Pyramid Training: What is it and How Does it Work?

Pyramid Training? Sign me up for this Pyramid Scheme! I’m all in!

First, though, you might be wondering what Pyramid Training is. That’s what this blog is for! The first thing you need to know is that Pyramid Training is for those who want to change up their workouts a bit, rather than do the same old straight set.

For the sake of this blog post, I will be speaking in terms of hypertrophy, defined by Merriam-Webster as an “increase in bulk (as by thickening of muscle fibers) without multiplication of parts”. Basically building muscle and burning fat!

man lifting heavy dumbbells from rack

A hypertrophy workout consists of exercises utilizing low to intermediate repetition ranges with progressive overload. An example of this is 3-5 sets of 8-12 repetitions, performing the barbell chest press at 75-85% of the one-repetition maximum (1RM) with a rest period of 1-2 minutes. This will vary on the type of workout you’re doing as you’ll see below.

When I compare Pyramid and Straight Set training, I don’t mean to say there is a better choice. It’s good to mix up your training every once in a while to add in some variety. Depending on your goals, you may want to give Pyramid Training a try.

Straight Sets look something like this:

3-5 sets of 10-15 reps of any specific movement.

3 x 15 Chest Press –> same weight, same # of sets, same rest.

A Pyramid Set looks a little different because, in those 3 sets, you will target the same muscle groups, but change the sets, reps, and rest.

Pyramid Training looks something like this:

First, find your 1RM by using a simple rep and weight calculator like this one. Once you have that, you’ll be able to find your appropriate weights for your reps and sets based off of calculations and experience rather than testing it out the day of your workout. This will cause unnecessary pre-fatigue. However, you should make sure you warm up appropriately, as usual!

So let’s say we’re working on hypertrophy. We’ll start at 12 repetitions. Find an appropriate weight that you can do for only 12 repetitions. You should not be able to perform 13 reps! This may take some practice, and perhaps this is why working on a straight set first or finding your 1RM may help you determine what weights work best for you.

Once you’ve completed that, you change the weight. The next set will be heavier because you will be performing fewer reps (10 repetitions). Notice that the rest (90 seconds) increases to improve the expression of anabolic hormones.

You will then do the same for a 3rd set – Increase the weight to your 8RM, perform 8 repetitions, and increase your rest to 120 seconds to allow for maximum recovery to maintain intensity and volume. Now, do you see where the pyramid comes from in the name Pyramid Training?

pyramid training by NASM

Source: NASM

It will look something like this:

Set 1 will be 12 reps @ 100% of your 12RM (ex. 40lbs) –> Rest for 60 seconds

Set 2 will be 10 reps @ 100% of your 10RM (ex. 50lbs) –> Rest for 90 seconds

Set 3 will be 8 reps @ 100% of your 8RM (ex. 60lbs) –> rest for 120 seconds

Once you’ve done your 3 sets, you can make a full pyramid by then reversing it. This is a bit tougher, as you are now starting with the heaviest weight and lowest rep-range (8RM for 8 repetitions), and ending with the lowest weight and highest rep-range. By the end, you will have completed 6 sets going up and down the pyramid. This does not include warm-up or cool-down sets.

Here is a visual so you can better understand what I mean by completing the pyramid or triangle.

triangle reverse pyramid training visual


A final option and one I believe requires a bit more experience in the gym, is to use a Reverse Pyramid Training scheme. Take what you did in the first 8-10-12 rep-scheme, and reverse it. You would then be starting with the heaviest weight, and ending with the lightest weight.

It will look something like this:

Set 1 will be 8 reps @ 100% of your 8RM (ex. 60lbs) –> Rest for 120 seconds

Set 2 will be 10 reps @ 100% of your 10RM (ex. 50lbs) –> Rest for 90 seconds

Set 3 will be 12 reps @ 100% of your 12RM (ex. 40lbs) –> rest for 60 seconds

It may not look that difficult when written out like this, but imagine you are in a Strength Phase and you are working your way up to your 1RM. That means you’d be starting with the heaviest weight you can possibly lift once and then taking off weight, essentially making the exercise easier because it’s getting lighter, but then adding reps and decreasing your rest time. You could do this for up to 10 sets if you wanted to! It’s no easy feat!

One thing I’ll say about Pyramid training is that it does take a bit more thought and calculation, but if used properly, can bring you surprising gains in ways you haven’t yet experienced with straight sets. Although there is little wiggle room to change the weight, sets, and rest, it can be a good challenge when you’ve already tried straight sets in a previous hypertrophy phase.

pyramid training graph

Remember, three things will change on every set. Your repetitions, your weight, and your rest! If these are staying the same, it is no longer a pyramid.

Once you know what training phase you’re in, it makes it much easier to calculate. Training phases typically include one of the following: General Preparation, Burn, Hypertrophy, Strength.

Have you ever tried Pyramid Training? I personally have, but with the help of a friend and coach. I tend to have trouble keeping track of my breaks and, either not taking a break or taking too long of a break. If this method has worked for you in the past, tell us your story! What were you training for? Did it help to keep your program exciting? Let me know in the comments below!

Chelsea Pineiro

Chelsea has been active most of her life, which led her to become a Personal Trainer and Yoga Instructor for the past 7 years. Health and Fitness are not solely dependent on movement, though, and with that understanding, she addresses her client’s other needs, such as diet, mindfulness, and stress management.

When she is not training clients or teaching Yoga, she is finding new activities that keep her mind and body active, such as rock climbing, hiking, listening to podcasts, or playing Board Games with friends. She is constantly working towards finding natural solutions to live as long as possible, inclusive Yoga for all body types, and aiming to find mindfulness in everything she does.

Alexia Palmeri

Alexia Palmeri is a 28-year-old personal development enthusiast! She looks at life experiences as an opportunity to always learn and grow. Alexia is also a broadcast journalism graduate with a passion and knack for communications and media. She is always on the lookout for new trends on social media and keeps up to date with what's happening in the world. In her free time, Alexia enjoys socializing with family and loved ones, being in nature, cooking nourishing meals, and discovering new places to dine and adventure!

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