Pyramid training is a classic strength-training system where you increase or decrease the weight of each set of an exercise in a stepped manner. It’s an effective and reliable way to structure your workouts for strength gains and muscle growth. You can pyramid your way through a single exercise or base an entire training session on pyramid weight training.
In this article, you’ll learn the benefits of pyramid training and if this style of training style can boost your gains. In addition, you’ll find several sample workouts and a premium 4 Day Pyramid Workout Routine you can implement immediately. The routine is available in our workout tracker StrengthLog , which you can download for free for your device using the buttons below:
What Is Pyramid Training?
Let’s begin with the basics: what is pyramid training?
In strength training, a basic pyramid is a number of sets of an exercise where you start with a lighter weight and a higher number of repetitions, then increase the weight and do fewer reps with each subsequent set. You do your heaviest set when you reach the top of the pyramid. This type of pyramid training is called ascending or light-to-heavy pyramids.
An example of a four-set bench press pyramid workout could look like this:
- Set 1: 12 reps
- Set 2: 10 reps
- Set 3: 8 reps
- Set 4: 6 reps
A natural progression from lighter sets with many reps to the last set gives you a built-in warm-up and prepares you for the final all-out effort.
The reverse pyramid method is an alternative to the standard ascending pyramids. Instead of starting with a light weight and working your way to heavier weights, you begin with the heaviest weight in the first set. In the successive sets, you decrease the load and do higher reps. Other terms for reverse pyramids are descending or heavy-to-light pyramids.
As you probably have gathered, these two pyramid training systems aren’t complete pyramids. You don’t go all the way up to the top and back again. You could call them half-triangle pyramids.
In addition to the half-triangle pyramids, you can combine an ascending and a reverse pyramid into a triangular pyramid. After your heaviest set in the middle of your pyramid workout, you decrease the load and increase the reps for each additional set until you’re back at the lighter weights you started with for your final set.
Pyramid Training Vs. Traditional Resistance Training
Depending on whether you train using heavy or light weights, your efforts result in different adaptations: strength, muscle growth, and endurance.1
- The best way to get as strong as possible is to use heavy loads and low reps.
- Muscle growth can be accomplished using almost any load and number of reps.
- You likely improve muscular endurance by doing more reps with a light weight, at least for the lower body.
In theory, pyramid training could be a great way to maximize all three adaptations in the same workout compared to traditional strength training.
In practice, regular straight-set lifting and pyramid training seem equally effective for gaining strength and increasing muscle size.2 Complete triangle pyramids might be best for improving endurance, although this has not been tested in any controlled studies.
Benefits of Ascending Pyramid Training
Traditional strength training and pyramid sets might result in similar gains. However, the pyramid model practices offer several benefits and advantages over regular straight-set training.
Offers Built-In Warm-Up
It’s never a good idea to jump straight into your max-effort sets, but many people skimp on their warm-up sets because they take time and can be boring.
With the pyramid type of training, warming up is included in the package. The initial sets with a lighter starting weight and high reps serve as a natural warm-up. As you gradually go heavier, you increase the blood flow to your muscles and prepare them for the high-intensity work sets to come.
Primes Your Central Nervous System
If you’ve ever tried lifting close to your 1RM the first thing you do in the gym, you know that the weight you’re usually able to handle feels overwhelmingly heavy.
You can’t perform optimally when you go for an all-out effort without your central nervous system (CNS) being properly activated. When you pyramid the amount of weight you use set by set, your CNS is primed and ready to activate the target muscles in your heavy sets.
If you’re fed up with doing the same straight sets of 8–12 reps every workout, shaking your set-rep patterns up with the pyramid training method can be refreshing and boost motivation. Keeping motivation high is crucial for maintaining the training intensity necessary for building muscle mass and strength in the long run.
