In gyms and weight rooms across the U.S., lots of people have learned to strength train the same way: Do a light warm-up set, then add weight on each subsequent set of an exercise, finishing with a single, heaviest set.
This method of adding weight on each set is sometimes called ramping. And when reps are reduced as the weights increase, it's called a "pyramid set."
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For many, this method has another name — 3 sets of 10. And that's a protocol that goes back about 80 years to a World War II doctor in the Army Medical Corps named Thomas DeLorme, per a November 2012 article in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. He had injured soldiers perform 3 sets of 10 reps each, increasing the weight with each set.
The method helped those soldiers recover and build muscle, and subsequently, helped lifters across America start to build lean mass, too. But it's not the only way to structure your workouts. You can lift a similar weight in each set, lift less with each consecutive set or follow several other strategies.
But which is the most effective? Is adding weight on every set the best way to gain muscle? We chatted with experts and combed the latest research to find out.
What Builds Muscle, Anyway?
If your goal is to pack on lean muscle, research says that your strength-training program should be designed to accomplish a few things — in each session and over time.
1. Lift More Than 60 Percent of Your One-Rep Max
Your one-repetition maximum, or one-rep max (1RM), is the most amount of weight you can lift just once for a specific exercise. In studies where people lift the same amount of total weight across a set — referred to as "volume" — lifters pack on more muscle if they lift at least 60 percent of their one-rep max in the set.
In fact, lifters gained the most combined muscle and strength when lifting 80 percent of their one-rep max in each set, compared to lifting 20 or 40 percent, according to a March 2018 study in the European Journal of Sport Science.
To determine what 60 or 80 percent of your one-rep max is, you don't have to lift until you can do just one repetition. Eighty percent of your one-rep max is usually considered the amount you can lift for 8 reps in a set and 60 percent of your one-rep max is closer to a weight you can lift for 15 reps in a set.
2. Lift Close to Failure in Each Set
Training to failure in each set — lifting until you couldn't possibly squeeze out another rep — is a popular way to get the most out of a set. But it can also be dangerous: Training until you're struggling through or failing a rep in a compound exercise, like a squat, can result in injury. It's also not necessary for maximum muscle growth.
Researchers concluded that training almost to failure on each set was as good for gaining muscle as reaching failure, per a March 2019 review in the Strength and Conditioning Journal.
How close? Getting to the point where you're 1 or 2 reps from failing seems to be good enough. So if you could do, at most, 10 reps with the weight you chose, a set of 8 reps should trigger the same muscle-growth response.
3. Maximize Total Volume and Increase It Over Time
In workout terms, "volume" is how much total weight you lift in a session. So if you do 10 squats with 100 pounds, your volume is 1,000 pounds. If you do 5 reps with 200 pounds, your volume is also 1,000 pounds.
Research has shown that when your workout has more volume, you build more muscle. So, if you perform 5 sets of 5 squats at 200 pounds each, your total volume is 5,000 pounds.
But if you increase on each set and do 5 sets of 5 reps with weights of 100, 150, 180, 200 and 225 pounds, your total volume is only 4,275 pounds. Even though you've lifted more on the last set, your overall volume is lower.
To increase muscle growth over time, your volume should increase over time, a seminal October 2010 review in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found. This is a concept called progressive overload, and it works like this: If you're squatting an average of 1,000 total pounds per leg-day workout this month, you'll want to increase that number next month… and the next month… and the next month.
4. Train the Muscle in 10 or More Sets Per Week
Ten's the magic number. When scientists analyzed 15 different studies for a July 2016 review in the Journal of Sports Sciences, they found each training set for a muscle group each week increased muscle growth by 0.37 percent.
There's an upper limit to the number of sets you can train — based on your recovery abilities — but the researchers concluded training a muscle in 10 or more sets a week maximized muscle growth.
The takeaway: Aim for around 10 sets with more than 60 percent of your one-rep max, continued until you're 1 to 2 reps from failure. Try to increase your average total volume for those sets over time.
Does Increasing Weight in Each Set Lead to Maximum Muscle Growth?
The short answer: Only if it maximizes the total volume you lift. In a small January 2017 study from the European Journal of Applied Physiology, scientists studied three different kinds of sets, including pyramid sets, where the weight is increased on each set while the reps are reduced.
Whether lifters increased weight in each set, kept the weight the same across all sets or reduced weight with each subsequent set, the results were the same: They gained the same amount of muscle. (It's worth noting the study examined 32 well-trained men.)
This didn't surprise Cleiton Augusto Libardi, PhD, a professor of physical education at the Universidade Federal São Carlos in Brazil, one of the study's authors. That's because no matter which of the three loading schemes the lifters in the study used, they lifted the same total volume.
"Everything indicates that if one training system is superior to the other, it is not because they have different repetitions, weight or rest interval manipulation strategies, but because one training system had a greater volume of load than another," Libardi tells LIVESTRONG.com.
