Why Every Strength Training Routine Should Be a ‘Descending Pyramid’

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Photo: Getty Images/RichLegg

Lifting weights has a long list of benefits, but one of the biggest risks of either doing it in improper form or going too heavy is that you can wind up with back pain. According to a chiropractor, there's another factor in strength training workouts that can also put your back at risk: the number of reps that you're doing throughout your session.

"Sometimes, the amount of weight that you're lifting can be problematic for a back injury, but the other factor that matters is how long the body is under that stress," says Kirstie Griffiths, DC, a chiropractor and yoga who teaches yoga programs that help with back pain. "The body starts to fatigue as you go through a certain number of reps, and some people get to a point in a workout where they can feel when their form is starting to come out of alignment." Her take? This is an indication that you should stop doing the exercise. Otherwise, your back (among other parts of your body) can get injured.

According to Dr. Griffiths, the ideal strength training workout should follow a "descending pyramid," which means that you're doing the highest amount of reps near the beginning of the workout—when your body is the strongest—and then working down from there. A typical workout does the exact opposite: You tend to begin with a smaller amount of reps, then work your way up and do the most at the end. "If you can't maintain a safe position [in the exercise], you'll face more of a risk of injury," she says. "But you're the strongest at the very beginning of your workout when your muscles haven't fatigued yet."

You know the feeling of working through those last kettlebell squats in your workout finisher? Your legs are weak and shaky, your arms feel like a zillion pounds, and it's harder with each and every rep to keep your chest up as you move up and down. It all boils down to the importance of form, which becomes increasingly difficult to maintain when all of your muscles are reaching their limits. "If you're doing a lot of reps in a row, especially towards the end of a workout, as you get closer to the end number, things become more risky," says Dr. Griffiths.

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To keep your spine as healthy and happy as possible, switch up your strength workouts and knock out those high-rep sets near the beginning of your sesh. Not only will your back be safer in the descending pyramid structure, but you'll also probably crush your workout since you're getting the harder lifting out of the way first.

Try this at-home kettlebell workout to work on your lower body and glute strength:

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