Thursday, May 14, 2009

High-tension multiple sets for the upper body - By Ken Mannie

Ken Mannie is the Head Strength/Conditioning Coach at Michigan State University. email:

One of the hotly debated topics in strength training concerns the number of recommended sets for each exercise. We continue to believe that one to three properly performed sets of any strength-training movement will provide the optimal stimulus for increased strength and muscular size.

Variety is a critical ingredient in every recipe and one way to incorporate a new twist is by manipulating the set paradigm. This approach will help keep the workouts fresh and challenging - paramount variables in the year-round activity.

We have been particularly successful with a plan called "descending pyramids." The pyramid involves three sets of an exercise for a particular body area, with each set being properly performed in an all-out manner (i.e., to momentary muscular fatigue).
The three sets descend in target reps (10-8-6) and usually in weight as well. At best, the weight remains the same for all three sets, due to the intensity of effort for each set along with the prescribed recovery between sets (1 1/2 to 2 minutes).

This training alteration allows us to control the volume of the workout and to emphasize designated areas of the body through the course of the training week. With that brief overview in mind, we can dwell on some of the finer coaching points and the implementation of the descending pyramids (DP).


The first step in designing an upper body DP is to determine whether to target the primary pressing muscles (i.e., the anterior shoulder region, chest, and triceps) or the primary pulling muscles (i.e., the posterior shoulder region, upper back, and biceps) of the torso. From that point, it is merely a matter of placing the movements in an orderly sequence.

Normally, we choose three exercises for the DP program, determine the order of execution, and insert one set of an antagonist
movement after each to provide some work for the opposing muscle groups. For example, if we want to target the pressing muscles, the DP could be set up in the following manner: Bench Press (10-8-6), Lat Pulldown (8), Seated Military Press (10-8-6), Seated Row (8), Incline Press (10-8-6), and Dumbbell Row (8). On the next workout, we would probably choose to emphasize the pulling muscles in our DP. It would look like this: Lat Pulldown (10-8-6), Bench Press (8), Seated Row (10-8-6), Seated Military Press (8), Dumbbell Row (10-8-6), and Incline Press (8).

As you can see, if the DP workout has a "press" emphasis we would insert one set of a "pull" exercise between pressing pyramids. If the workout has a "pull" emphasis, we would insert one set of a "press" exercise between pulling pyramids.
This enables us to highlight certain areas and movements without completely abandoning a stimulus to the musculature
on the opposite side of the torso. The specific exercises used are a matter of personal choice - we recommend as much variety in movement selection as the equipment allows.


Anther advantage of this system is that it affords the opportunity to include multiple sets in the program without turning the training sessions into a marathon. Each of these routines involves 12 total upper body sets. Even when performed in conjunction with a lower body routine, the entire workout should take no more than an hour.

Other than the multiple set factor, the basic difference between this and our regular high intensity routines is that we perform fewer total exercises. In other words, we sacrifice a few exercises in order to perform more sets of selected ones.

By changing the press/pull emphasis on a workout to workout basis, we can still balance the work being performed for the anterior and posterior aspects of the torso by the end of the training week.


The frequency of inserting a DP workout is really up to the coach's discretion. For some, it may fit very well with their current system and they may want to use the concept regularly. We choose to use it on an occasional basis, as more of a change-up to our base routines.

One rule we always follow, however, is that if we perform a "press" DP somewhere during the training week, we make sure to perform a "pull" DP before the end of the week. This helps us stay true to the balance concept mentioned earlier.

Movement speed for all of the exercises should be smooth and controlled so that the involved musculature - not momentum - is forced to perform the work.

For the sake of accountability, all workouts should be recorded and a plan for progressive overload should be put in place. Whenever the target reps for these routines are achieved for two consecutive workouts, we add 2.5 to 5 pounds to a set.

As with all strength-training activities, proper spotting and supervision by qualified coaching personnel are mandatory.

We hope this variation of high-tension strength training helps keep your program enjoyable and challenging for your athletes. Let us know if you have any questions on this or any other aspect of our program.

Ken Mannie, Strength/Conditioning Coach, Michigan State University
, Duffy Daugherty
Football Building, East Lansing
, MI 48824 (517) 355-7514.
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