Any way strategy to improve your ability to build muscle in a shorter time is much welcomed, correct? That is the allure and promise of pyramid sets. So find out what are pyramid sets and if you should be doing them – plus, a few ideas of pyramid sets for you to try next time you go to your local gym.

In the ever-evolving world of fitness, the allure of new and complex training methods often overshadows the simplicity of tried-and-true routines. Among the myriad of strategies that have captured the attention of fitness enthusiasts is the concept of pyramid sets. This intricate method of training has been woven into the fabric of workout regimes, promising a fresh approach to resistance training. But is it truly a revolutionary breakthrough, or just another convoluted addition to the fitness landscape?

Pyramid sets, at their core, are a structured approach to resistance training that involves varying the weight and repetitions across successive sets. This contrasts starkly with traditional training methods, where athletes typically adhere to a consistent load and rep range across all sets. The allure of pyramid sets lies in their dynamic nature – the fluctuation in intensity and volume is designed to inject a dose of variety and challenge into the mundane routine of lifting weights.

So let’s take a deep dive into pyramid sets, what they are, the benefits (and cons of doing them) and if you should, ultimately, add this strategy to your workout plan.

What Are Pyramid Sets and Should You Do Them?

At first glance, pyramid sets appear to be a sophisticated strategy, offering a nuanced approach to muscle conditioning. The method is categorised into different types, each with its unique pattern of progression.

Here’s how it typically works:

  1. Ascending Pyramid: You start with a lighter weight and higher repetitions. With each subsequent set, you increase the weight and decrease the repetitions. This allows for a gradual warm-up and incrementally challenges the muscles as they fatigue.
  2. Descending Pyramid: This is the reverse of the ascending pyramid. You begin with heavier weights and lower repetitions, then decrease the weight and increase the repetitions with each set. This approach helps in maintaining intensity as your muscles fatigue, enabling you to perform more reps with lighter weights.
  3. Full Pyramid: This method combines both ascending and descending pyramids. You start light, progressively increase to the heaviest weight, and then decrease the weight again, usually back to the starting point.

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On Paper, What Are Pyramid Sets

Here is an example of how you might structure pyramid sets for dumbbell curls, a common exercise aimed at developing the biceps:

  1. Ascending Pyramid:
  1. Set 1: 10 repetitions with 5 kg dumbbells
  2. Set 2: 8 repetitions with 7.5 kg dumbbells
  3. Set 3: 6 repetitions with 10 kg dumbbells
  4. Set 4: 4 repetitions with 12.5 kg dumbbells In this approach, you start with a lighter weight, which allows for a higher number of repetitions. With each set, you increase the weight and decrease the repetitions, intensifying the challenge as your muscles warm up.
  1. Descending Pyramid:
  1. Set 1: 6 repetitions with 12.5 kg dumbbells
  2. Set 2: 8 repetitions with 10 kg dumbbells
  3. Set 3: 10 repetitions with 7.5 kg dumbbells
  4. Set 4: 12 repetitions with 5 kg dumbbells Here, you start with a heavy weight for fewer repetitions and decrease the weight while increasing the repetitions. This approach helps maintain high intensity as your muscles start to fatigue, allowing you to perform more repetitions with lighter weights.
  1. Full Pyramid:
  1. Set 1: 12 repetitions with 5 kg dumbbells
  2. Set 2: 10 repetitions with 7.5 kg dumbbells
  3. Set 3: 8 repetitions with 10 kg dumbbells
  4. Set 4: 6 repetitions with 12.5 kg dumbbells
  5. Set 5: 8 repetitions with 10 kg dumbbells
  6. Set 6: 10 repetitions with 7.5 kg dumbbells
  7. Set 7: 12 repetitions with 5 kg dumbbells In the full pyramid, you start light, increase the weight, and then decrease it again, offering a comprehensive challenge across a spectrum of weights and repetitions.

The Popularity and Pitfalls of Pyramid Sets

Despite their intriguing structure, pyramid sets have become a topic of debate among fitness professionals. They are often celebrated for their potential to enhance training volume, a critical factor in muscle hypertrophy. However, a deeper dive into the mechanics of pyramid sets reveals a potential mismatch between expectation and reality.

When dissecting the volume achieved through pyramid sets compared to traditional methods, the benefits are not as clear-cut as one might assume. In certain configurations, pyramid sets may indeed facilitate a slight increase in volume, but this often requires precise calculation and execution, which may not be practical or significantly beneficial in the grand scheme of training.

Moreover, the complexity of pyramid sets – the need to meticulously adjust weights and reps – introduces an additional layer of effort that might not necessarily align with the ultimate goal: enhanced muscle gains. Scientific scrutiny suggests that pyramid sets do not offer a statistically significant advantage over traditional training methods in terms of muscle growth, strength, and overall performance.

