Pyramid training isn’t some mythical form of training performed by the ancient Egyptians. It’s a tried and true form of weightlifting that has stood the test of time and continues to be one of the most effective methods of weight training, no matter your age, experience level, or goal.

What is Pyramid Training?

In its most basic sense, pyramid training is a exercise structure where you arrange your sets and reps for a given exercise to go up or down in the number of reps as you progress through your sets.. Most of you probably already employ pyramid training without even realizing it!

When you go into the gym, you warm up with a light weight for a few reps, then increase the weight and perform another batch of reps, and then hit your working weight. This essentially is pyramid training.

Basically, pyramid training entails starting out with a lighter weight and gradually increasing the weight you use on successive sets. As you get to your working weight, the number of reps goes down until you hit your working rep range based on what you’re training goals are — strength, size, etc.

Ascending vs Descending Pyramids

Pyramid training comes in two forms — ascending and descending. The form most of you are familiar with is the ascending pyramid, where you start off light and progressively get heavier as the reps lower. A descending pyramid is the exact opposite — you start off with your heaviest weight and gradually step the weight down while increasing the number of reps.

An example of an ascending pyramid would be:

  • 15 reps -> 12 reps -> 10 reps -> 8 reps

A descending pyramid on the other hand:

  • 6 reps -> 8 reps -> 12 reps -> 15 reps

For the purposes of this article, we’re going to stick to the traditional ascending pyramid structure of training.

Benefits of Pyramid Training

  • Built-in Warm Up

    The number one benefit to pyramid training is that it comes with a built in warm up, even if you’re not a fan of hitting the treadmill before lifting. Since you start off with a relatively light weight, you’re able to prepare your muscles, joints, ligaments, and tendons for the heavier work ahead.

    The first couple of lighter weight sets increase blood flow to the muscles, oxygen delivery and heat (i.e. warms your muscle up). Synovial fluid is also increased at the joints involved in the lift, which lubricates them and helps prep them for the work ahead.

  • Lots of Volume

    If building size is your goal, then pyramid training is definitely for you. Due to the structure of the workout, it naturally contains a high amount of volume, a key marker for building muscle.

  • Ideal for any goal

    Pyramid training is incredibly versatile and can be used for any goal — bodybuilding, powerlifting, athletic training, fat loss or any combination thereof. All that’s required is some manipulation of the set, rep, and rest scheme, which we’ll get into in just a bit.

  • Solo or Tag-Team

    Gym partner a no-show again? That’s ok, because pyramid training can be done solo or if your training partner does happen to show up, you can train together. Your rest periods are when your partner is lifting, when he’s done, it’s your turn to get back under the weight and get to work.

Pyramid Training Pointers

  • Warm up sets (i.e. 15 and 12 rep sets) should never be taken to failure. Taking warm up sets to failure will prematurely fatigue you, meaning you won’t be able to go as heavy as you can for your working sets. A warm-up is just that, it’s intended to prep your mind and muscles for the ensuing heavier work.
  • Working sets should be taken to muscle failure, not complete failure. End the set when you can no longer perform a full rep with perfect form.
  • Record your weights and reps. Without tracking how much weight you lifted, you won’t know when to increase the weights across your sets. Failure to do so, means you’ll eventually plateau and stop making gains.
  • Attack each set. Pyramid training is intense — you’re continually increasing the load your muscles are subjected to with each passing set, and in order for you to truly make the most of each set, you need to attack each and every set with the same aggression as the first. It’s the only way you’ll survive the heavy sets!

Pyramid Training for YOUR Goals

The great thing about pyramid training is that it’s incredibly versatile, and can be adapted to whatever your goal is — building size, increasing strength, losing fat, etc. Here, we’ll show how you can adapt pyramid training for increasing either size or strength.

Let’s take a compound exercise, such as the squat and see how you’d alter the weight, reps and rest times depending on which attribute you’re focusing on:

Hypertrophy (a.k.a. SIZE)

Set Number

Reps

% 1RM

Rest

#1

15

50%

60-90

#2

12

70%

60-90

#3

8

80%

60-90

#4

8

80%

60-90

#5

8

80%

60-90

Strength

If you’re primarily interested in building strength, your rest times will be a little longer and the rep scheme will be slightly different:

Set Number

Reps

% 1RM

Rest

#1

12

50%

90

#2

8

70%

90

#3

5

85%

120-180

#4

3

90%

120-180

#5

1

95%

120-180

Note the difference between the two rep schemes. The goal for hypertrophy is to increase time under tension and hit the muscle with a high amount of volume (i.e. reps) to break down the fibers and force them to grow back bigger and stronger. When training for strength, you’re programming your CNS to recruit more muscles to increase force production allowing you to lift heavier amounts of weight. This requires a longer rest time since you’re exerting a higher percentage of your maximum effort on each set.

Now it’s time to see how to put these into practice whether you’re training for size or strength!

Pyramid Training for Size

Chest, Shoulders, & Triceps

Sets

Reps

Rest

Bench Press

4

15-12-8-8

60-90

Seated Dumbbell Overhead Press

4

15-12-8-8

60-90

Incline Dumbbell Press

4

12-10-8-8

60-90

Standing Cable Lateral Raise

4

12

60

Skull Crushers

4

15-12-10-8

60

Dips

4

AMRAP

60

 

Back & Biceps

Sets

Reps

Rest

Barbell Row

4

15-12-8-8

90

Lat Pull

4

15-12-8-8

60-90

T-Bar Row

4

12-10-8-8

60-90

Pull Ups

4

AMRAP

60

Standing Dumbbell Curls

4

15-12-10-8

60

Preacher Curls

4

10-12

60

 

Legs

Sets

Reps

Rest

Squats

4

12-10-8-6

90-120

Leg Press

4

12-10-8-8

60-90

Dumbbell Stiff Leg Deadlift

4

12-10-8-8

60-90

Walking Lunges

4

15 / leg

60

Lying Leg Curls

4

15-12-10-8

60

Seated Calf Raise

4

12-15

60

Pyramid Training for Strength

Pyramid training for strength is a little bit different structure from pyramiding for size. These days, you’ll only do one pyramid set, since it’s so incredibly taxing on your muscles and CNS. After the one heavy pyramid, you’ll move on to straight set work for your accessory lifts.

Day 1 – Squat Focus

Sets

Reps

Rest

Back Squat

5

12-8-5-3-1

120-180

Leg Press

4

10-12

60-90

Leg Extensions

3

12-15

60

Leg Curls

3

12-15

60

Step Ups

3

15-20 / leg

60

Smith Machine Calf Raises

4

20-25

60

 

Day 2 – Bench Focus

Sets

Reps

Rest

Bench Press

5

12-8-5-3-1

120-180

Incline Dumbbell Press

4

10-12

60-90

Arnold Press

3

10-12

60-90

Cable Lateral Raise

4

12-15

60

Reverse Pec Dec

4

12-15

60

Dips

4

AMRAP

60

 

Day 3 – Deadlift Focus

Sets

Reps

Rest

Deadlift

5

12-8-5-3-1

120-180

Pull Ups

4

8-12

60-90

1 Arm Dumbbell Rows

4

12-15

60-90

Lat Pulldowns

3

10-12

60

Hyperextensions

4

12-15

60

Standing Barbell Curls

4

10-12

60

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