Pyramid training is an old-school method that’s making a return as the cool kid on the lifting block.
Some say it’s THE answer. Others deem it a washed-up relic. Read on and discover why I think it’s a must-use method to accelerate strength and muscle gains.
For decades upon decades lifter’s have struggled to find the “right” weight for their sets…
“Did I go too light on that set? I felt like I coulda squeezed out a few more reps, but since by target was 6, I stopped there.”
“Dangit, I went way too heavy on that set. I needed to get 8 reps and only got 5.”
When you pick the wrong weight for your sets, you run into a few problems:
- You’re unable to stick to your program as written. Your program says do 6 reps, you go too light or too heavy and miss the mark…
- You have to decide how to move forward. Do you count that set as a “work set” or “warm-up”?
- You risk decreasing your performance for the rest of your sets on that exercise (or even the rest of your workout). You go too heavy (way too heavy). Now you’re fried and unable to lift as much as usual on the next few sets.
None of these scenarios are good. Nor are they doing anything to push your results in the direction you wanna go.
At best, they’ll lead to added frustration, which as we all know, is the last thing we need. The gym is an escape, a place where we go to crank up the music, turn our minds off, and train.
And worst case scenario? If you’re constantly dealing with issues of selecting the right weight week after week, your progress is gonna suffer. No doubt about it.
But what if there were a simple method that you could use to almost guarantee that you’ll pick the right weight for your sets? There is – and this article is going to show you how.
Maximizing The Methods of Strength
The key to gaining strength is adequate loading balanced with adequate recovery. If you choose weights that are too light, you fail to adequately tax the biggest muscle fibers that carry the most potential for size and strength gains.
Of course, going too heavy has it’s drawbacks as well. Namely, Central Nervous System (“CNS”) fatigue can lead to decreased performance and compromised recovery which will make it extremely difficult to bring the intensity needed to get stronger.
Bottom line: The method that allows you to use the heaviest weight possible within a strength-focused rep range, as efficiently as possible, is going to be king for getting stronger.
The goal is to hit “clean” reps within the strength rep range with adequate weight.
“Clean” reps in this case means perfect form executed without the help of a spotter. No slow, 10-second grinders.
“Adequate weight” can be defined as anything at 90% or greater of your maximum for the given amount of reps performed.
Training for strength is simple, but not easy. The vast majority of people screw it up by failing to have a system for selecting weights that are adequate for eliciting strength gains, while also accounting for variations in recovery.
Even charts that estimate percentages based on one-rep maxes can be faulty because they use performance at a previous time to predict what you are capable of now, which may or may not be accurate.
What happens if you’ve gotten stronger since testing your one-rep max and the percentage you’re using is too light?
What happens if your recovery is compromised on a given day and you are not capable of what the chart suggests you need to do?
What you really need is a method for determining the maximum performance you are capable of on a given day; not something that uses previous performance to predict future outcomes.
The BIG take away: the key to strength is using adequate weight while balancing recovery. To do that, you need a system that consistently allows you to select the “right weight” for that given day.
Maximizing The Methods of Hypertrophy
There are literally dozens of articles written each week on various bodybuilding and fitness websites geared toward building muscle. It seems that after all of these words, many of us still aren’t sure what building muscle is really about.
Truth is, it’s actually fairly simple:
- Use adequate weights in a hypertrophy range.
- Maximize muscular tension within target muscle.
- Add volume to your workouts over time by lifting more weight, doing more reps with the same weight, or adding more sets.
The kicker? The “enterTRAINment” culture currently so prevalent makes it really damn difficult to consistently do what is most essential for building muscle.
Things like “muscle confusion” and “constantly varied programming” are keeping people entertained, but doing little to produce significant, measurable, predictable muscle gains.
Fact of the matter: the more complicated, varied, and confusing any training program is, the less likely it will effectively build significant muscle mass long term. Getting caught up in fancy-schmancy programs and techniques is likely going to make your physique pursuits more difficult, not less.
A simple, straight-forward method that helps you do the three “muscle building essentials” listed above is going to be your best bet.
What We Can Learn From The Greatest Bodybuilders of All Time (and Some of The Strongest Dudes Walking The Planet)
In today’s world of rampant steroid usage and millions of conflicting messages, it’s hard to know what’s legit and what’s bullshit.
We’ve already looked at some theory, so now it’s time to look at practical evidence. In other words, what are the people at the “top” doing that has produced consistent results over and over again?
