Pyramid Sets Are Bad for Strength Gains

May 7, 2008

Pyramid sets are widely recommended in most gyms and do have their place, but this isn’t the quickest route to gaining strength.

Pyramid sets are great for exhausting the muscle and building mass, but what if your goal is muscle definition? I will recommend a better approach.

pyramids and sphinx in cairo egypt

[The Great Pyramids near Cairo, Egypt. This is one of those “places to see before you die”. Damn we live on an amazing planet!]

What Exactly are Pyramid Sets?

I think most of you know what I’m talking about, but here is a quick reminder. Doing a lift in a “pyramid set” fashion is when you start with a light weight and do it for 10-12 reps, then increase the weight each do the next 4-5 sets with less and less reps.

So you might hop on a bench and do a set of 12 with 135, a set of 10 with 185, a set of 8 with 205, a set of 6 with 225, then a “pump out” set with as many reps as possible with 135.

Pyramid sets don’t require you to follow this exact rep range, I’m just using these as an example of a typical pyramid scheme that is common.

Why Have Pyramid Sets Been So Popular?

The logic behind pyramid sets makes sense. You start out with a light weight, which helps insure that you don’t pull a muscle and you end up with a heavy weight to gain strength.

This is a great way to work both fast twitch and slow twitch fibers, which will ensure maximum muscle growth if a strategic diet plan is followed as well. It is a great way to build mass, but not the best way to gain strength.

“Jack of All Trades Master of None”

The problem with doing a wide variety of reps is that you will never be great in any specific rep range.

If you want to get good at low reps, practice lifting low reps…If you want to get better at high reps then stick in that rep range. Think about world class runners…how many athletes are good at both 100 meter sprints and marathons?

The answer is none! It really makes a lot of sense if you think about it!

What About Warming Up With Lighter Weights?

The big mistake I see a lot of people make is that they grab a light weight for a warm up and move the weight at lightning speed for 10-15 reps. The problem with this is that this doesn’t prepare your nervous system properly to deliver a strong impulse to the muscle when you hit your heavy low rep sets.

If you are doing sets of 5, grab a light weight and lift it for only 5 reps. This is a way to warm up with a lighter weight, but still staying within the 5 rep range.

Try to Do All Sets at The Same Speed for the Same Rep Range

So let’s say that you are warming up with a couple of lighter sets of 5 reps. When you grab that light weight, lift it “like it is heavy”. Tense the muscles hard and lift it at the same slower velocity you lift when the weight is heavy.

I like to pretend that I’m an actor and I’m trying to make this lighter weight look heavy for a movie clip. What will happen is that you are preparing your muscles and nervous system properly for the heavier sets.

Doing a fast set of 10-15 when you are eventually going to lift a slow sets of 5 is foolish…it is like jogging 10 miles each day in preparation for a 100 meter sprint.

If You Have Been Doing Pyramid Sets, You Will Love This!

I spent my first 10 years of lifting doing pyramid sets. I always got sore and gained a lot of mass, but I would have a much tougher time gaining strength on a consistent basis.

Pyramid sets are great for gaining mass, but aren’t the best when it comes to gaining strength. As soon as I adopted a true strength training program that avoided pyramids, all my lifts went up quickly.

You will be blown away at how much more effective this “focused” approach is compared to doing pyramid sets. Give it a try!

----> (New) Facebook Comments..."Cause all the cool kids are doin' it!"

{ 39 comments… read them below or add one }

Kevan May 7, 2008 at 4:24 am

Rusty, great post! I have a question…

Does this mean that by following your method, you will gain more strength as opposed to mass? I am trying maximize my mass to power ratio for rock climbing, where great strength is key, but so is low body mass. Sometimes I do a few low rep sets of chinups to get prepped for a bigger set, but I would hate to think that I am building mass and not strength by doing this.

You’re the best Rusty, keep up the good work, I always look forward to your latest posts!

Scott N May 7, 2008 at 5:31 am

Sweet Beans!

Yea I started out my weightlifting journey like this but quickly realized I wasn’t going anywhere with it.
Your posts always make so much sense!

Jessie May 7, 2008 at 11:21 am

Hey Rusty, I’m a long time reader, first time writer.