Read Also: How To Build Muscle with Down Sets

Source: Photo courtesy of CrossFit Inc.

Benefits of Doing Pyramid Sets

Pyramid sets in training offer a range of benefits that can enhance your exercise routine and overall fitness results. Here are some of the key advantages:

  1. Progressive Overload: Pyramid sets inherently apply the principle of progressive overload, which is crucial for muscle growth and strength gains. By increasing the weight and decreasing the reps, or vice versa, you’re continuously challenging your muscles in different ways within the same workout.
  2. Muscle Endurance and Strength: Ascending pyramids, which start with lighter weights and higher reps, help in building muscle endurance. Conversely, descending pyramids focus more on strength by starting with heavier weights and lower reps. This dual approach ensures comprehensive muscle development.
  3. Enhanced Warm-up and Injury Prevention: The gradual increase in weight during ascending pyramid sets serves as an effective warm-up, reducing the risk of injuries. It allows the muscles, joints, and connective tissues to acclimate to heavier loads gradually.
  4. Metabolic Boost: Pyramid training can be intense, especially when rest periods between sets are short. This intensity can boost metabolism, aiding in fat loss alongside muscle building.
  5. Mental Engagement: The variety in rep schemes and weights helps maintain mental engagement and focus throughout the workout. It adds a strategic element to your training, requiring you to plan your sets and weights carefully.
  6. Plateau Prevention: The variability in pyramid sets can help prevent training plateaus. By continually altering the stimulus your muscles receive, you encourage ongoing adaptation and improvement, which is key to long-term progress.
  7. Flexibility: Pyramid sets offer flexibility in training. You can tailor them to suit your goals, whether it’s muscle endurance, strength, hypertrophy, or a combination of these. This adaptability makes pyramid training suitable for a wide range of fitness enthusiasts, from beginners to advanced athletes.

Incorporating pyramid sets into your routine can thus provide a well-rounded approach to strength and endurance training, contributing significantly to your overall fitness development.

Disadvantages of Doing Pyramid Sets

While pyramid sets offer numerous benefits, there are also some potential drawbacks or considerations to bear in mind:

  1. Increased Risk of Fatigue: Especially in ascending pyramid sets, starting with lighter weights and higher repetitions can lead to muscle fatigue, which might compromise your ability to lift heavier weights in subsequent sets. This could potentially affect the effectiveness of your strength training.
  2. Time-Consuming: Pyramid sets can be time-consuming since they often involve more sets and a varying number of repetitions. If you’re short on time, a straight set approach (using the same weight and reps for each set) might be more efficient.
  3. Complexity: For beginners, the concept of changing weights and reps with each set can be complex and potentially confusing. It requires a bit more planning and tracking compared to straightforward set structures.
  4. Risk of Overtraining: If not structured properly, pyramid sets could lead to overtraining, particularly if you’re lifting near-maximal weights in every session. Adequate recovery is crucial, and failing to manage this can increase the risk of overtraining and injury.
  5. Balancing Act: Finding the right balance in weights and repetitions for effective pyramid sets can be challenging, especially for those who are new to this training method. There’s a risk of either underloading or overloading, which can impact the effectiveness of the workout.
  6. Equipment Availability: In a gym setting, pyramid training can require access to a range of weights, which might not be practical during peak hours. This could lead to waiting times and disrupt the flow of your workout.
  7. Potential for Incomplete Recovery: The varying intensity levels within a single workout can sometimes lead to inadequate recovery between sets, especially if you’re alternating between heavy and light weights without adjusting rest periods accordingly.

While pyramid sets are a valuable training method, these considerations highlight the importance of tailoring your workout approach to your individual goals, fitness level, and context.

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The Subjective Appeal of Pyramid Sets

While the empirical evidence [1, 2, 3, 4] might not wholeheartedly endorse pyramid sets for muscle gains, their subjective benefits cannot be discounted. The varied intensity and volume of pyramid sets can make workouts more engaging and mentally stimulating. This diversification can imbue a sense of novelty and challenge, potentially fostering a more enjoyable and motivating training experience.

Furthermore, pyramid sets serve as a versatile tool in the fitness arsenal. They provide a practical means of experiencing different intensity levels and rep ranges within a single workout session. This versatility can be particularly beneficial for athletes engaged in sports requiring a blend of endurance, strength, and power, offering a holistic approach to training various muscle attributes.

Which Exercises Are Best to Try Pyramid Sets?

Pyramid sets can be effective for a wide range of exercises, particularly those that target major muscle groups and allow for easy adjustment of weights.

So, what exactly does that mean? If you can set up a barbell with multiple different plates next to it and change them relatively quickly, this could be great – personally, we at BOXROX believe with barbells it is easier to do the descending pyramid set as you just need to take away two plates from the barbell after each set, which is faster than increasing the weight.

