Working out can turn out to be a very gruesome task. That said, our bodies are masters of adaptation. Over time, the tasks that used to be hard to accomplish become easier and you eventually hit a plateau. Now as much as plateaus can be frustrating, there are at least several ways of getting past them and one is pyramid workouts. In this article, we tell you everything you need to know about pyramid training and how you can use it to boost your workouts.
What Is A Pyramid Workout
Short answer? These are sets of workouts consisting of similar exercises that vary in intensity at each stage. In most cases you’ll ideally start on the lightweight workouts with higher reps and progress toward heavier ones with lower reps.
A full pyramid on the other hand is a more comprehensive version of the normal pyramid workouts. In full pyramids, you’ll be required to gradually decrease the weights after reaching the peak and then continue decreasing until the pyramid is complete.
The structure behind pyramid workouts is largely based on the progression principle. This principle states that for continued growth of systems or muscles, stimulus should be periodically increased. Ultimately it will result in an overload that leads to increased muscle mass and strength (2).
How Does A Pyramid Workout Work?
As mentioned earlier, pyramid training is a stepped approach towards doing sets and repetitions. There are, however, different methods you can use to achieve this including:
In this routine, you steadily increase the weight while decreasing reps for each set. See to it that you adjust the weight and sets for your preferred equipment like barbells or dumbbells to the maximum you can tolerate in each set. Here’s an example of what a standard pyramid would look like:
- Set 1 – 35 lbs x 15 reps
- Set 2 – 45lbs x 12 reps
- Set 3 – 55 lbs x 10 reps
This routine involves gradually decreasing the weights while increasing reps in each consecutive set. Here’s an example of what a reverse pyramid would look like:
- Set 1 – 55 lbs x 10 reps
- Set 2 – 45 lbs x 12 reps
- Set 3 – 35 lbs x 14 reps
Diamond pyramids involve increasing then decreasing weight in intervals over and extended 5 set muscle blast. Here’s an example of what this routine would look like:
- Set 1 – 25 lbs x 14 reps
- Set 2 – 30 lbs x 12 reps
- Set 3 – 35 lbs x 10 reps
- Set 4 – 30 lbs x 12 reps
- Set 5 – 25 lbs x 14 reps
In this pyramid, you’ll be flowing down and up or up and down (in terms of weight) in an up and down step series. Here’s an example of what a step pyramid would look like:
- Set 1 – 55 lbs x 14 reps
- Set 2 – 45 lbs x 12 reps
- Set 3 – 35 lbs x 10 reps
- Set 4 – 45 lbs x 12 reps
- Set 5 – 55 lbs x 14 reps
All these are just guidelines for planning your workout. Feel free to experiment with it until you find what best suits you.
You must now be wondering exactly what are the benefits of pyramid workout routines. We look at that in the next section.
What Are The Benefits Of Pyramid Workouts?
Pyramid Training Includes Warm-Ups
One of the leading causes of exercise-related muscle injury is not preparing your muscles for the workout through warming up (1). However, when performing a pyramid workout routine, warm-up sets are naturally incorporated.
Pyramid workout plans usually start off with lighter weights that progressively increase in load. This kind of regimen gets your target muscles warmed up and pliable just before the “main” part of the workout. Ultimately your risk of injury will be greatly reduced and your capacity to lift more weight increased.
Pyramid Training Strengthens Your Core
Ascending pyramids are best tailored for people looking for strength gains (3). However, some athletes and powerlifters seeking absolute maximum strength can’t pull as many sets as bodybuilders. This is largely attributed to muscle failure and as a result they can only manage about 1-2 per exercise.
Pyramid sets workouts are usually tailored in such a way that maximal power is generated in the last 1-2 sets. It is during this period that you’ll need to move the heaviest weights in the workout. The beauty of it all, however, is that the preceding sets can be used as warm-ups, reducing the risk of muscle failure.
