Pyramid Training

Pyramid TrainingPyramid Training is when you use pyramid sets and reps during weight training. In standard Pyramid Training the weights you use during your sets will be lightest on the first set and heaviest on the last set.

As the weights go up, the reps you do on each set will go down so that the reps used are highest on the first set and lowest on the last set.

This type of Pyramid Training is also called ascending sets or an ascending pyramid since you go up (ascend) in weight on each set.

An example pyramid workout would be:

Ascending Sets Reps Weight
1 12 100
2 10 110
3 8 120
4 6 130

The number of pyramid sets and reps you use are not specifically defined.

The pyramid sets could be say 2 sets or 20 sets (if you’re Arnold). Typically 3-5 sets are used during Pyramid Training.

The pyramid reps can also go from very high to  very low (say 20 reps on the first set to 1 rep on the last set) or be much smaller jumps like 12 to 10 to 8 to 6 reps. You can also use a target rep range on each set such as 12-15 or 4-6 instead of a single rep number.

The weights used on each pyramid set may be calculated (a percentage of your 1 rep max) or just whatever weight is takes to make sure you can get the target reps (if the sets are taken to muscular failure).

The GOAL during Pyramid Training is just to increase the weight on each set while decreasing the reps.


Benefits of Pyramid Training

If you start with a lighter weight and higher reps, those sets can count toward the warm-up sets you would normally do so the workout time would be less.

The lighter weights and higher reps (say 12+) help pre-fatigue the Type I muscle fibers similar to a pre-exhaust superset. This pre-fatigue can help force more Type II muscle fibers to be used in the later heavier weight (lower rep) sets.

By using a wider variety of reps in a single workout, you reduce the chance of a plateau which is common when using the same reps on every set. The mind expects to fail at the same reps if you don’t change them.

Pyramid Training is simple and is one of the most common set-ups you will see in workouts, especially bodybuilding workout routines. Some may say it is a stupid way to train and it’s not effective for muscle growth, but many of the best bodybuilders have used it including Arnold.


You can tell Arnold pyramid training is not effective for muscle growth.

Downfalls of Pyramid Training

The biggest negative to Pyramid Training (ascending sets) is that you lift the lightest weights when you’re strongest and the heaviest weights when you’re fatigued.

The early lighter sets use up valuable energy (glycogen and ATP) which can fatigue the muscle and nervous system. This will most likely decrease the amount of work done (total weight lifted) in the workout versus if you had started with the heaviest weights first instead (also called reverse pyramid training).

If the lighter sets are taken to failure, it may be difficult to actually increase the weight on each set. Sometimes you may even have to decrease the weight (because of fatigue) to make sure you can still get the target reps.


Pyramid Training for Mass Gains

The one benefit of Pyramid Training is that it can really fatigue a muscle which many see as a key to muscle growth.

Time under tension also shows that the 6-12 rep range is probably the best one to use if you’re looking to build muscle (it’s arguably the most commonly used range as well).

In this case you could do 4 pyramid sets starting at 12 reps and finishing with 6 reps (12-10-8-6). Rest 1-3 minutes between sets.

Ascending Sets Reps (increase weight)
1 12
2 10
3 8
4 6

Again, if those first sets are taken to failure (or the rest periods are too short) it may be difficult to increase the weight on each set. In that case you just try to get the reps required even if you have to actually decrease the weight instead.


Triangle Pyramid Training (Ascending/Descending Pyramid)

One popular plateau busting method is to purposely overtrain a muscle with the goal of triggering super-compensation.

Usually this overtraining comes from briefly doing a substantially higher volume of sets than normal for the problem muscle.

With Pyramid Training you can easily almost double the workout volume by following up the ascending sets with descending sets as well, hence the triangle name.

As usual you will try to increase the weights (or try to) while decreasing the reps during the first sets up the pyramid (ascend). But now you will come back down the pyramid (descend) by decreasing the weights while increasing the reps on the last sets.


Pyramid Strength Training

If you’re interested in strength gains, the general recommendation is to keep your training around 5 reps or less.

Pyramid Training can be used in that case by completing 5 sets starting at 5 reps and finishing at 1 rep (5-4-3-2-1). Rest 2-4 minutes between sets.

Ascending Sets Reps (increase weight)
1 5
2 4
3 3
4 2
5 1

If you want to work up to a good solid 1 rep, it’s best to avoid going to failure on the sets prior to that 1 rep set.

That will mean picking weights that are lighter than a 5 rep max to start the workout so that you can continue to increase weight on all sets up to the 1 rep set.

If you want to do even more volume, after completing the 1 rep set you can use the ascending/descending triangle pyramid strategy above and come back down the pyramid with lighter weights and higher reps (5-4-3-2-1-2-3-4-5).

Ascending Sets Reps (increase weight) Descending Sets Reps (decrease weight)
1 5 6 2
2 4 7 3
3 3 8 4
4 2 9 5
5 1