First up: Dorian Yates. Winner of 6 consecutive Mr. Olympia titles (1992-1997) and credited as being one of the greatest bodybuilders of the modern era.
When you look at the way Yates trained, he often wrote his workouts as following:
- 2 warm up sets of 10-12 reps.
- 1 work set of 8-10 reps.
The reps changed based on the goal, but the method remained.
Just a few sets, most being progressivly heavier “work up” sets and one top-end “work” set.
He used 2 “warm up sets” to groove the movement pattern and get the right muscles firing, and he would then go all out for one top-end “work set.”
This is a lot different than the endless sets you often see in bodybuilding workouts. Way different, in fact. But it WORKED.
Why? Because Yates knew that quality is far more important than quality. This simple, straightforward approach allowed him to hit the right intensity within a hypertrophy rep range without annihilating himself.
Yates wasn’t alone with this concept of “working up” to just a few hard sets.
Ronnie Coleman, a guy who is widely renowned as the greatest bodybuilder of all time followed a similar approach. He would do a few progressively heavier sets and then one all-out top-end set.
This is also the way a lot of elite-level Strongmen – and even Crossfit Games Athletes – train their major lifts.
What do these guys know that people who wear themselves out doing “junk” set after set until they can’t lift their arms know?
They know that you have a limited amount of focus and physical capacity for high-intensity sets, and they know that hitting just a few “perfect” sets is far more effective for gaining strength and mass than constantly doing more and more sets.
The question is: is there a simple, scientifically-backed way you can apply this to your workouts?
Moving On To Pyramid Training
Okay, you got me. None of the above really told you what pyramid training is, or how you can use it to build more muscle in less time.
What it hopefully did, though, was show that the most important factors for building muscle are providing proper stimulus for growth with a simple method that’s easy to progress and follow.
The all-too common straightset approach of “3 sets of 10” (or any other combination) may be more “traditional”, but that doesn’t make it an optimal way to train. Not by a long shot.
And annihilating yourself with set after set after set? Not only is that a recipe for disaster for drug-free, natural trainees, that’s not even the approach most of the strongest, fittest, biggest guys on the planet use.
Training with multiple rep ranges on the same exercise, within the same workout in a way that “ramps up” to your heaviest set of the day could potentially have more benefit. A LOT more benefit.
And this is where Pyramid Training comes in…
What is Pyramid Training?
Pyramid training is essentially a way of structuring the sets and reps during your workouts so that you start at a higher rep range and work your way down to a lower rep range with heavier weights.
So instead of doing 3 sets of 10, you do 1 set of 10-12, 1 set of 8-10, and one set of 6-8.
The combinations are practically endless. It’s really simple, but don’t let the simplicity fool you.
Beyond being fun and challenging, pyramid training provides some unique benefits. As discussed above, one of the most important aspects of gaining strength and building muscle is providing enough of the right stimulus.
Specifically, using weights that are 90% or greater of the maximum weight you can do on a given exercise for a given amount of reps, is necessary to elicit gains.
This is why selecting the right weight for each of your sets is crucial.
Pyramid training makes weight selection much simpler.
Why? Because with pyramid training and aiming for rep ranges – not a fixed number of reps – you can use “feedback” from each set to better select your weights for the following set.
As mentioned above, some of the greatest bodybuilders of all time advocate working up to one top-end, hard set. The volume from the “work up sets” counts, but it’s the one or two top-end sets, executed with perfection that hold the real gains.
With pyramid training, doing this becomes very simple (as you’ll see in the examples below).
The setup of pyramid training is important, but in order to maximize the effectiveness of this method, execution is key.
Rules and Regulations of Pyramid Training
The basic guidelines for taking full advantage of pyramid training are as follows —
- Pick 1-2 exercises to use pyramid training with each workout. You don’t want to overdo it. This is an intense method – especially when you’re going to be laser-focused on progressing these lifts (as I’ll outline below).
- Use rep ranges, rather than a fixed number of reps. The power of pyramid training is that you are able to use “feedback” from each set to select weights that are
- Use rep ranges specific to your desired goal for a given exercise. For pure strength, reps between 1-6 are ideal. When hypertrophy is the main goal, aim for reps between 6-12. Finally, for strength endurance, program reps between 12-20.
- You absolutely MUST keep a training log and write down the weight used and reps completed for every exercise you use pyramid training with. That should be a given no matter what, but with pyramid training (and how we’re going to use it), it’s non-negotiable or you will leave gains on the table.
