Pyramid Training & Drop-Setting - Both Useless? | Part 2/2 of a Research Update on 3 Popular 'Intensity Techniques'

Machines offer ideal conditions for drop-setting: Switching back and forth between weights is easy and fast.
As I've pointed out in the first part of this article (published on Tuesday), people tend to assume that there is a linear relationship between workout intensity and the gains you're rewarded with. "It just feels effective", or "I feel that I've made greater progress" are characteristic statements you will hear people make even though studies suggest otherwise.

While "no pain, no gain" may be a valid statement, "more pain, more gain" is a motto that may easily burn you out and ruin, not multiply, your gains.
Are you looking for muscle builders for the year 2016? Find inspiration in these articles:

What's the Latest on Failure?

Drop-Sets: Vol-ume ↑, Gains ↕

Pre-Exhaustion = Growth!?

Full ROM ➯ Full Size Gains!

Super-Setting - Yes, but How?

Eccentrics For Excellent Gains?
The above obviously is the worst case scenario, while abusing intensity techniques can impair your gains, the majority of studies with negative study outcomes simply found no differences in long(er)-term outcomes such as lean mass or strength increases; and that's also the the case for the latest study of the effects of "crescent pyramid and drop-set systems" by Vitor Angleri, Carlos Ugrinowitsch, and Cleiton Augusto Libardi (Angleri. 2017).

Just like Nóbrega et al. (2017 | discussed in part 1), Angleri, et al. did a "leg-to-leg" comparison. In contrast to the previously discussed study, however, Angleri's 12-week within-subject design study compared the effects of traditional (TRAD), crescent aka pyramid set (CP) and drop-set (DS) training (note: for each participant, the comparison was TRAD vs. CP or DS). 
  • TRAD: 75% of the 1-RM load in the unilateral 45° leg press and leg extension exercises; 3–5 sets of 6–12 repetitions on each exercise; failure was achieved only during the later sets.
  • CP: ~15 x 65% 1-RM, in the 1st, ~12 x 70% 1-RM in the 2nd, ~10 x 75% 1-RM in the 3rd, 8 x 80% 1-RM in the 4th set and ~6 x 85% 1-RM in the fifth set. 
  • DS: After reaching failure on a given set, the subjects performed up to two drop-sets, for a sequence the scientists describe as follows: "initial load—repetitions to muscle failure—short pause—reduction of 20% of the load—repetitions to muscle failure— short pause—reduction of 20% of the load—repetitions to failure" (Angleri. 2017)
In addition, Angleri's N=32 subjects were not untrained rookies but had 6.4 ± 2.0 years of training experience. Participants were advised to maintain their eating habits, and to consume only the nutritional supplement provided by the P.I., after each RT session (i.e., 30 g Whey Protein–Whey
Select–3VS Nutrition–Brazil); and the total training volume (TTV) was standardized as follows:
Figure 1: The scientists' standardization strategy worked out well: the total training volume in all groups was identical (see bottom line of a discussion of whether that's a good or bad thing).
"[...] we utilized RT records to determine initialtraining load for each participant. Initial TTV was defned as 120% of the TTV that each participant performed in the 2 weeks prior to the commencement of the study. This procedure ensured the absence of abrupt increases or decreases in TTV at the beginning of the study. The TTV performed on each CP or DS session was equalized to the TTV performed on the TRAD session (i.e., trained frst). 70 and 30% of the TTV was performed in the 45° leg press, and leg extension exercises, respectively. The TTV was increased by ~7% every 3 weeks (i.e., 6 RT sessions) for all of the participants" (Angleri. 2017).
Each leg was trained for 12 weeks. All training regimen allowed for 2 minutes of rest between sets and exercises; and the subjects' gains in muscle CSA and architecture, 45° leg press and leg extension 1-RM loads were re-assessed 72 h after the last RT session at post-training.
Why's the within-subject design with its leg-to-leg comparison a problem? There is no conclusive evidence that training one leg will have the other grow, as well. While this may be less of a problem in Angleri's study in which both legs were trained, an interference effect is still possible [If you haven't read up on the evidence and explanation in part 1 of this article, this would be a good time to do just that].
As the scientists point out in the conclusion of their abstract, the results show quite unambiguously that "CP and DS systems do not promote greater gains in strength, muscle hypertrophy and changes in muscle architecture compared to traditional resistance training" (Angleri. 2017).
Figure 2: Maximum dynamic strength (1-RM) in unilateral 45° leg press (LP) and unilateral leg extension (LE), combined measured at baseline (Pre) and after 12 weeks of training (Angleri. 2017).
As you can see in Figure 2 and Figure 3, there's no real doubt that this conclusion is correct. After all, the changes in muscle cross-sectional area, pennation angle ( a measure of changes muscle structure; 45° would be ideal for to produce a strong yet powerful contraction) and fascicle length (not shown in Figure 2) show the same non-significant inter-leg differences as the 1-RM values.
Figure 3: Muscle cross-sectional area (CSA) (a), pennation angle (PA) (b) and fascicle length (FL) (Angleri. 2017)
More specifically, the muscle cross-sectional area (CSA, measure of muscle size) increased significantly and similarly for all protocols (TRAD: 7.6%; CP: 7.5%; DS: 7.8%). The strength gains on both exercises were similar with the values for the leg press and extensions being TRAD =25.9%; CP=25.9%; DS= 24.9% TRAD=16.6%; CP=16.4%; DS=17.1%, respectively.

