If you’ve ever picked up a bodybuilding magazine, you’ve probably come across pyramid training workouts before.
Indeed, they are probably one of the most popular types of workout routines out there – and are what most guys who follow a structured workout plan tend to start with.
However, I am going to let the cat out of the bag here and say that pyramid training is pretty lousy and generally not worth your time.
And I am saying this as someone who wasted years of precious gym time following pyramid-oriented routines without knowing any better.
In this article, I am going to explore what pyramid training is, why it isn’t the smart way to work out, and what you should be doing instead.
What Is Pyramid Training?
The name for this type of training is actually very fitting, since the set and rep structure really does resemble a pyramid.
Basically, if you follow a pyramid approach to weight training, you start with lighter weight for a greater number of reps for your first set, and then gradually increase weight with each successive set while simultaneously decreasing the number of reps.
Here is how a typical pyramid training structure might look like for the bench press:
Set 1: 12 reps x 135 lbs
Set 2: 10 reps x 155 lbs
Set 3: 8 reps x 185 lbs
Set 4: 6 reps x 225 lbs
Does this type of training look at all familiar?
For most of you, I would bet that it probably does, since this is what most guys end up doing when they’re at the gym (or at least some variation of it).
So, in short, with pyramid training you start with the lightest amount of weight, and finish your last set with the heaviest amount of weight. Simple.
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Why Is Pyramid Training So Popular?
Obviously one reason is that it’s a tried and true approach that the many pros have followed for years.
And the thing is, it does work…
In fact, when I first started lifting weights in college, I started with a pyramid training routine myself, created for me by the then-popular Gym America.
I didn’t know what the hell I was doing, but I dutifully followed the program and made fairly consistent progress (with a lot of missteps along the way).
So before I get hate emails for unfairly maligning pyramid training, let me say very clearly that you can make progress with this type of structure.
However, it isn’t by any means optimal, and I’ll get to why this is in a second…
In my opinion, the reason why pyramid training is so popular, and has stood the test of time, is because it makes intuitive sense, and also serves an important function.
When you think about it, there is a logic to starting with lighter weights before you blast your muscles with your really heavy sets.
This helps to prevent injury, and allows you to physically prepare yourself for your heaviest sets, while steadily progressing through more and more weight.
In a way, pyramid training serves as a replacement for a proper warm-up routine.
The first sets of the pyramid are effectively the warm-up – whereas the final sets are where you lift the ‘real’ weight that allow you to develop your strength and build muscle properly.
So What Is Wrong With Pyramid Training?
Well, even though it incorporates a warm-up (of sorts), pyramid training is not an ideal way to work out.
The reason for this is quite simple…
As a natural weight lifter, the most efficient way to stimulate muscle growth is through progressive overload.
This means that your workouts should be structured in a way that allows you to systematically progress, lifting heavier and heavier weights month after month.
If you follow a pyramid-oriented approach, however, your muscles will end up being quite fatigued by the time you reach your final heavy set at the top of the pyramid.
Let’s look back to the above example I gave with the bench press.
If you are only getting to your max weight of 225 lbs on your 4th set, do you really think you’ll be able to lift a maximal amount of weight?
Of course not!
You’ll be tired by that point, which will inevitably mean that the amount you can lift will suffer.
Over time, this impairs your ability to move onto heavier and heavier weights, thereby needlessly slowing down your overall progress.
It’s as if you force yourself to climb up an entire mountain, without conserving your energy for the final adversary that’s waiting for you at the top.
What You Should Be Doing Instead
Not to worry – even if you’ve been wasting your time with pyramid sets for years, hope is not lost!
There are several other viable alternatives that you can do, and you’ll be able to see benefits almost immediately.
Instead of pyramid training, I would recommend either modified straight sets or reverse pyramid training.
Modified straight sets are very simple, but also very effective if you do them correctly.
In fact, it is what I recommend for the majority of my clients, at least when starting out.
Basically, modified straight sets are when you work with the same amount of weight for each of your ‘real’ sets, focusing on a specific rep range.
For instance, here is the same bench press routine using a modified straight set approach:
Set 1: 6-8 reps x 245 lbs
Set 2: 6-8 reps x 245 lbs
Set 3: 6-8 reps x 245 lbs
You’ll notice several key differences here.
First of all, the amount of weight is higher than the maximum amount of weight on the pyramid sets.
This is because we are assuming that you’ll be able to lift a heavier amount of weight, since you won’t be tired from the mountain of sets that came before it!
Secondly, we use a rep range for each set, as opposed to a fixed number of reps.
This allows for some level of variation from set to set, but still provides a clear bench mark for you to progress from.
Now let’s take a look at reverse pyramid training, also known as RPT.
With reverse pyramid training, you start with your heaviest set, and then decrease weight while increasing reps for each subsequent set.
Here is how it might look:
Set 1: 6 reps x 245 lbs
Set 2: 8 reps x 225 lbs
Set 3: 10 reps x 205 lbs
This is basically the exact opposite of traditional pyramid training, where you literally flip the pyramid upside-down, starting with your heaviest set first.
This allows you to maximize the amount of weight that you can lift, while still allowing for the reality of fatigue setting in, and attempting to avoid overexerting your central nervous system beyond what is actually necessary to maximize your progressions.
There are all sorts of nuances to reverse pyramid training, but for now I’m going to leave it at that, and will save them for their own article another time.
At the end of the day, each of these approaches have their pros and cons – but in my opinion they are both considerably more effective than conventional pyramid training.
But Won’t I Hurt Myself If I Start With Heavy Weights?
Yes, you will definitely hurt yourself – which is why modified straight set and reverse pyramid training both necessitate warming up properly beforehand.
I won’t go into an entire warm-up routine in this article (I talk about it in a bit more detail here), but you should be doing 3-4 lighter warm-up sets before you move on to your ‘real’ sets with either of these 2 protocols.
However, these warm-up sets should not be enough to fatigue your muscles, or take away from your strength for your ‘real’ sets; instead, they should be just enough to get your blood flowing, get you used to the motion, and help mentally prepare you to lift some heavy weight!
What do you think of pyramid training? Please let us know your experiences with it in the comments below.