With dumbbells, it can be even easier if you do have the option to reserve three or more pairs of dumbbells for yourself. In a home gym, it becomes a bit more difficult as most people don’t have that many dumbbells at their disposal – unless you got adjustable dumbbells, then you are good to go!

adjustable dumbbells

However, we believe the easiest exercises you can do pyramid sets with are the ones involving a machine. For these, you typically just need to change the pin on the machine and choose to lift a heavier or a lighter weight and BOOM, you’re done. Fast, easy, and perfect to go ascending, descending, or do the full pyramid set without wasting too much time in between.

Lastly, with bodyweight exercises you can still do pyramid sets, but you will need to have an extra weight to do that – or at least choose different progressions of the same exercise to increase or decrease the difficulty.

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Examples of Pyramid Sets for You to Try

As you read from above, you can pretty much do pyramid sets with any exercise. Below are some ideas for you to try pyramid sets with amazing exercises.

Note: the weights for the exercises below are just an example. Make sure you always select weights that challenge you, but that you can still perform the movements with proper form and safety.

Barbell Bench Press – Descending Pyramid

  1. Set 1: 6 repetitions with 60 kg
  2. Set 2: 8 repetitions with 50 kg
  3. Set 3: 10 repetitions with 40 kg
  4. Set 4: 12 repetitions with 30 kg

In this descending pyramid, you start with a heavier weight for fewer repetitions and then progressively decrease the weight, increasing the number of repetitions with each set. This approach allows for maintaining intensity as your muscles begin to fatigue, enabling you to perform more repetitions with lighter weights.

If you are unable to increase the number of repetitions for the next set, aim to do at least the same number of reps from the previous set. For example, if set 2 you did 8 reps, but on set 3 you cannot get to 10 reps, aim to do at least 8 reps. The same for set number 4; aim to do at least 8 reps, but go to failure if you can.

Dumbbell Lateral Raise – Ascending Pyramid

Here is an example of an ascending pyramid set for the dumbbell lateral raise, an exercise that targets the shoulder muscles, particularly the lateral deltoids:

  1. Set 1: 12 repetitions with 3 kg dumbbells
  2. Set 2: 10 repetitions with 4 kg dumbbells
  3. Set 3: 8 repetitions with 5 kg dumbbells
  4. Set 4: 6 repetitions with 6 kg dumbbells

In this ascending pyramid, you start with a lighter weight, which allows for a higher number of repetitions. With each subsequent set, you increase the weight and decrease the repetitions. This progression helps to warm up the muscles effectively and gradually increases the intensity to stimulate muscle growth and strength gains.

Leg Press Machine – Full Pyramid

  1. Ascending Phase:
  1. Set 1: 15 repetitions with 50 kg
  2. Set 2: 12 repetitions with 70 kg
  3. Set 3: 10 repetitions with 90 kg
  4. Set 4: 8 repetitions with 110 kg
  1. Descending Phase:
  1. Set 5: 10 repetitions with 90 kg
  2. Set 6: 12 repetitions with 70 kg
  3. Set 7: 15 repetitions with 50 kg

In the ascending phase, you start with a lighter weight for higher repetitions, progressively increasing the weight and reducing the repetitions. After reaching the peak (heaviest weight and lowest repetitions), you reverse the pattern in the descending phase, decreasing the weight and increasing the repetitions. This full pyramid approach thoroughly challenges the leg muscles, enhancing both strength and endurance.

Push-Up – Full Pyramid

Source: Mil Tech Pharma LTD on Unsplash

As we mentioned earlier, you can do pyramid sets with bodyweight exercises. In this case, you have to either have

When performing a full pyramid set with push-ups using varying difficulties, you can modify the push-up type at each stage to match the intended intensity. Here’s how you can structure it:

  1. Ascending Phase:
  1. Set 1: 15 repetitions of Knee Push-ups (Easiest)
  2. Set 2: 12 repetitions of Regular Push-ups
  3. Set 3: 10 repetitions of Diamond Push-ups (More challenging, focuses on triceps)
  4. Set 4: 8 repetitions of Decline Push-ups (Feet elevated, more challenging)
  5. Set 5: 6 repetitions of Weighted Push-ups
  1. Descending Phase:
  1. Set 6: 8 repetitions of Decline Push-ups
  2. Set 7: 10 repetitions of Diamond Push-ups
  3. Set 8: 12 repetitions of Regular Push-ups
  4. Set 9: 15 repetitions of Knee Push-ups (Returning to the easiest variation)

This structure allows you to progress from the easiest variation to the most challenging and then back down, effectively working different muscle groups and intensity levels within the same workout.

You can also skip the weighted push-up, or simply switch decline push-ups with weighted push-ups and do 6 sets instead of 9. Another option is to perform one-arm push-ups as a harder variation.