First up, decide which exercises you will be doing pyramid training style. As mentioned above, this can be a taxing method, especially when it’s being used primarily to increase strength, so it’s best to choose just a few exercises each workout.
It doesn’t really matter what your current workout split is, but I prefer to use an upper/lower or upper/lower/full split training 3-4 times per week.
So your weekly training schedule could look like this:
Monday – Upper Body
Wednesday- Lower Body
Friday – Upper Body
Monday – Upper Body
Wednesday – Lower Body
Friday – Full Body
Once you know your training split, you want to select 1-2 exercises for each workout that you will use pyramid training with. These need to be exercises that use some form of external weight (barbell, dumbbells, cables, etc.).
Bodyweight exercises are not ideal for pyramid training because adjusting resistance for various rep-ranges can be complicated. Pull-ups are an exception because by using a belt that you attach weight to, adding resistance becomes pretty simple.
Ideally, you’ll select one upper body push and one upper body pull to use pyramid training with for upper body days, and then a squat and/or hip hinge movement for lower body.
So you may choose the following:
Workout #1 (upper body): Incline bench press and pull-ups.
Workout #2 (lower body): Barbell Squat and Romanian Deadlifts
Workout #3: Dumbbell bench press and seated cable rows.
Again, if you already have a workout program in place that you are doing, simply plug in pyramid training, using the example above for reference. If you are currently doing random workouts (or not training consistently at all), pick up the Athletic-Aesthetic Physique, which already has pyramid training built into the programming.
Choose Your Reps
As discussed above, the power of pyramid training is that you get to do multiple sets within a strength or hypertrophy rep range. Or, if you’re seeking a hybrid approach, you could do some crossover between rep ranges as well.
Once you’ve decided the exercises you will be using pyramid training with, next you need to decide what your primary goal is.
For pure mass gains, stick within the 6-12 range.
For pure strength gains, stick within the 1-6 range.
For a hybrid approach, go for the 4-10 range.
So for mass, you could do one set of 10-12, one set of 8-10, and one set of 6-8.
For strength, you could do one set of 4-6, one set of 2-4 and one set of 1-3 reps.
Finally, for a hybrid approach, you could do one set of 8-10, one set of 6-8, and one set of 4-6.
The choice is yours, but you need to decide what your primary goal is and select a rep range that matches up.
Yes – pyramid training is a great technique on its own. But, we are going to use it in a specific way that I’ve found to make it even more effective.
The idea with pyramid training is to add volume each week.
There are three ways to do this:
- Add weight and keep the reps the same.
- Keep the weight the same, but add reps
- Add sets
We’re going to aim for progressing with methods 1 & 2, but keep method #3 in our “back pocket” in case that just isn’t possible every week (I’ll show you how to do this below).
Now, let’s get down to a specific example. We’ll use the bench press as our exercise and the following set and rep parameters:
1 x 10-12
1 x 8-10
1 x 6-8
Here’s how this might look:
The goal during week 1 is mainly to get an idea of what weights you’ll be working with during this 4-week cycle. This can take some trial and error. That’s okay. Week 1 is like an “intro week”, you don’t have to get it perfect.
As discussed above, the goal with pyramid training as we’re going to use it is to use feedback from the first few sets so that your final set is as close to perfect as possible. The first two sets here are important, but the final set is what we’re really dialed in on.
On that final set, you want to choose a weight that allows you to hit the “sweet spot”, where you hit the target rep range, knowing you didn’t’ go too light or too heavy.
For our example, on set 1, you’re aiming for a weight that allows you to hit 10-12 reps. After a few warm-up sets, choose a weight that you think will allow you to get within that rep range.
Now, you’re going to select weight for your second set based on performance of your first set…
… Did you go too light on the first set? Make sure you’re adding a good 15-20 pounds for the 2nd set.
… Did you go too heavy? Be conservative when adding weight for your 2nd set.
… NAIL it with the right weight? Awesome, add 5-10 pounds for your next set.
Remember: with pyramid training, each set will naturally be heavier because you’re decreasing reps. Your goal is to use the previous set to determine how much weight you should add from set to set.
After your second set, you’ll repeat this same “feedback loop” to select a weight for your 3rd and final set.
Getting your weights right this week is going to make the next three weeks more effective. Make sure you write down your weights/reps performed for each set – you’ll need that next week.
During week 2, our goal is simple: on each set, we want to do more reps or add weight and do the same amount of reps as week 1 (make sense why I was so adamant about keeping a training journal?).
Here’s how to determine which approach to take:
- If you hit the top-end of the rep range during week 1, you will add 5 pounds.
