Pyramid weight training is a set and rep scheme that can be used to build both strength and size. As with any training methodology, it has its pros and cons. Knowing the difference will help you plan your pyramid strength training sessions.
When you perform an ascending pyramid in your workout, you add weight to each set. Consequently, you also perform fewer reps in each set. A 2005 study in Coach & Athletic Director recommended that the rep range for the first set fall between 10-12, 8-10 for the second set, 6-8 for the third set, and 4-6 for the final set. However, these are just guidelines. There is no need to limit a pyramid to only four sets.
As a hypothetical example, the ascending pyramid of an intermediate strength trainee might look like this, and then at some of the benefits of this structure will be discussed:
Barbell back squat:
Even in the short example pyramid above, there are a lot of reps. Pyramid weight training is higher in the volume of sets than many other lifting schemes. Increased volume can be great for hypertrophy (muscle growth). However, keep in mind that hypertrophy is contingent on how hard the muscles work, not simply the amount of reps performed.
With additional reps comes a lot of additional practice. Pavel Tsatsouline, author of many strength-training books including Enter The Kettlebell and Power to the People! Russian Strength Training Secrets for Every American, has said many times that “strength is a skill.” The skill component of strength training will be well honed from all of this extra work. Pyramid strength training provides a great foundation for raw power and for building the technique of each lift involved in the pyramids.
Because you start with light weights, pyramid weight training makes it difficult for you not to warm up properly. Going into the gym and trying to hit weights that are near your max is futile, and potentially dangerous, as not being warm makes it easier to get injured. The ascending pyramid essentially includes your warm-up sets in your scheme.
Before getting into the cons, it is worth mentioning descending pyramids. They work like ascending pyramids—meaning, the reps are low when the weights are heavy—but in reverse order. Therefore, after warming up, you would start with the heaviest weight of the pyramid, and the lowest reps. On the next set, you would lower the weight and increase the reps. The cons listed below can all be accounted for with reverse pyramids.
Ascending pyramid weight training has some downsides when it comes to building muscle. This doesn’t mean that there is no hypertrophy, only that there are better training methods if hypertrophy is the primary goal. Muscle growth depends on how thoroughly a muscle is stimulated and exhausted. This kind of fatigue is often generated by taking a set to failure—the point at which you can’t do another rep.
In ascending pyramid training, because you start with light poundages, relatively few of the numerous sets will be taken near anything resembling failure. Doing so early on in the pyramid would result in poorer performance (and lighter) weights at the top of the pyramid, when you’re shooting for the heaviest possible weight for a couple of reps.
With a reverse pyramid, you can put maximum effort into your heaviest sets since they appear at the beginning when your energy is high. As the weight on the bar decreases as you move down the pyramid, all sets can be taken to failure at higher reps if desired, given that the goal of heavy strength training has already been achieved.
The key to getting stronger—and bigger, in most cases—is progressive overload: adding weight whenever possible. Because pyramid weight training (in terms of reps, sets, and weight) can look so different from workout to workout, it can be challenging to know exactly how much you’re improving, unless you simply calculate the total volume of the workout.
For instance, if you deadlifted 225 pounds 5 times in last week’s workout, and this week you did the same amount of reps with 245 pounds, you know that’s progress. In a lengthy pyramid whose sets and reps might change from week to week, these crystal-clear examples of gains can be harder to spot. Descending pyramids can also make this easier to deal with, since your primary metric would generally be the first couple of heavy sets.
As with any lifting setup, pyramid weight training requires specific goals. If you know what your goals are, you can choose the best method for you. If pyramids sound like a good fit for the results you want, they’re easy to rotate into your workouts, particularly if you’re in a phase of training where you want to build strength while maintaining muscle mass.