30 Push-Up Variations from Beginner to Advanced

Pull-Ups – Ascending Pyramid

  • Set 1: 8 repetitions of Negative Pull-ups (Jump up and slowly lower yourself down)
  • Set 2: 6 repetitions of Assisted Pull-ups (Using a band or an assistance machine)
  • Set 3: 4 repetitions of Standard Pull-ups
  • Set 4: 2 repetitions of Wide-Grip Pull-ups (More challenging due to the increased grip width)

In this pyramid, you start with the easier negative pull-ups to warm up and prime the muscles, progress to more difficult variations.  To make it even harder, you can add a muscle-up at the end, increase the reps for each set, or add weighted pull-ups.

12 Best Pull-Up Variations for Muscle Growth

Bodyweight Squats – Descending Pyramid

efficient pistol squats with bad ankle mobility
Pistol squats, or one-leg squat, is arguably the hardest bodyweight squat variation a person can do.
  • Set 1: 8 repetitions of Pistol Squats (single-leg squats, perform 4 per leg)
  • Set 2: 10 repetitions of Sumo Squats (wider stance for more inner thigh engagement)
  • Set 3: 12 repetitions of Full Bodyweight Squats
  • Set 4: 15 repetitions of Half Squats (not going full depth)

 As you can see, you can also do different variations of the bodyweight squat to increase or decrease its difficulty. The possibilities of doing pyramid sets with any exercise is (almost) endless.

The Verdict on Pyramid Sets

Pyramid sets for your workouts are a great way for you to cramp up more reps and challenge your body further compared to traditional 3 sets of 12 reps.

However, it is important to note that pyramid sets should not be viewed as a better option to build muscle. It is not superior to traditional weightlifting if in both instances the volume of your workout is similar.

For example, if you do 8 sets of bench press during a week with traditional weightlifting strategy (resting between sets and not increasing/decreasing weight or reps) and you do 8 sets of bench press with pyramid sets in a week as well, the results will be practically similar.

However, pyramid sets hold value as a methodological variation, offering psychological engagement and a broadened training experience. Particularly as warm-up routines or for those looking to explore different training intensities, pyramid sets can be a valuable addition to a well-rounded workout regimen.

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Ultimately, you might learn a thing or two after doing pyramid sets yourself. You could discover that you can actually push further when doing an exercise because you managed to do more sets than you normally did. This means, you will grow more muscle.

So, in the end, to summarise it all, listen to your body, do pyramid sets when you want to tackle your body’s fitness in a different way that is measurable and to, possibly, kick you out of a muscle-building plateau situation.

Happy training everyone.

What is a pyramid set?

A pyramid set is a training method where you progressively increase or decrease the weight and adjust the repetitions accordingly in each consecutive set of an exercise.

What are the types of pyramid sets?

There are three main types: ascending pyramid sets (where you increase weight and decrease reps), descending pyramid sets (where you decrease weight and increase reps), and full pyramid sets (a combination of ascending and then descending).

Why use pyramid sets in training?

Pyramid sets are used to progressively overload muscles, enhance strength and endurance, provide a thorough warm-up, maintain mental engagement, and help overcome plateaus.

Can pyramid sets be used for all exercises?

While they can be applied to most exercises, they are particularly effective for compound movements like squats, bench presses, and deadlifts, where weight can be easily adjusted.

How do I choose the right weights for a pyramid set?

Start with a weight that allows you to complete the desired number of reps with good form and gradually adjust the weights based on your strength and fitness levels.

Are pyramid sets suitable for beginners?

Yes, but it’s important for beginners to focus on mastering form before progressing to pyramid sets. They should start with lighter weights and gradually increase as they become more comfortable.

How often should I incorporate pyramid sets into my workout routine?

This depends on your training goals and program. Pyramid sets can be integrated into your routine, but it’s crucial to maintain a balance with other training methods to avoid overtraining.

What’s the difference between pyramid sets and drop sets?

Pyramid sets involve adjusting weights and reps over several sets. In contrast, drop sets involve performing an exercise to failure, then reducing the weight and continuing to perform more reps without rest.

Can pyramid sets improve muscle endurance?

Yes, especially ascending pyramid sets, where starting with lighter weights and higher reps enhances muscular endurance.

What are the potential drawbacks of doing pyramid sets?

Pyramid sets can be time-intensive and complex, particularly for beginners or those with limited gym access. The progressive intensity may lead to significant muscle fatigue, raising the risk of compromised form and potential injury. Additionally, the necessity for diverse weights or equipment can pose challenges in busy or minimally equipped environments.

Are pyramid sets effective for weight loss?

While primarily used for building strength and muscle, pyramid sets, due to their intensity, can also contribute to weight loss by boosting metabolism and increasing calorie burn.

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