Tailors Your Training Volume to Your Needs
Pyramid training easily allows you to plan your reps and sets to reach your target training volume from each exercise. Along with progressive overload, your total training volume is one of the main drivers of muscle gain and muscular strength.3
Because you use a variety of rep ranges and loads, pyramid training covers all bases: strength, muscle growth, and endurance. It’s easy to adapt to your fitness goals and is helpful whether you’re bulking, cutting, or training for general strength and health.
Disadvantages of Ascending Pyramid Training
Even though pyramid training has stood the test of time and proven to be an effective way to build muscle and strength with many benefits, it does come with a handful of potential drawbacks as well.
Causes Muscle Fatigue
One of the main drawbacks of regular pyramid training is the fatigue you build up before you arrive at the heavy weight of your top sets. Advanced lifters doing many sets on the way up the pyramid might be fried by the time they get to the top and unable to handle the weight they’re capable of.
If you can’t lift as heavy as you should, you might reduce the stress on your muscle fibers. Progressive overload – increasing the load you use over time – is probably the number one factor for stimulating muscle growth. If you’re always too tired to handle the weights you’re capable of lifting, it’ll be a slower and more challenging process to keep adding weight to the bar.
It Can Be Time-Consuming
Using the pyramid training method in compound lifts like the squat or the deadlift can be quite time-consuming, especially if you can handle a heavy weight at the top of the pyramid. You probably don’t want to make big jumps in weight, meaning the number of sets to reach the top can be substantial and take a lot of time.
Benefits of Reverse Pyramid Training
Doing heavy-to-light pyramids differ from ascending pyramid training not only in execution (you start with your heaviest weight and decrease the load set by set) but also in potential benefits.
You Do Your Heaviest Sets When You’re Fresh
Lifting heavy weights is the superior way to get strong.4 Reverse pyramids place your heaviest sets at the beginning of the workout, allowing you to perform your best before muscular fatigue sets in. You can do more work closer to your 1RM, won’t get burnt out by the time you get to your top set, and recruit all muscle fibers from the get-go.
It’s Less Mentally Challenging
With reverse pyramids, you go into your workouts knowing they become easier after the first few sets. That allows you to go all-out from the start instead of saving yourself and dreading the heavy work to come.
Unlike regular pyramid sets, you don’t work your way to the top with a number of sub-maximal sets. You’re already at the top and don’t have to spend time getting there.
Great for Progressive Overload
With progressive overload being so important for gaining strength and muscle mass, reverse pyramids are a great way to put it into practice. The heavier sets at the start let you hit your muscles with the highest intensity with less work.
Disadvantages of Reverse Pyramid Sets
What about the disadvantages of doing a reverse pyramid training program? As with all training methods, reverse pyramids aren’t flawless.
Not for Beginners
As a beginner, the high intensity of reverse pyramids is unnecessary and might be too much to handle and recover from. Also, going all-out in the first set can make a beginner too tired to maintain good form for the rest of the workout, which is important when taking the first steps in the world of strength training and trying to learn the movements.
Might Be Too Intense for Long-Term Gains
Reverse pyramids allow you to train with greater intensity and place higher stress on your muscles, which can be a good thing for building muscle and strength.
However, you can get too much of a good thing. Training to muscle failure now and then might help advanced lifters to extra gains. However, research shows that, in general, you don’t need to train to failure to build muscle mass and strength.5 6 Doing so too often can lead to overtraining and psychological burnout and even impair recovery, stress your central nervous system, and slow down your gains.7
To make reverse pyramids work for you in the long run without overdoing it, you might have to balance your rep ranges with your training intensity and go for the sweet spot of terminating the majority of your sets a rep or two before muscle failure.
Increases the Importance of a Thorough Warm-Up
The main benefit of reverse pyramids is also one of the major disadvantages: you go straight to your heaviest load without ramping the weight up. That increases the importance of warming up properly in anticipation of your work sets for performance and reducing the risk of injury.
If you do a reverse pyramid protocol, include some general warm-up and a couple of exercise-specific ramp-up sets for the muscle groups involved before your first real set.