Anyways I’ve been going to the gym consistantly for probably about a month now. I do a sort of pyramid weight training. Say I’m doing an incline press. I do 5 reps of 30, 5 reps of 40, 5 reps of 50, then back down to 5 of 40 and 5 of 30. I’m not sure if its the same thing your describing, but is this an effective way to weight train with the goal of becoming lean and toned? Thanks

BTW, your site inspired me to get myself into shape, thanks man

David May 7, 2008 at 11:43 am

Hey Rusty, great post! I was wondering what you would recommend for me. I’m 5’8 and weigh 210, I am 20 years old. I admit I was one of those bulking up kind of guys, but now I really want to slim down. I feel like I should weigh around 150-160. Which means I have ALOT of weight to lose. My old gym routine was 4 days a week with minimum cardio, It would consist of biceps and back, triceps and chest, 4 days a week, the next week I would add legs. I don’t like the way I look now mainly because all of my clothes fit me weird, and I feel that a slimmer look is more appealing to women. Any type of advice would be greatly appreciated.

Guy May 7, 2008 at 2:49 pm

Rusty,

I agree w/ this post, something else to consider, it takes a person longer to recover from a pyramid workout. Ladders ala Pavel Tsatsoline, are much more effective for strength. Example; the 3 ( 1, 2, 3 ) ladder sys, really helped improve my pullup numbers. I would do a weighted pullup for 1 rep resting a minute and then doing 2 reps, resting one more minute and then doing a third set of 3 and resting for 1-2 minutes before doing two more ladders in the same fashion.

You can continue to add sets as the weeks go on and ladders as well. I have found this to be highly effective, however everyone is different. Your posts on planks has led me to do them exclusively for my ab tng. Thanks for such a great site
G.R.S

tyson May 7, 2008 at 2:49 pm

I have been noticeing that ive been aloud to have a dessert every other day and am maintaining my weight. Is there anything wrong with doing this or will i put on body fat even though i am staying same weight

thanks

tyson

mark May 7, 2008 at 2:55 pm

great again! to sum up for me: if I want to avoid mass gain but don’t care about strength either (just want definition), lift light weights for low reps, slowly with a strong contraction/squeeze?

you’re so right-when I damage my muscles I get so ravenous I gain so much weight…

Ron May 7, 2008 at 3:20 pm

“I like to pretend that I’m an actor”

So you like to pretend that you’re someone who pretends? 😉

Jennifer May 7, 2008 at 5:48 pm

What would the “ideal” strength training exercises be for women? Can you provide a sample routine that the ladies can follow (including reps and sets)? Do you have any particular lifts that are ideal in terms of building up the “sexy” muscles?

Right now I focus mainly on assisted pull-ups, deadlifts (low reps with heavy weight), and I must admit I have been doing some “booty” exercises, just because I really want my butt to “stick out” more. I also incorporate the sprints as I know this one works the butt. I have to admit that I sometimes do lunges, but I either do heavy weight and low reps or higher reps with little weight as more of a “cardio” drill.

I’m heading off to Vegas tomorrow and I will be back on Wednesday. I am going to relax a bit with the diet while I am away because I love lounging around the pool like a sloth drinking really expensive colourful drinks with little umbrellas and cherries. When I get back I am going to want to get back to a hardcore program so I can stay as tight as possible for the summer months.

Bryan May 7, 2008 at 6:20 pm

Rusty,

I believe this post was a response to my comment in another topic. I think i need some mass in my upper chest and also in the middle if that makes sense. Do you think a pyramid type routine would be ok for incline only?

Also, what exercises do you recommend for building the middle of the chest, I have a pretty defined line down the middle, but its almost like my pecs slant down to the middle.

Helder May 7, 2008 at 6:36 pm

When i started to train many years ago all i did were pyramid sets, it was what everybody else was doing, only later ‘ive discovered things like 5×5 and other ways of training. Those pyramid sets never made much sense to me, because i would only use the heavier weights on my last sets when i was tired, so i felt that i could lift much heavier weights if i did lower reps, starting on my first set. It’s good to remember those first times lol

John Fit May 8, 2008 at 1:36 am

Rusty,
Thanks so much for the link to my article! Nice to see we’re operating on congruent lines of thinking.. I really like this post and do think creating that density with low reps leads to that lean & cut look.. Again, I like the focus here on, not tearing down the muscle for toning by staying out of that intense hypertrophy rep range.. That may fuel an intense growth, but it may not be the type of growth/shape most people are looking for.. BIG/BULGING bodybuilder muscles aren’t the goal behind the cut and toned attractive body.. Density and hardness leads to that lean look..
Great tips here buddy..

