The Pyramid Workout Training Guide For Building Strength + Muscle Mass

If you are weighed down or bored with your everyday gym workout routines, pyramid workouts can be a way to spice things up a bit.

Pyramid workouts can keep your gym sessions interesting by varying weight, reps, and sets and are scalable based on your fitness level and workout goals.

In this pyramid workout guide, we will discuss what a pyramid workout is, how to implement pyramid sets into your training, the pros and cons of pyramid workouts and reverse pyramid training, and tips for implementing pyramid training into your strength programming.

We will cover: 

  • What Is a Pyramid Workout?
  • How Do You Do Pyramid Training?
  • What Are the Benefits of Pyramid Training?
  • Risks of Pyramid Training Workouts

Let’s jump in!

A barbell curl.

What Is a Pyramid Workout?

Pyramid training, also referred to as a pyramid workout, is an approach to structuring a strength training workout where you change the weight used in each set of an exercise in a stepwise manner.

You might increase the weight used in each set, decrease the weight used for the exercise in each subsequent set if you are doing a reverse pyramid workout, or go up and then back down for a full pyramid set.

How Do You Do Pyramid Training?

There isn’t a single formula for pyramid workouts or a specific rubric for how you need to do pyramid training.

Some weightlifters will choose just one, two, or a handful of exercises in a given workout to perform as pyramid sets, whereas others may do all of the exercises in this fashion for a pyramid workout.

Or, you may do comprehensive pyramid training where almost all of your workouts use the pyramid training approach for your exercise sets.

Depending on the number of sets you do for an exercise in a pyramid workout, you will increase or decrease the weight in a stepwise manner, generally using a given percentage for each set in the pyramid set or a certain amount of weight in each step of the pyramid workout set.

Generally, you can structure a pyramid workout or pyramid set for an exercise in one of three ways:

A cable machine exercise.

#1: Ascending Pyramid Workout (Light-to-Heavy Pyramid Set)

With the ascending pyramid training approach, you start light and go heavy.

This means that the first set will use lighter weights and a higher number of repetitions, and then each subsequent set increases the weight and decreases the number of reps performed for the exercise.

For example, consider someone doing an ascending pyramid for the chest press with dumbbells.

  • The first set in the light-to-heavy pyramid training scheme might be 15 reps with 20-pound dumbbells.
  • The second set might drop down to 10 reps with 25-pound dumbbells.
  • Your third ascending pyramid set might be 8 reps with 30-pound dumbbells.
  • The final set for a 4-set light-to-heavy pyramid build workout might be 6 reps with 35-pound dumbbells.

Ascending pyramid workouts are “half pyramids“ because you are only climbing up the pyramid.

A cable row.

#2: Descending Pyramid Workout (Heavy-to-Light Pyramid Set)

The descending pyramid set, also called a reverse pyramid workout set, takes the opposite approach, so you go from heavy to light and fewer reps to higher reps as you work through the pyramid.

Heavy-to-light pyramids, or reverse half pyramid workout sets, tend to be easier than ascending pyramids because you get through the hardest sets with the heaviest weight first and then work your way down in intensity.

#3: Triangular Pyramid Sets

Finally, full pyramids combine the ascending pyramids and descending pyramids into one multi-set triangle workout that goes from light to heavy and then back down to light again.

Here, you start with light weights and high reps and then build up to your top heavyset with fewer reps and then work your way back down to where you started with the same number of reps and the same weights used on the way down.

Generally, with full pyramid workouts, you use fewer reps or cut one set from the ascending and descending pyramids.

For example, you might do a full pyramid set with your dumbbell chest press starting with ten reps, then eight reps, then six reps, then three or four reps at the peak, and then go back down in weight for six reps, then eight reps, and end on ten reps with your starting weight.

A kettlebell push up.

What Are the Benefits of Pyramid Training?

So, what are the benefits of pyramid workouts? Are pyramid training benefits the same regardless of the type of workout pyramid you do?

There are various benefits of pyramid training vs. regular strength training sets, but the specific ascending pyramid workout benefits vs. reverse pyramid training benefits are different in some cases.

Let’s take a look at some of the shared and unique benefits of pyramid workout structures vs. traditional resistance training sets where are the number of reps and the weights that you use for each set of an exercise remain constant:

#1: Offers Built-In Warm-Up

When looking specifically at the benefits of the ascending pyramid vs. reverse pyramid workout or when doing a full pyramid workout set, going from light to heavy offers a built-in warm-up.

Therefore, you hit your top heavy set after activating and using your muscles with lighter loads.

This not only reduces the risk of injury by preventing your muscles from jumping right into maximum capacity but also helps you to hit your top heavyset once your neuromuscular system is firing on all cylinders with warm-up sets in the previous steps of the pyramid.

Two people doing sit ups.

#2: Acts As a CNS Activation Exercise

Again, the ascending pyramid training or a full pyramid is a good central nervous system activation exercise, which can be an integral part of the best dynamic warm-up for weightlifting.

Having your CNS activated and warmed up will maximize the recruitment of your motor units when you are trying to reach your peak heavy sets of an exercise because the motor units will be recruited in a more coordinated and rapid manner, increasing potential force and power production.

#3: Keeps Things Varied

One of the main benefits of pyramid training in any iteration of a pyramid workout structure is that it prevents boredom by keeping things varied.

Each set will be somewhat different, which can alleviate not only mental boredom but also anxiety/mental fatigue around trying to hit the same weights and reps for every set.

A person holding dumbbells.

#4: Scalable

Another pyramid workout benefit is that it is scalable or modifiable based on your fitness level and workout goals.

This refers to the fact that you cannot only do pyramid sets with different exercises, either for all of your exercises in a workout or just some, and the fact that you can choose the weights and number of reps based on your fitness goal, but also in terms of whether you do a reverse pyramid vs. ascending or full pyramid.

Typically, a full pyramid will be the most challenging, and then it is usually harder to do ascending vs. descending pyramid because you have to get increasingly heavier when you are going from light to heavy, whereas you get done with the hardest stuff first when you go from heavy to light.

#5: Great for Progressive Overload

One of the top benefits of pyramid training is that this workout structure is a great way to employ the principles of progressive overload while still listening to your body and not overdoing it.

You could build up to one top-heavy set and then supplement this max effort set with lighter exercise sets.

A suspension row.

Risks of Pyramid Training Workouts

There are also a few downsides to pyramid training.

In general, pyramid workouts can be time-consuming because you often do more sets per exercise, and you have to keep switching the weights that you are using.

The reverse pyramid structure can potentially increase the risk of injury if you are not properly warmed up and you go too heavy on your first set.

Finally, pyramid training can cause muscular fatigue if you do a full pyramid exercise set or too many reps in each pyramid set for your current strength and muscular endurance.

To get started with pyramid training, it is generally advisable to pick just a handful of exercises in a strength training workout and try structuring the sets for those exercises as a pyramid rep scheme.

See how your body feels and play around with the type of pyramid workouts that you do and the reps/weight you use.

For another approach to how to structure strength training workout sets, check out our guide to AMRAP workouts here.

People giving 5 at the gym.
Photo of author
Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.