No More Effective for Building Muscle and Strength
Although both traditional and reverse pyramids look fantastic on paper with numerous advantages, they don’t offer any actual benefits when it comes to the results in the form of stronger and bigger muscles.2 Don’t get me wrong – pyramid training is highly effective, but don’t feel compelled to do it if you prefer regular straight-set training. You’ll get similar results from either method if you keep challenging your muscles.
Pyramid Training FAQ
Have further questions about pyramid training? Chances are you’ll find the answer in this FAQ.
Which Exercises Are Best for Pyramid Training?
You can do pyramid workouts with both isolation and compound exercises.
Compound movements like the bench press, squat, and overhead press have the advantage that you often know your one rep max (the weight you can do a single heavy repetition with.) That allows you to calculate your pyramid weights and target reps more easily.
>> The Best 1RM Calculator: Calculate Your One Rep Max
Isolation movements also work well with the pyramid training system, but you’ll have to guesstimate your training loads more freely. For example, when doing reverse pyramids of an isolation exercise, simply lower the weight and try to match the number of reps in the next set.
How Much Weight Should You Add or Remove from Set to Set?
There are no strict rules for increasing or decreasing your training load between pyramid sets, but here are a few general rules of thumb.
Ascending Pyramid Sets
When doing traditional pyramids and increasing the weight each set, you generally don’t want to reach muscle failure in the sets preceding the heaviest to avoid undue fatigue. Keep a rep or two “in the tank”; it’ll allow you to recruit enough muscle fibers to maximize muscle growth while maintaining performance in the final pyramid sets.
A four-set pyramid with the percentage of your 1RM between the parentheses could look like this:
- Set 1: 12–15 reps (50–65%)
- Set 2: 8–10 reps (60–75%)
- Set 3: 6–8 reps (70–85%)
- Set 4: 4–6 reps (75–90%)
Descending Pyramid Sets
When doing heavy to light pyramids, removing 5–10% of the weight each set is a good rule of thumb that balances high intensity with approaching muscle fatigue. Try to do at least as many reps each subsequent set. Even though the actual weight becomes lighter and lighter, it’ll probably feel as heavy as your muscles get more tired.
Which Is Best, Traditional Strength Training or Pyramid Training?
According to research, traditional straight sets and workouts based on any kind of pyramid training produce similar results.2 Whether you’re a highly trained athlete or recreational lifter, you can expect excellent muscle strength and size gains from a pyramid routine. The method is proven effective. However, you’d likely get the same results with an old-fashioned straight-set approach.
At first glance, that might sound disappointing, but it’s actually good news.
It means you can utilize pyramid sets when you like or when they fit into your routine rather than feeling compelled to use or not use them because of some potential benefit or disadvantage. Pyramid training has several benefits, as you’ve seen earlier in the article, but they are of more practical importance.
The most significant difference might be that you get similar results with a lower training volume.
- LH = low-to-high pyramids.
- HL = high-to-low pyramids
Look at the pyramid training method as another tool in your toolbox. Utilize it if you enjoy the style of lifting or when you want to shake your training up.
Which Is Best, Ascending or Descending Pyramids?
Unfortunately, the scientific jury is still out on this one. Very few studies compare the two. When they do, they look at isometric strength (when you flex against a fixed object without any joint movement) or immediate effects during or right after the workout, not long-term strength and muscle growth.
In theory, descending pyramids might be the way to go, as you recruit all motor units and muscle fibers from the get-go. Indeed, one early study found that reverse pyramids are superior for increasing isometric elbow extension and back and leg strength.8
With standard ascending pyramids, you’ll likely reach muscle fatigue earlier, as you’ll be partially exhausted when you reach the heavy weights. However, reverse pyramids require more extensive warms-up, meaning the difference might not be that significant in a real-life setting.
In addition, reverse-pyramiding is a significantly more demanding way of training, as you recruit all motor units from the get-go. The extra intensity might make high-to-low pyramids less than ideal for intermediate lifters and beginners.
The bottom line is that reverse pyramids are likely more effective but also more demanding. Don’t rely on reverse pyramids exclusively in your training unless you’re an advanced lifter and know you can recover from long-term, high-intensity hard work.