John Fit.. (Just Got In From the Orlando Magic/Pistons Playoff Game.. What a Blast! Those Guys Are Lean.. I Was Impressed)

Jamie May 8, 2008 at 4:53 am

I have severe problems with diet, as soon as i start eating like that its like chocolate and rubbish food has some magical hold on me and I end up eating absolute rubbish at night!!

My new plan has been to train like a triathlete or navy seal haha and eating pretty much what i like obviously not stuffing myself stupid i just eat until comfortable this way and no more. Whilst doing some stupidly hard training. Like this:

Weeks 5-6

Running: 2 / 3 / 4 / 2 miles, Mo/Tu/We/Fr
Pushups: 6 sets of 25 pushups, Mon/Wed/Fri
Situps: 6 sets of 25 situps, Mon/Wed/Fri
Pullups: 2 sets of 8 pullups, Mon/Wed/Fri
Swimming: Swim continuously for 25 min. 4-5 days/week

Weeks 7-8

Running: 4 / 4 / 5 / 3 miles, Mo/Tu/We/Fr
Pushups: 6 sets of 30 pushups, Mon/Wed/Fri
Situps: 6 sets of 30 situps, Mon/Wed/Fri
Pullups: 2 sets of 10 pullups, Mon/Wed/Fri
Swimming: Swim continuously for 30 min. 4-5 days/week

Week 9

Running: 4 / 4 / 5 / 3 miles, Mo/Tu/We/Fr
Pushups: 6 sets of 30 pushups, Mon/Wed/Fri
Situps: 6 sets of 30 situps, Mon/Wed/Fri
Pullups: 3 sets of 10 pullups, Mon/Wed/Fri
Swimming: Swim continuously for 35 min. 4-5 days/week

Should i just bite the bullet and start eating as i should and exercise less heavy weights low reps and intense cardio?

Or give this a go?

I seriously need help on the diet front haha what sort of things do you eat?

Cheers rusty sorry for the long post.

Jamie

Paul May 8, 2008 at 6:50 am

I lift like this now, although sometimes I like to do 5×5 on ‘working’ sets for specific body parts, like back and shoulders.

I’ll never go back high-set ranges, since I enjoy feeling refreshed after my workouts (weights & cardio) – not totally exhausted!

Jamie May 8, 2008 at 7:26 am

p.s could you possibly post up an example day of a standard 3 meals per day?

Thanks again

Scott May 8, 2008 at 2:29 pm

Good to know, thanks. This is a great site. I really enjoyed the information about how ones look changes with fat loss, amazing.

I just want definition. I keep it simple, Pull-Ups, Push-Ups, Dips and Planks. For my cardio I hit the Concept 2 Rower for 40 min.

admin May 8, 2008 at 8:28 pm

Kevan,

The 5 sets of 5 approach where you don’t lift to failure and don’t do forced reps is an amazing way to gain strength without adding mass. Over time the best way to display more muscle definition is to gain strength in a muscle without adding mass. Your body fat needs to be low enough as well.

Scott N,

I don’t expect anyone to agree 100% with my posts, but this one is logical. It makes a lot of sense. Thanks!

Jessie,

I would back down on the reps and add more weight. High reps will create a burn in the muscle, but that isn’t a good indicator of a quality set. Read some of the posts at the bottom of this page, working your way up.
http://fitnessblackbook.com/category/muscle_tone_strategies_/

David,

Read that same link that I recommended for Jessie.

Guy,

Pavel has a “no nonsense” approach that works well. I haven’t tried ladders, but that looks like a good strategy.

Tyson,

You can maintain your body fat percentage and eat dessert every now and then. Depending upon your activity level and a few other factors, you can eat more or less often. Enjoy!

Mark,

You got it buddy. Definition is all about generating strong quality contractions in the muscle and getting to a low enough body fat to see the defined muscles. The weight used is just a tool to generate quality contractions. You can get extremely toned “lifting light weights like they are heavy”.

Ron,

You got me 🙂 Even worse I’m writing about acting like I’m pretending to act.