Pyramid Training Can Help Activate Your Central Nervous System
Studies have indicated that pyramid sets workouts are one of the best ways to activate your Central Nervous System (CNS). Working on your CNS (Central Nervous System) on the other hand, is one of the key ways of maximizing your muscle strength (4). How? Let’s find out.
See, your CNS is responsible for sending signals to your muscles in preparation for action execution. So the better your intentions to work out are communicated, the better you will perform and feel throughout the workout. Ultimately this increases efficiency and overall output in terms of muscle gains (4).
Pyramid Training Keeps You Motivated
Working out, regardless of the type, can be very demanding on your body. As such, you may sometimes be tempted to stop when things start getting more challenging. However, this is usually not the wisest of decisions since for you to achieve your goals, you need to see the whole process through.
Several factors like monotonous routines and fear of starting with heavy weights at the beginning of workouts can demotivate you. However, you should not worry about this in pyramid workout routines as it involves gradually increasing weights and reducing reps. With this in mind, be sure to remember consistency is the key to success and you just have to get to the top of the pyramid!
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Pyramid Training Lets You “Feel Things Out”
One of the most dreadful things you can face in a gym is trying to lift weights and failing. This is something you can easily avoid in pyramid sets. Usually in pyramid workouts, you’ll be able to tell before attempting to lift the weights whether they’re too heavy for you or not.
If you find yourself struggling in the earlier warmup sets, moving forward to the heavier sets may be unsafe. This may be an indicator of fatigue, incomplete recovery or you haven’t eaten enough. Take note that you don’t ignore this feedback since it can save you from injuries and a lot of frustration.
Pyramid Training Can Help You Pace Yourself
Most workouts usually involve compound exercises that can really tire you out. Pacing yourself is a vital aspect of any workout.
Pyramid training can help you pace yourself by progressively increasing the workload while decreasing the reps. This then means that your total volume will be moderate instead of insanely high. Eventually you’ll be able to repeat the same process on other exercises and lifts.
That being said, what is the other side of the coin? Are there any risks to pyramid workout sets? Let’s find out.
What Are The Risks Of A Pyramid Workout?
There are two main drawbacks associated with this kind of workout regimen. They include:
Pyramid Workouts And Muscle Failure
Warm-ups are not supposed to be done to muscle failure or even anywhere close to it. This, however, is usually a major concern in pyramid training especially if you start out strong early in the workout.
While it may be tempting to take a set to muscle failure, you should know that it’s not the best of decisions. You’ll only end up compromising your strength which may affect your performance in the proceeding sets. Also taking several lighter sets to failure ultimately undermines your goal, whether it’s building muscle size and strength.
That being said, be sure to stop any warm up sets well before muscle failure. Remember you need your muscles to stay as fresh as possible for the last set which is the heaviest.
Pyramid Workouts And Muscle Size
As discussed previously, there’s always a risk of muscle failure just before your last set in ascending pyramids. This is usually not enough if your primary goal is increasing muscle size.
In order for your muscles to grow, they need to undergo a considerable amount of strain and stress. This is why muscle failure is important for initiating the growth process and falling one set short of this may not cut it. While it’s true ascending pyramids may be great to increase muscle strength, the same may not hold for maximizing muscle size.
The Do’s And Don’ts Of A Pyramid Workout
Like any workout, there’s always a risk of injury involved when performing a pyramid workout routine. Here are some tips that will keep you safe throughout the workout:
Don’t Do Your Warm-Up Sets Until Failure
Never take your warm-up sets to muscle failure when doing an ascending pyramid. Warm-up sets are those that you’re taking up in weight, with a lower rep target in the following sets of the workout.
Only go till muscle failure once you reach the top of the pyramid i.e, set with the heaviest weight and lowest rep target for each exercise.
However, for bodybuilders or individuals aiming to maximize muscle size, it’s advisable to take multiple sets to failure. This is why descending pyramids are particularly popular among this group of people.
