duration restrictions. It’s the right thing to do, I guess. But every once and awhile when you need some excitement, you can call on the pyramid program and it will take you to new heights (pun intended).

By the way, G says he’s got all kinds of chicks hitting on him at the gym now, even with his wedding ring on! Just thought I’d share that.

Sometimes you want to walk in the house with your shoes on, or eat in the family room, or dispose your perishables in the regular garbage bin, and sometimes you need to break the rules when lifting.

Up until this point, I have experimented on myself as I do with any novel training method. Just recently, my experiment has expanded to some of my colleagues and so far, a thumbs up! Now it’s time to test the plan with the brotherhood at T-Nation. If you’ve been working on the myofibrillar end of hypertrophy, try going sarcoplasmic. It can stimulate new growth. Give it a shot.

I’ve been on this plan now for two months and I’m still going strong. I really enjoy this routine. If you plan to try it, I figure it will take you until the New Year before it’s time to change.

I want to leave you with one more piece of advice: work hard! I repeat, WORK HARD!!! I have to admit, there were a couple times coming down that pyramid that I wimped out. Then again, I’ve had some absolute killer workouts where I really pushed myself. Picture someone holding a gun to your head, or worse to the head of someone you love, and you will get out those extra reps. After the set, picture yourself kicking the shit of that guy! I promise you, if you truly give it your all, you will be rewarded for your efforts. Best of luck with your training.

About The Author

John Paul Catanzaro is a CSEP Certified Exercise Physiologist with a Specialized Honours Bachelor of Science degree in Kinesiology and Health Science. He owns and operates a private facility in Richmond Hill, Ontario providing training and nutritional consulting services. John Paul has authored two books, The Elite Trainer (2011) and Mass Explosion (2013), and has released two DVDs, Stretching for Strengthening (2003) and Warm-Up to Strength Training (2005), which have sold copies worldwide, been featured in several magazines, and have been endorsed by many leading experts. In 2013, John Paul released two new webinars, Strength Training Parameters and Program Design and Body Composition Strategies, providing the latest cutting-edge information to fitness professionals. For additional information, visit his website at www.CatanzaroGroup.com or call 905-780-9908.

[This article originally appeared in Testosterone Nation Magazine on November 15, 2010 and can be accessed online at www.t-nation.com.]

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