Jennifer,

I was sent a copy of a women’s training program to review on this site. It is written by a high profile fitness author and it looks pretty good. I haven’t read it yet, but plan to do so soon. I know the methods I discuss on this site will get women 90% of the results they desire, but this guy talks more about the fine tuning of the hips thighs and butt. I have a feeling it is going to be a good product. It just launched. Have a blast in Vegas party girl!

Bryan,

Yeah…you can pyramid inclines and do more volume with inclines as well. To add a bit more meat to the middle part of your upper chest, get strong with dumbbell incline presses. Touch the dumbbells at the top. Since you are moving your hands inward as you press, you will develop the inner to mid pecs better.

Helder,

I’m pumped for you! The toughest thing to do is just start. I’m going to e-mail you and help you create a high traffic blog, if that is something you are after. It is much better than watching TV! I’m going to delete the post that has your -email address here in a second. Sorry for “approving” that. I know you write great stuff and so it is a habit.

John Fit,

Dwight Howard is my second favorite player to watch. Kobe is my favorite and Garnett is a close third. I’m jealous! That must have been a hard ticket to score!

Jamie,

This could be a great way for someone in your position to strip off the fat quickly. Once these 9 weeks are over, you will be in amazing shape with very little body fat…kind of a self-induced “Boot Camp”. At that point do HIIT, low reps, etc. This will be a breeze for you after this Boot Camp workout!

Jamie,

I’ll need to do a full post on that one. I wrote it down on my “future posts” notepad.

Scott,

You have the right idea. You will wind up looking great with your approach.

Good comments everyone,

Rusty

tyson May 10, 2008 at 4:42 pm

whens the male celeb weight post coming

Tim May 10, 2008 at 7:42 pm

rusty

I use to enjoy lifting so much and ive been using your princbles to get lean and muscle tone. Ive been lifting less. I have a mesomorph body type which I can gain muscle easy. I was wondering if I even need to lift at all to stay lean. I mean when I take a week off i look better then when i am lifting every other day. I mean whats your take i just feel my body type lifting to much I get to bulky what your take

thanks
tim

admin May 10, 2008 at 8:55 pm

tyson,

I know, I know…I keep putting this off. I need to set aside 4-6 hours to do deep research. Sometimes it takes a while to find accurate answers. I’ll do my best to get this out soon.

Tim,

I would continue lifting, but cut the volume way down. Maybe just focus on a few sets of basic exercises and get better at bodyweight exercises as well. I think there is always a place for resistance training, just do way less sets and reps than you are accustomed to doing. There are time during the year when I only lift 20 minutes for three days a week. Most of the year I do more, but I’m not a mesomorph…so I need to lift more than someone with your build.

Hope that helps,

Rusty

Tim May 11, 2008 at 5:47 pm

thanks rusty i was wondering how many times and how many sets i should should lift during the week? since i gain muscle easily

thanks

Tim

Tom Parker May 12, 2008 at 7:09 pm

Hi Rusty,

Regarding pyramid sets would you not recommend doing them at all? I usually stick to a fixed rep weight lifting routine. However, I try to throw in some pyramid sets every 4-6 weeks just to add a little variety? Is this a bad idea?

Regards,

Tom

admin May 13, 2008 at 1:22 am

Tim,

For someone who gains muscle easily. You should stick to less than 10 total sets of 3-5 reps per body part. This isn’t an exact number, it just shows you the type of volume I’m recommending. Don’t push past failure…no forced reps…rest a bit in between sets so you don’t get a pump, etc. Basically, quite a bit different by design…you aren’t trying to gain muscle, so you shouldn’t do the mainstream muscle gaining routines.

Tom,

It isn’t a bad idea and it does have a place in your routine every now and then. The only time I will throw in pyramids is if one muscle just seems a bit smaller compared to another muscle. For instance I may do a high volume pyramid routine just 4-5 weeks out of the year on incline presses if my upper chest is looking flat compared to the rest of my chest. It is a decent tool if you have a body part that is strong, but is lagging in size a bit compared to the rest of your body. I never endorse excessive muscle, but a bit of mass on certain body parts can balance a physique out.

Rusty

Heather May 14, 2008 at 3:21 pm

Hey Rusty!