And even individuality appears not to matter as much, as previous studies have suggested. As the authors point out, resistance training-induced "changes in muscle CSA [usually] have a high between-subject variability (range: 11–30%)".
Figure 4: Individual relative changes (%) in compound maximum dynamic strength (1-RM, unilateral 45° leg press plus unilateral leg extension) (a) and muscle cross-sectional area (CSA) (b) in relation to baseline values for the traditional (TRAD), crescent pyramid (CP), and drop-set (DS) protocols (Angleri. 2017).
In the study at hand, the "between-subject variability was lower than previously reported" and ranged from as little as 1.7 to 13.3%. That's interesting because it addresses the often-heard question of what the results of the study at hand can tell you as an individual; and while there are outliers, the chances to see a 100% increase in size or strength gains according to the training regimen is slim (take another look at Figure 2-3, too, where the pre-post slopes are very similar).
It is unquestionably right that the standardization of the workout volume could have annihilated the benefits of drop-setting which will - just as in Fisher's 2016 study, yield higher total training volumes. Fisher's study does yet also show that this won't translate to increased gains.
So what do we make of the results? If we disregard the previously discussed issues with possible let-to-leg interferences (read up on them), the study at hand provides excellent evidence against the superiority of pyramid and drop-setting - a result that does, unfortunately, line up nicely with previous, similarly disappointing research

Now, one could argue that, without the standardization for total volume, a factor that would not be present in the real world, the results may have been completely different - especially for the drop-set group, where you'd expect subjects to perform more reps and thus move more weight in total. That this doesn't necessarily translate to increased gains, is something you could know from Fisher's 2016, a study which compared training to failure with and without drop-sets, I've discussed in April, last year.

As disappointing as this may sound, the new evidence on "intensity techniques" discussed in this two-part series appears to support the conclusion one could draw based on previous research: it is unlikely that training to failure, pyramid- and drop-sets will boost your gains significantly. To use them within a periodization regime may still make sense. Why's that? For training to failure, I would like to remind you that the jury on training to failure is still "out there", while the weight of evidence is differently distributed for pyramid and drop-set-training. That doesn't mean that you shouldn't use them, though. They did, after all, (a) produce similar gains as traditional training and may, secondly, be a (b) motivational or practical reason, with both of them offering a welcome distraction from the ever-same traditional training regimen and drop-sets allowing you to train at a given volume in a much shorter period of time - something that is unquestionably an argument for those of us who aren't (yet? ;-) paid for going to the gym | Comment on Facebook!
  • Angleri, Vitor, Carlos Ugrinowitsch, and Cleiton Augusto Libardi. "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." European Journal of Applied Physiology (2017): 1-11.
  • Fisher, James P., Luke Carlson, and James Steele. "The Effects of Breakdown Set Resistance Training on Muscular Performance and Body Composition in Young Men and Women." The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research 30.5 (2016): 1425-1432.
  • Nóbrega, Sanmy R., et al. "Effect Of Resistance Training To Muscle Failure Versus Volitional Interruption At High-And Low-Intensities On Muscle Mass And Strength." The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research (2017).
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