When it comes to resistance training, there are a multitude of approaches to the set and rep scheme of a training day or cycle: there are velocity-based and percentage-based approaches, and there is also auto-regulation. Depending with whom you speak, you might hear all kinds of rationale for each.
While I have surely used all three throughout my career in coaching — and other methods in between — when it comes to training myself, I tend to go with the most reasonable compromise of simplicity and effectiveness. Traditionally, this involves some form of auto-regulatory work, or sometimes a very simple percentage-based approach (such as the 5/3/1 method, which is not only simple, but mind-blowingly effective).
One rep scheme that also falls into this category of simple yet effective is one that I came up with over time on my own (I think?) through trial and error: when explaining it to others, I have called it the off-set pyramid approach. I am certain that I borrowed this (if not in full, then in parts) from somewhere, or been influenced by someone surely. So, for not being to cite who or where, I apologize! But, below is a brief run-down of the protocol.
For what it is worth, this method has helped me personally put up some decent relative strength numbers over the years (DB Pressing 110’s for 6-8 reps; Squatting 350 lbs; RDL’ing 300+; all at 145-155 lbs body weight). Sure, N=1, but I have also utilized this with athletes over the years and seen promising results as well.
Off-Set Pyramid Protocol — Overview
- Style: auto-regulatory approach
- Capacity Trained: strength development
- Duration: 6-week cycles
- Number of Sets: 4-5 working sets after warm-ups
- Exercises: Primary and Secondary “Compound”, Foundational Movements (e.g. Squat, Lunge, Hinge, Push, Pull)
Week 1 (A) – 6/4/4/4/6 (24 total reps)
Week 2 (B) – 4×5 (20 total reps)
Week 3 (A) – 5/3/3/3/5 (19 total reps)
Week 4 (B) – 4×4 (16 total reps)
Week 5 (A) – 4/2/2/2/4 (14 total reps)
Week 6 (B) – 4×3 (12 total reps)
Now for the execution…
You’ll probably notice the pattern: each week alternates between (A) a pyramid scheme and (B) a flat-loaded scheme.
Every week we reduce the volume with the goal of gradually raising intensity.
(A) Weeks are in a pyramid, however here is where we get the “off-set pyramid” name:
The goal is to select a weight for the first set that you can hit quite comfortably (e.g. maybe 2-3 reps left ‘in the tank’). Then, as the reps descend, the plan is to increase weight incrementally on sets 2 and 3. Finally, on the final set, the idea is to drop back down in weight, however not to the original weight from Set 1, but heavier (at most 1-2 reps left in the tank. Below is an example:
- Set 1 — 6 @ 185 lbs (2 reps in reserve)
- Set 2 — 4 @ 200 lbs (2 reps in reserve)
- Set 3 — 4 @ 205 lbs (~2 reps in reserve)
- Set 4 — 4 @ 210 lbs (1 rep in reserve)
- Set 5 — 6 @ 195 lbs (0 reps in reserve)
Much like the 5/3/1 method of which I am so fond, you really just have one truly challenging set on your (A) weeks — two at the most.
(B) Weeks are flat-loaded, so the intention is to choose a weight that you can realistically maintain for all 4 sets. Most times, this can be something in the vicinity of your 2nd or 3rd set of the proceeding (A) Week. From the example above, the goal would be to use ~200 lbs for the entire 4×5 that day (which should keep 1-2 reps in reserve at all times; challenging, but doable).
While (A) weeks only involve 1-2 challenging sets, the idea is for your (B) weeks to have 3-4 moderately challenging sets. I like to think of it this way: (A) weeks are for getting a ‘taste’ of intensity, while (B) weeks are for trying to lock in and maintain heavier loads.
As we alternate across the weeks, the total weekly volume-load (i.e. total work) decreases, while the average intensity (weight on the bar) will increase. Below is a chart depicting sample data.
Depending on the athlete’s capacity for strength-work, you can back down the total work by omitting one set per week; on (A) weeks, I would recommend removing one of the middle sets.
If an athlete needs an unloading week, you can either add a week, or just reduce the sets from four to three in Week 6 (i.e. do 3×3). In this way, the volume is reduced quite a bit, leaving room for intensity still as tolerated.
As mentioned prior, there are plenty of ways to approach strength development. This just happens to be a method that has worked well for myself and various athletes with which I have worked with in the past.