After reading your blog and a couple other ones I have decided that the only carbs I am going to eat from now on are the good ones.. the ones that “Keep Insulin Levels Stable” like you said. I’m going to aim to have 100-150 a day… do you think that will help me to get leaner?? I am really serious about this and want to know exactly what i need to do to achieve it! I started doing HIIT today and I am going to start incorporating Planks into my workout. I just need to know how often I should do HIIT and how often I should strength train or if I should even strength train at all!! I’m willing to do whatever it takes – if you could just tell me what I need to do!!! =] By the way, you rock – I am addicted to this site!!!

Heather

(PS. I am a 5’8 curvy 137 lb 22 year old, I am not fat but I know I could be much leaner – I just cant seem to get there!)

admin May 15, 2008 at 10:47 pm

Heather,

Thanks for the compliment. I am going to give you a brief summary of what you need to get lean.

Carbs…go as low as 40-50 for a few days, and back to 100-150 on other days. Maybe 3 low followed by 3 high. If you want to get extremely lean. Go 3 weeks in a row low carb, followed by one week higher carb (probably not necessary for you at this time)

HIIT…3 days a week for 15-20 minutes, followed by 20-30 minutes steady state cardio. Do an additional 2-3 days a week of steady state cardio only for 30-45 minutes.

Strength train 3-4 days a week right before HIIT. Not many sets, not to failure. Should just take 30 minutes max.

To maximize your workout…don’t eat any calorie whatsoever 4-5 hours before your workout. Even that meal should be low carb. The reason for this is that you want your body to access stored body fat for energy…not food energy.

Besides that, explore this site and the comments.

Have a great one!

Rusty

J.F. Lucero May 17, 2008 at 1:59 am

Would strength training workouts using resistance tubes really can build muscles? I read it somewhere that when you have more muscles, the more that you can get rid of your body fats. I am doing resistance tube workouts 2-3 times a day for 20 minutes targeting different muscle groups. Is resistance tube workouts equally effective for building muscles too?

Thanks. I enjoy reading your blog.

admin May 18, 2008 at 11:39 am

J.F.

I wouldn’t worry about building muscle to burn body fat. This way of getting lean is vastly exaggerated by many trainers. Read this post I did on that subject:

Gaining Muscle Doesn’t Increase the Metabolic Rate a Significant Amount

Rusty

Project Swole - Conditioning and Nutrition May 20, 2008 at 1:56 pm

I agree and disagree. I agree that if you want to get strong, you should lift heavy weights for sets of 1-5 reps. Pyramid sets are old school and are reserved more for bodybuilders and for people that don’t have any real plans to accomplish any real goals in the gym.

I disagree that you should lift slow during warm ups. If I was warming up, I would lift 50% of my max for 5 reps, but I would use as much force to push the weight as I would to push my 1 rep max, thereby moving the weight as fast as possible. This is the same strategy used by Westside Barbell for their dynamic effort sets. This is how you train the neuro-muscle connection for maximal power.

For an alternative sort of pyramid strategy, check out:
http://www.projectswole.com/…50-percent-in-one-day/
This isn’t the kind of pyramid you are talking about, but it’s the only pyramid strategy that will produce significant gains.

Project Swole - Conditioning and Nutrition May 20, 2008 at 1:57 pm

Oops, sorry for breaking your page with my ridiculously long link. I should have cloaked it with TinyUrl.com. Feel free to delete it or change it. My bad.

admin May 20, 2008 at 6:40 pm

I fixed the link. I usually do this as I approve comments. I like your site. Mainly because you are a “free thinker” who actually writes his own content and comes up with your own methodologies.

Good Job!

Rusty

Daniel Glaser July 17, 2008 at 11:50 am

Hi Rusty,

Love your attitude and mindset about getting in shape and life in general. Your site has been super inspiring!