How Many Pyramid Sets Should You Do?
There is no rule for how many pyramid sets are best for everyone. Your ideal set range depends largely on your training experience and fitness goals.
A beginner might start with a basic pyramid of three sets, doing ten reps in the first, eight in the second, and six in the third. A high-level strength athlete might begin with a 10-rep set and increase the weight over several sets, performing fewer and fewer repetitions until a 1RM effort in the final set.
How Much Should You Increase or Decrease the Weight Each Set?
Again, there are no absolute rules, but these are a few general rules of thumb:
- In ascending pyramids, start with a weight of around 60% of 1RM. You don’t want to start with a weight that is too heavy and reach muscle fatigue early in the workout.
- Increase the weight by increments that fit the total number of pyramid sets you’re doing. If you’re doing many sets, go with smaller increments, or you might reach your target max weights ahead of time.
- In descending pyramids, start with a weight corresponding to how many reps you can do at a certain percentage of 1RM. For example, if your first set calls for six reps, you might select 80–85% of your 1RM for that exercise. Use our 1RM Calculator for an easy way to calculate your 1–10RM.
- Decrease the weight in increments of 5–10%. Try 10% for the deadlift and squat and 5% for upper-body movements like the bench press and overhead press. Not everyone has the same upper- to lower body strength ratio or fatigue at the same rate, so you might have to experiment to find your ideal load-reduction rate.
If you’re increasing the weights too much and start losing form, reassess your loading scheme and reduce the weight a little the following week until you find the sweet spot.
Is Pyramid Training Suitable for Everyone?
Simply put: yes! Research shows that pyramid training is effective for anyone from young and healthy individuals to trained athletes to older people to those with disabilities.9 10 11 12
Regardless of your training status and experience, pyramid training can help you reach your fitness goals and build strength and muscle mass.
Sample Pyramid Workouts
Here are three sample pyramid workouts: an ascending pyramid, a reverse pyramid, and a full triangle pyramid. They are effective, and you can easily insert them into your training routine or adapt them to your needs.
You can use these loading schemes for any exercise you’d like, although compound barbell movements are the most convenient for calculating training loads. The bench press, deadlift, squat, and overhead press are prime exercises perfect for pyramid sets.
Sample Ascending Pyramid
- Set 1: 12–15 reps with 50–65% of 1RM
- Set 2: 8–10 reps with 60–75% of 1RM
- Set 3: 6–8 reps with 70–85% of 1RM
- Set 4: 4–6 reps with 75–90% of 1RM
The fourth set could be the final one, or you could do a few more sets with the same weight. If your main goal is strength, you could do one or two more sets using an even heavier load and lower rep ranges.
Sample Descending Pyramid
Begin your workout with a thorough warm-up and a few ramp-up sets without going near muscle failure.
- Set 1: 4–6 reps with 75–90% of 1RM
- Set 2: 6–8 reps with 70–85% of 1RM
- Set 3: 8–10 reps with 60–75% of 1RM
- Set 4: 12–15 reps with 50 – 65% of 1RM
You could use a higher percentage of 1RM in the fourth and final set if you don’t fatigue rapidly.
Sample Triangular Pyramid
- Set 1:12–15 reps with 50– 65% of 1RM
- Set 2: 8–10 reps with 60–75% of 1RM
- Set 3: 6–8 reps with 70–85% of 1RM
- Set 4: 4–6 reps with 75–90% of 1RM
- Set 5: 4–6 reps with 75–90% of 1RM
- Set 6: 6–8 reps with 70–85% of 1RM
- Set 7: 8–10 reps with 60–75% of 1RM
- Set 8: 12–15 reps with 50–65% of 1RM
For advanced lifters, once you’ve reached the maximum ascending weights, you might AMRAP (do As Many Reps As Possible) and get close to muscle failure on the descending sets to increase your training intensity.
The full pyramid means twice the training volume compared to the first two methods. You might have to cut back on additional accessory work for any given muscle group.
