A Complete Guide to Pyramid Training

Learn how to effectively implement a pyramid set into your workouts so you can take your strength training gains to the next level!

A Complete Guide to Pyramid Training
Photo by Susan Q Yin / Unsplash
María Rubio María Rubio
7 min read

When you’re building a training routine, you need to decide on the number of sets, reps, and weight that you’re going to be using for each exercise during your workout before you actually step into the gym.

This is key for your fitness journey because you’ll want to make sure you know exactly what you’re doing so you can later evaluate your performance and decide whether or not you need to make it more or less challenging next time. There are many ways that you can do this, and one of them is pyramid training – an effective training style that will leave you sweating at the end of your sets.

Pyramid training is a dynamic way of structuring your workout that continuously gives your muscles a different challenge to overcome. We’re going to help you understand it better, from its basics and what makes it unique to how to make your own pyramid routine, plus a few tips so you can achieve it successfully!

What is pyramid training?

As we previously mentioned, pyramid training is dynamic. This is because it’s generally structured in a way that changes the reps and weights used in each set so that your muscles work harder each time.

The most popular version of the pyramid starts with a lighter weight and higher reps, and gradually increases the weight used in each set while also decreasing the reps. This makes your muscles work against a higher resistance without burning them out by doing it fewer times each set.

So what’s the difference between pyramid vs. straight sets?

Well, straight sets are usually the go-to for many gym-goers since they’re easier to plan but still effective. These sets have a specific number of reps and amount of weight used which stay the same during the subsequent sets, making your workout slightly more monotonous. You could picture a straight set as a simple block because it doesn’t change, while a pyramid is bigger at the bottom and narrower on top (think more reps at the beginning and fewer at the end).

Since the pyramid is a dynamic style of training, your muscles are always doing something slightly different, therefore adapting time and time again while you change both the weight and reps during your workout. This cycle of constantly changing and adapting is the principle of progressive overload, which is key to muscle growth because it progressively challenges your muscles by taking them to the limit.

And while it’s a great way to build muscle in general, pyramid training truly shines when it comes to being stuck in a plateau. When you feel like your muscles are not making any progress or that it’s going very slow because your workout isn’t challenging them enough anymore, applying this technique will help you get out of that plateau by giving them a number of different challenges to stimulate them during the same workout!

Building a pyramid training set

Now that you’re familiar with pyramid training, it’s time to build your own workout according to your fitness level.

Naturally, anyone who’s been working out for a while and has gained a significant amount of muscle will be able to start with a heavier weight and try some more difficult variations. But before we get into that, let’s see how a standard pyramid set workout can be structured for a beginner overhead press:

  • Set #1 – 20 lbs x 12 reps
  • Set #2 – 30 lbs x 10 reps
  • Set #3 – 40 lbs x 8 reps

These are rookie numbers, but it helps visualize how a pyramid works. As you can see, the relation between the weight and the reps changes gradually without making huge jumps in between sets. This is because you’ll want to keep stimulating your muscles so you can finish your sets, not burn you out completely by the second one.

If your focus is on muscle growth, keep the resting time short between sets so that your muscles stay fired up and under tension for the duration of your workout. This way, you’ll cause more microtears in your muscle fibers, promoting growth during the repair period post-workout and during your sleep.

Now, if you want to try a reverse pyramid, all you need to do is invert the values, starting with a bigger weight and fewer reps. While the standard pyramid makes you finish with the heaviest load, the reverse pyramid starts strong with the heavy weight and finishes with a lighter one but with more reps to keep the tension up. It might look something like this:

  • Set #1 – 40 lbs x 8 reps
  • Set #2 – 30 lbs x 10 reps
  • Set #3 – 20 lbs x 12 reps

These two are the most straightforward types of pyramid that you can use for your workouts, but it doesn’t end here! If you’re ready to take on a bigger challenge, you can try the diamond pyramid, which is like performing a standard and reverse pyramid back to back or simply going up and down the pyramid. Sounds slightly complicated, but here you can better visualize it:

  • Set #1 – 25 lbs x 12 reps
  • Set #2 – 30 lbs x 10 reps
  • Set #3 – 35 lbs x 8 reps
  • Set #4 – 30 lbs x 10 reps
  • Set #5 – 25 lbs x 12 reps

You can reverse it if you’d prefer starting and finishing with a heavier weight, it’s up to you! The number of sets will depend on your particular fitness level as well as how much weight and how many reps you’re choosing for that particular exercise. While a beginner should be okay with 3 sets, an advanced trainer might be able to tackle up to 7 sets!

As you can see, pyramid training is highly customizable to make it challenging even when you’ve already been implementing it for a while. You can adjust the number of sets and reps, add more or less weight, or change the resting times. You can even play with the weight increments, such as adding 15 lbs each set instead of 5 or 10 while keeping a lower rep range for a more intense workout.

Always try to aim for a well-balanced structure instead of going all out right from the beginning. And remember, any effective workout will start with a good warm-up to get your muscles ready for the challenge and finish with a cool-down to go back to your natural resting state and avoid any soreness later in the day!

Tips to get started

Pyramid training can seem intimidating at first, especially if you’re already used to doing straight sets, but it’s incredibly rewarding if done well.

Here are some tips for when you want to try this style of structured training:

Begin with the standard pyramid

If you’re just starting out, the best approach is to implement the standard pyramid with light weights at the beginning. This is so your muscles can get fired up gradually instead of hitting them with a heavy weight as soon as you start.

If you’re a little more advanced in your weightlifting journey, you can try reverse pyramid training right away, but be aware of the weight that you’re using so you don’t burn yourself out too quickly. This takes us to the second tip…

Be mindful of your fitness level

Your fitness level will dictate how much weight you will be using during your workouts. If you’re a beginner, you shouldn’t be loading your bar with those heavy plates that you see others lifting because your muscles are not ready for that yet.

Make sure to test the weight before you start, and if you find yourself getting too fatigued in the middle of your workout, try to decrease the weight instead of just stopping so that you can finish all your reps successfully. Remember, it’s better to underestimate and adjust than to overestimate and fail!

Don’t take your warm-ups too far

The point of pyramid training, and really most types of strength training approaches, is to get to a point of muscle exhaustion. The pyramid set is designed to progressively make it harder for you to finish your reps, so you’ll definitely want to preserve your muscles as much as you can.

When you’re doing your warm up sets, make sure to do it for just around 10 minutes, giving your muscles enough time to stretch and get ready for the heavy lifting without burning them out from the get-go.

Push for failure at the end

If your weight to reps ratio is just perfect for your fitness level, failure will likely happen naturally on your last rep. But if you’re nearing the end and you still feel like you have some energy to go on, push for failure and add a couple of extra reps to your set so your muscles reach the point of total exhaustion.

Keep in mind, muscle failure is not the same as overtraining the muscle. You should work out until you can no longer keep proper form and your muscles start to give in to the weight, not until you’re in pain because you want to be able to recover properly after your workout.

Pyramid training, as you can see, is a great way to promote muscle growth and strength development, and planning a good workout will only take a few minutes of your day! This isn’t to say that you should forget about straight sets completely, but it’s a great alternative to have in case you want to mix things up a little or if you’ve hit a plateau and don’t know how to get out.

Need some help restructuring your current strength training workout?

The One Fitness app is here to help!

Iulia creates goal-focused workout plans every week to help you get the best results for your strength training journey. The app offers a combination of compound and isolation exercises, along with an appropriate training split, the recommended number of sets and reps, rest period, and so much more!

Try your first workout for free by downloading the One Fitness app, choosing a goal, and starting your first workout with Iulia - no subscription required!