Don’t Push Yourself Too Hard At The Beginning
Pushing your body hard by lifting heavy weights when starting the workout is not advisable. Pyramid training covers most bases including muscle strength, endurance and hypertrophy, making it a great workout (3). Note that heavy weights at the beginning may lead to fatigue and disrupt your form.
Aim to start with weights that are approximately 60% of your 1RM, gradually increasing your weight to fit your strategy. Although if you’re planning on doing 7-set pyramids, start off with smaller weight increments building it over time.
Pay Attention To Your Form
Whenever you notice your form staggering or wavering, try decreasing the weight to maintain your form. Also, ensure that you maintain the target reps per set to help you achieve the required volume.
Ensure You Warm-Up And Cool Down
Warming up your body before the workout session and cooling down is crucial. Why? It helps reduce the risk of muscle damage as a result of the intense workout (1).
Pull-ups, rope jumping and sit-ups are some of the best pre-workout moves you can use to warm-up. You should also consider stretching for about 10-15 minutes before lifting weights. If aerobic exercise is not your thing, you can try lifting lighter weights before the workout.
Cooling down also goes a long way in preventing muscle soreness after the workout. Pyramids can get quite intense and as such can make you sore. Freshening up with a bit of calisthenics, stretches or light aerobics should do the trick.
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Pyramid Workout Example
Here are a few workouts you can use in your pyramid workout routine:
Ascending Pyramid Workout Routine For Muscle Strength
Use free-weight dumbbells or an olympic-size barbell of about 45 pounds to build absolute strength. Also, complete all the sets of one exercise before moving to the next one in the workout. The overall intensity can be measured by the percentage of one rep max (1RM).
Here’s how the a pyramid workout used to train your barbell lifts in an ascending pyramid would look like:
- Set 1: 12 reps of the bar only (warm-up)
- Set 2: 12 reps of 60 percent 1RM (warm-up)
- Set 3: 12 reps of 75 percent 1RM (warm-up)
- Set 4: 10 reps of 80 percent 1RM
- Set 5: 8 reps of 85 percent 1 RM
- Set 6: 7 reps of 87 percent 1 RM
- Set 7: 4 reps of 90 percent 1 RM
This workout is made up of four work sets and three warm-up sets that progressively increase in weight while decreasing in reps each set.
Descending Pyramid For Muscle Building
Compound moves like dumbbell over presses can be done with the heaviest weight without struggling because you’ll still be fresh. As much as you’ll plan to do 2-3 warm-up sets, jump to 90% of your 1RM for a set of four at the start your workout.
Here’s how a dumbbell overhead press will look like in a descending pyramid:
- Set 1: 12 reps of 10 pounds in each hand (warm-up)
- Set 2: 12 reps of 10 pounds in each hand (warm-up)
- Set 3: 6 reps of 30 pounds in each hand
- Set 4: 8 reps of 25 pounds in each hand
- Set 5: 10 reps of 20 pounds in each hand
- Set 6: 12 reps of 15 pounds in each hand
- Set 7: 14 reps of 10 pounds in each hand
The Bottom Line
Working out doesn’t have to be frustrating. And no, being in a plateau doesn’t mean you’re doing something wrong, it’s actually an indication of great progress. Pyramid workouts are an excellent way to overcome this phase while building your muscle strength, size and endurance.
This article is intended for general informational purposes only and does not address individual circumstances. It is not a substitute for professional advice or help and should not be relied on to make decisions of any kind. Any action you take upon the information presented in this article is strictly at your own risk and responsibility!
- Does warming up prevent injury in sport? The evidence from randomised controlled trials? (2006, pubmed.gov)
- Progression of volume load and muscular adaptation during resistance exercise (2014, nih.gov)
- The Comparison of Between the Effects of Two Training Methods on Dynamic Strength of Non-Athletes Males (2012, sciencedirectassets.com)
- Why strength depends on more than muscle: Neural adaptations could account for differing strength gains despite similar muscle mass (2017, sciencedaily.com)