- If you hit the low-end (or in the middle), you’ll keep the weight the same and aim for 1 more rep.
Let’s look at a specific example of how this could play out:
Set 1: During week 1, you did 155 pounds for 12 reps. That’s the top-end of the 10-12 rep range for that set. You will add 5 pounds and aim for 10-12 reps.
Set 2: During week 1, you did 165 pounds for 9 reps. This is right in the middle of the 8-10 rep range, so you’ll keep the weight the same and try to get 10 reps.
Set 3: During week 1, you did 175 pounds for 6 reps. This is at the low-end of the rep range, so you will keep the weight the same and aim for 7-8 reps.
Don’t overthink it and don’t overcomplicate it…
Hit the top-end of the rep range on previous week? Add 5 pounds.
Hit the bottom or middle of the rep range on the previous week? Aim for one more rep with the same weight.
On week 2, I guarantee you’ll be able to either do the same amount of reps with more weight, or do more reps with the same weight on at least one of your sets. More than that is great – but at least one gives you a checkmark in the “win” column.
Three weeks in is where things get interesting. During week 1, you experimented a bit and found the weights you’ll be working with.
Week 2, you progressed by doing more reps with the weight you used in week 1 or you added a bit more weight and aimed to get the same amount of reps as you did with a lighter weight the previous week.
For week 3, our plan is to progress in the same way. But, sometimes things don’t go according to plan, so we’re gonna have an “ace” in our back pocket if need be.
First up, if possible progress in one of the two main ways. Here’s a reminder of how we’re doing that:
- If you hit the top-end of the rep range during week 2, you will add 5 pounds.
- If you hit the low-end (or in the middle), you’ll keep the weight the same and aim for 1 more rep.
Same as week 1. Simple.
BUT – what if this doesn’t work? Because for some people (especially the more “advanced” you are), this may not work.
Some would suggest you force it – make it happen. But that’s a good way to get injured. Plus, sacrificing form for another rep isn’t true progress.
So we need to have a plan in place for progression even if you aren’t able to add weight or get more reps. So here’s the plan:
- If you are unable to get the same number of reps as week 2 with a heavier weight and you are unable to do more reps, you will add one more set.
So the setup for the exercise(s) you are using pyramid training with moves from this:
Set 1: 10-12 reps
Set 2: 8-10 reps
Set 3: 6-8 reps
Set 1: 10-12 reps
Set 2: 8-10 reps
Set 3: 6-8 reps
Set 4: As many reps as possible (perfect form) with weight used on your first set.
This is really simple.
All you’re doing is adding one more set where you will perform as many reps as possible using the same weight you used for your first set on that exercise that day. So here’s how it may look with weights:
Set 1: 11 reps with 135 pounds
Set 2: 10 reps with 145 pounds
Set 3: 6 reps with 160 pounds
Set 4: 135 pounds for as many reps as possible.
Adding in this fourth set works great because it still allows you to provide progressive overload when you aren’t able to add weight or do more reps.
By week four, we’ve pushed the envelope for three straight weeks. Newbies can get away with continuing to get after it, but intermediate and advanced trainees may actually benefit more from scaling back the intensity a bit.
Here’s two different options you can choose from for week four.
Newbies (0-2 years of consistent training)
- Continue to aim for progression as outlined in weeks 1-3.
Intermediate/advanced trainees (2+ years of consistent training)
- Using the weight from your first set in week 1, do 3 sets of 10-12 reps.
Don’t overthink this too much. If you’re pretty new to training and haven’t gotten significantly stronger, stick with option #1 and continue to aim for progression.
If you’ve been lifting consistently for a while and are pretty strong, option #2 will give your joints and nervous system a break so that you can recover and bring the intensity back up again the next week.
After completing this four-week cycle, you would simply repeat the same setup with new exercise variations for each movement pattern that you want to use pyramid training with.
So instead of a flat barbell bench press, you could do incline dumbbell bench presses.
The Wrap Up
It really is no surprise that some of the greatest strength athletes and bodybuilders from years ago up to today regularly use pyramid training to get stronger and build mass.
When it comes to gaining strength that leads to increased muscle, there are two crucial elements:
- Choosing the “right” weight (getting as close to the maximum amount of weight you can lift for a given rep range without overdoing it and sacrificing your ability to recover).
- Getting stronger in rep-ranges that are conducive to building muscle.
With Pyramid Training, you can hit both of these essentials in really efficient, simple system.