October 14, 2013 / Reverse Pyramiding
Try making your first set your heaviest set.
Generally, most people progressively increase the weight load during a workout. For example, if someone is doing 3 sets of 8 repetitions on the bench press, they often start at a lower weight than they end up at. Their workout might look like so:
Set 1: 8x 135lbs
Set 2: 8x 155lbs
Set 3: 8x 165lbs
I used to workout this way, but now for most compound muscle group exercises I do the exact opposite: I start heavy and gradually lower weight on future sets. This concept is called reverse pyramiding and I believe it is more effective than the traditional increasing in weight as you go approach.
One benefit of reverse pyramiding is that your muscles are fresh for the most difficult part of the workout. Our body adapts to lifting heavy weight not only by increasing the size of muscle fibers but also by adapting our nervous system to deal with the heavy weight. You have a higher ability to lift heavier weight for more reps in the early going, which means more opportunity for your body to adapt to a more difficult lift than if you save the heavy lifts for last.
Another important benefit is that smaller muscle fatigue does not interfere with larger muscle activation. The last thing you want when trying to work the large pectoral muscles is for you to fail to lift the weight because your forearms are fatigued from the grip work in previous sets. Difficulty is not often correlated to effectiveness. If you are targeting large muscle groups, ensure that they are the ones that limit your ability to lift the weight, not small muscle groups that are disproportionally fatigued.
The main downside of reverse pyramiding in my opinion is an increased risk of injury. Starting without an ample warm up could lead to a higher risk of injury when you are pushing your body to the max on the very first set. Warming up is always important, but it is especially important if you plan on trying reverse pyramiding.
At the end of the day, for muscle mass gains, lifting heavy weight with proper diet is the most efficient way to go. However, if you want to try mixing up your routine and optimizing what you do, try reverse pyramiding.