So, if increasing weight on each set results in you lifting more total volume than you would from other loading schemes, then adding weight will add muscle. If increasing weight on each set results in less overall volume, it will result in less overall muscle gain.
Benefits of Increasing Weight After Each Set
The main reason you might want to increase weight after each set in a workout, according to Libardi, is if you like it.
"For me, the practitioner's preference is the great use of training systems," he says. "People who like to train with more weight can opt for the pyramid system. Those who like less weight and more repetitions, a feeling of fatigue, etc., can opt for the drop set. Those who have less time to train can opt for bi-set, tri-set or superset training."
Increasing each set until you reach your one-, two-, or three-rep max may provide another benefit if you do it once in a while — it can help you know your real "percentage of one-rep max" for designing your sets.
In a November 2017 study from PeerJ: Life and Environment, people who were asked to predict how many reps they could do in a set with certain weights were off by 2 or 3 reps. So, if you're off by the same amount and try to do a set with 2 reps left in the tank, you may actually have 5 reps left.
Disadvantages of Increasing Weight After Each Set
"People tend to compromise form as weight gets heavier," he says. Performing a lift with proper form not only reduces your chances of injury, but it makes sure you're targeting the muscles you want to grow. If you add weight on each set to build up to a two-rep max, "is that double going to be the same quality of work as a set of five or six? Probably not."
Adding weight can also be more mentally taxing, Viada says — which makes a difference. "It's psychologically exhausting," he says. "You need to get a little bit hyped up for [the heavier lifts]. You're really burning a lot of resources — mental and physical — to do something that's not giving you any specific return [as far as muscle gain]."
That psychological work can make it harder to recover, and it may make you less likely to keep your mind in the game for the rest of your workout.
"Unless your goal is max strength, I say don't bother with triples, don't bother with doubles, don't bother with singles. Don't bother getting yourself into that rep range. It's not doing anything magical for you," Viada says.
Other Strategies to Help Structure Your Sets
In almost any loading scheme, you'll increase your weights at least once. Just about every coach or program starts with a light warm-up set of an exercise. Using a lighter weight, you'll perform a set to practice the movement and warm up your muscles so you're primed for your working sets.
After your warm-up set, though, you don't have to increase weight on every subsequent set. Here are some other strategies that might help you maximize your overall volume.
1. Straight Set
In this scheme, after a warm-up set, you'll perform all your sets with the same weight and reps — it could be 5 reps, 8 reps or another number of your choice. To make sure you're getting a muscle-building stimulus, make sure each set comes close to failure. In Viada's opinion, this is the best bet for most lifters.
"If you just want general strength, muscle building and everything else, work your way up to a five-rep max with one rep in reserve," he says. "Warm up, move up to something that's heavy and just do straight sets."
2. Drop Set
This scheme is the opposite of adding weight onto every set. Instead, after a warm-up set, you'd start with your heaviest set, then reduce weight (and increase reps) with each subsequent set.
Drop sets are usually done with much less rest between sets, working each set very close to failure. They're great for people who like that feeling of fatigue or who enjoy longer sets, Libardi says.
3. Wave Loading
As the name suggests, this loading scheme involves loads that change in waves, going from heavy to light to heavy again.
"The idea is that if you move up to a heavy single, or one-rep max, when you drop down, you can do more repetitions at 80 percent [of your one-rep max] right after," Viada says. So, if you do a max-effort squat of 200 pounds, then move down to 160 pounds for your next set, you'll be able to do more reps at 160 than you normally would.
The reason this works is because of something called post-activation potentiation (PAP), where a high-intensity action — like a one-rep max lift — temporarily improves your muscles' ability to contract, which temporarily increases your potential strength, according to Science for Sport.
When you wave load, you work up to these super-heavy lifts, then use the temporary boost in strength to bang out more reps at a lower weight.
This is an advanced technique, though — both physically and mentally. Like any one-rep max lift, you'll need to psych yourself up for each big lift in the wave, which could tire you out for the others, resulting in lower overall volume compared to if you'd just done straight sets.
- T Nation: "Thibaudeau on Ramping"
- Poliquin: "A Look Back, and Ahead, at German Volume Training"
- Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: "Thomas L. DeLorme and the science of progressive resistance exercise"
- European Journal of Sport Science: "Effects of different intensities of resistance training with equated volume load on muscle strength and hypertrophy"
- Strength and Conditioning Journal: "Does Training to Failure Maximize Muscle Hypertrophy?"
- Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: "The Mechanisms of Muscle Hypertrophy and Their Application to Resistance Training"
- Journal of Sports Sciences: "Dose-response relationship between weekly resistance training volume and increases in muscle mass: A systematic review and meta-analysis"
- European Journal of Applied Physiology: "Crescent pyramid and drop-set systems do not promote greater strength gains, muscle hypertrophy, and changes on muscle architecture compared with traditional resistance training in well-trained men"
- PeerJ: Life & Environment: "Ability to predict repetitions to momentary failure is not perfectly accurate, though improves with resistance training experience"
- Science for Sport: "Post-Activation Potentiation"