I just have a question regarding pyramid sets and getting a lean celeb look. I think that Brad Pitt had the look that I (and most guys) would love to have when he was in fight club. I know that his diet played a huge role to get to such an extremely low bf%, but there are several posts around the web that layout his supposed workout routine. I’m sure you know what I’m talking about, but if not here it is:

Monday – Chest
3 – 75 Push ups
3 – Bench press 165,195,225 (25, 15, 8 reps)
3 – Nautilus press 80,100,130
3 – Incline press 80,100,130
3 – Pec deck machine 60,70,80
Tuesday – Back
3 – 25 ull ups
3 – Seated rows 75,80,85
3 – Lat pull downs 135,150,165
3 – T bar rows 80,95,110
Wednesday – Shoulders
3 – Arnold press 55,55,55
3 – Laterals 30,30,30
3 – Front raises 25,25,25
Thursday – Biceps & Triceps
3 – Preacher curl machine 60,80,95
3 – EZ curls cable 50,65,80
3 – Hammer curls 30,45,55
3 – Push downs 70,85,100
Friday
Treadmill 60 minutes 80-90% MHR
Saturday
Treadmill 60 minutes 80-90% MHR
Sunday
Rest Day
Reps Range From 15-25 reps on all exercises and weight is in lbs

So seeing how this is a “pyramid” type workout, what is your take on it? Just good genes? Or would this be a suitable way to get the look that he had?

P.S. – I am also a big fan of HIIT, so I would probably sub 1 day of lifting in for a day of HIIT, as that would be great for leg development as well.

Thanks!

Rachael July 22, 2008 at 4:23 pm

Hi Rusty,

Was wondering if you had an opportunity to review a women’s workout routine yet?

By the way awesome site and pls. keep up the great work and entertaining reading!

Thanks!

The Fit News July 9, 2009 at 11:33 pm

Yeah, I’ll agree with the idea that it’s not as great for strength..

But I just love wearing out my muscles and pyramid sets is often the only way to do it. 🙂

Swaggerwoods June 10, 2010 at 2:04 am

This is a very bad article. Here’s why 1) you’ve got the wrong idea about pyramids, there point is you go up until you start getting tired then you to back down long before failure so you can do more total reps without burning out 2) don’t compare sprinters and marathon runners, sprinters rely on there anearobic system for strengh(which = speed) marathon runners are all aerobic endurence(heart strength/lung capacity) so its different. And pyramids are good for strength that’s why the military uses them(at the end of Bud/s training they are supposed to be able to do a pyramid of 15)

Ps BUD/s is navy seal training

Bob October 23, 2010 at 5:51 pm

Descending pyramids are the only way to go! Ascending pyramids are self defeating, as you tire yourself out before the “money sets”. Descending pyramids build strength and endurance.

Andreas Schumacher June 6, 2011 at 5:57 am

It seems there is a different perception of pyramids. Usually pyramids start with a weight of that you can handle 5-8 times. You add so long weight to the point where you can not lift 5 times with a good techniques no more …

the above one describes a stage system.

shaun walia February 7, 2012 at 9:21 pm

Hi Buddy,

I have been working out from last 5 years doing pyramiding. I am getting bigger and bigger and it feels great but i still could’n increase my strength(You are right).Lets say for chest i do
1st set-110 Lb -20 reps
2ndset – 160lbs-10 reps
3rd set-200 lbs-6 reps

But i could’nt increase it more than that.Can you please advice mw what should be the right choice for me.

Ely May 22, 2012 at 4:33 pm

I’ve read through the comments and I guess I do not understand the point of advising your followers to not lift to muscle exhaustion. I understand not telling people to push past exhaustion, but what’s the point of a rep range if you don’t lift to muscle exhaustion? I can lift 1 lb or 50 lb 8 times but they will give me drastically different training effects.

This advice is especially troubling to me when you are targeting it towards females. We girls are generally not in danger of building tons of muscle mass. I work to exhaustion all the time. I have lost plenty of fat weight and my muscles still look petite and girly.

There are plenty of training methods that will cause hypertrophy or big puffy muscles and working to exhaustion is not the primary culprit. If working muscles to exhaustion did make muscles look huge, marathon runners might have bigger legs than their sprinting counterparts.

Adam July 2, 2012 at 1:10 am

Hey Rusty,

Not sure if the pyramid you talk about means the weight gets progressively heavier then comes back down to lighter again or if it starts low and only gets heavier? I had been doing something like this 5×60, 5×70, 5×75, 4×80, 3×85, 2×90, and 1×95… it worked ok i guess but I have since changed to consistent 5×5 (sometimes more sets but reps are always 5) sets with consistent weight. Will I get stronger my new way or my old way? I thought the old way had merit because I got under the much heavier weights and kept reps low.

Thanks for all the advice dude. Im 30 and in the last 12 months have got in the best shape I have ever been in thanks mainly to your site.

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