Sample Pyramid Workout Routine
In the StrengthLog app, you’ll find a four-week training program – 4 Day Pyramid Workout Routine – based on the pyramid system. It’s intended for intermediate to advanced lifters, features a mix of ascending, reverse, and full pyramid workouts, and will pack muscle onto your frame while improving your strength.
- Workout 1: Quads and hamstrings
- Workout 2: Chest and triceps
- Workout 3: Back and biceps
- Workout 4: Shoulders and abs
You begin each workout with a basic compound exercise: the squat, bench press, deadlift, and overhead press, alternating between full triangles and reverse pyramids every other week. The accessory work for each muscle group is based on traditional pyramid sets where you increase the weight and lower the reps as your go.
You can see the full details of the 4 Day Pyramid Workout Routine, including the exercises, what % of 1RM to use, the number of sets, and rep ranges, in StrengthLog.
Track Your Pyramid Sets With StrengthLog
It’s almost impossible to keep track of your progress without a workout log. Our workout log is 100% free to download and use as a workout tracker and general strength training app. All the basic functionality, including logging and tracking of your pyramid workouts, is free – forever.
You’ll find 4 Day Pyramid Workout Routine and many more excellent training programs and workouts in the app. Many are free, but others, like this one, require a premium subscription.
If you want to download StrengthLog for free and give it a spin, use the buttons below.
We offer all new users a free 14-day trial of premium, which you can activate in the app.
There you go: pyramid training.
Is pyramid training effective? It sure is!
Is it more effective than traditional strength training? Probably not. But you can use the pyramid training system as a different way to overload your muscles for strength and muscle growth. Keeping your training fun and varied is key to long-term motivation and progress, and pyramid sets are at least as effective as standard straight sets.
Good luck with your training!
- Sports 2021, 9(2), 32. Loading Recommendations for Muscle Strength, Hypertrophy, and Local Endurance: A Re-Examination of the Repetition Continuum.
- Encyclopedia 2021, 1(2), 423-432. Pyramidal Systems in Resistance Training.
- Strength and Conditioning Journal 40(4):p 107-112, August 2018. Evidence-Based Guidelines for Resistance Training Volume to Maximize Muscle Hypertrophy.
- Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 29(10):p 2954-2963, October 2015. Effects of Low- vs. High-Load Resistance Training on Muscle Strength and Hypertrophy in Well-Trained Men.
- Journal of Sport and Health Science, Volume 11, Issue 2, March 2022, Pages 202-211. Effects of resistance training performed to repetition failure or non-failure on muscular strength and hypertrophy: A systematic review and meta-analysis.
- J Sports Sci. 2022 Jun 5;1-23. Towards an improved understanding of proximity-to-failure in resistance training and its influence on skeletal muscle hypertrophy, neuromuscular fatigue, muscle damage, and perceived discomfort: A scoping review.
- Sports Medicine volume 23, pages 106–129 (1997). Resistance Exercise Overtraining and Overreaching.
- J Assoc Phys Ment Rehabil. 1967 May-Jun;21(3):78-81. A study on the effectiveness of ten different methods of progressive resistance exercise on the development of strength, flexibility, girth and bodyweight.
- Int J Exerc Sci. 2020; 13(2): 1549–1562. Effects of Drop-Set and Pyramidal Resistance Training Systems on Microvascular Oxygenation: A Near-Infrared Spectroscopy Approach.
- Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 31(7):p 1888-1896, July 2017. Effects of Traditional and Pyramidal Resistance Training Systems on Muscular Strength, Muscle Mass, and Hormonal Responses in Older Women: A Randomized Crossover Trial.
- Experimental Gerontology Volume 79, 15 June 2016, Pages 8-15. Traditional and pyramidal resistance training systems improve muscle quality and metabolic biomarkers in older women: A randomized crossover study.
- Behav Modif. 2017 Jul;41(4):558-580. A Review of the Pyramidal Training Approach for Practitioners Working With Individuals With Disabilities.