Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth fitness and nutrition courses and more than 2,000 instructional videos when you sign up for Outside+.
When I started lifting at the ripe old age of 16, I really only knew one protocol: pyramid training. Maybe I watched “Pumping Iron” too many times or adopted too much old-school advice from the ponytailed, leather-skinned “Mr. California 1986” at our local gym. In any case, pyramids were then and are now the classic way to organize your daily grind.
And with good reason: They work.
Create Metabolic Anarchy!
Traditional pyramids begin with a warm-up set or two using a light weight and higher reps and progressively increase the weight and decrease the reps until you top out at your maximum possible weight for a certain number of reps (Table 1). Because each set progressively becomes more intense, your body has a chance to warm up and establish a movement pattern, helping perfect form and prevent injury. During the initial sets, your body calls more on the Type I motor units — those that produce less force — to get ’er done, but by the time you hit the last and most intense set, it will call on the Type II — high force — muscle fibers. These are the fibers that incite metabolic change, allowing you to lift heavier, gain more lean tissue and increase your resting metabolism.
What’s so great about it? Pyramids are an easy strategy for beginners to learn and are a great way to track progress. So if you’ve been using 10-pound dumbbells for your max biceps curls, you’ll know that when they become too easy, it’s time to jump to the 12-pound weights as your target max. It all makes sense logically and is an easy way to pattern your training so you progress at a rate that best suits your body and abilities.
Lately, though, traditional pyramids have fallen a bit out of favor, especially when it comes to muscle building. Some argue that the initial sets done pre-max lift cause excessive fatigue to the Type II fibers, thereby limiting the weight you can actually handle on your final set. Others point out that because the pyramid slowly increases weight and decreases reps, the lifter may subconsciously save her energy for her last and hardest set. And although this last set is a legitimate max attempt, the other working sets are not as effective at causing overall fatigue to the muscles, therefore limiting the hormone release and subsequent muscle growth post-exercise.
One solution to these complaints is to flip the pyramid on its head. In a reverse pyramid, an athlete performs two to three warm-up sets that focus on increasing heat and activation in the muscles and core but that are done at an easier intensity for fewer reps so as not to pre-fatigue the muscles. Then the working sets are done in reverse order, with the heaviest set and fewest reps coming first and each successive set dropping in weight and increasing in reps (Table 2). In order to do this correctly, you’ll have to know — or be able to guess fairly accurately — your maximum weight, then decrease it incrementally with each subsequent set.
What’s so great about it? Reverse pyramids increase the time-under-tension for the muscle group overall, inciting a greater hormone response and ultimately resulting in greater muscle hypertrophy and endurance over time. It also means your Type II fibers are recruited earlier, not just on the last set, and you may be able to force more adaptation — i.e., growth — by taxing their energy stores.
Which Pyramid is Best?
One protocol isn’t better than another — it all depends on your goals and abilities. For instance, traditional pyramids are stellar for new athletes trying to increase strength, as well as for those trying to track progress over a longer period. And reverse pyramids are better suited for hypertrophy and endurance because they provide more time-under-tension but are better suited for more experienced lifters because they require you to maintain perfect form even when your muscles are crying out for mercy.
Athletes at all levels also can use both styles of pyramids at different points in a training program, implementing the traditional pyramid during a strength phase and the reverse pyramid when refining and sculpting the physique. Alternately, if you’re trying to bring up a weak area, challenge that muscle group with either sort of pyramid as a shock treatment.
So unlike the iconic Egyptian monoliths, your muscles can be built either from the ground up or the top down. Lift by lift, you’ll create your own living, breathing monument of muscle.
Don’t feel limited by these two sample pyramid workouts. In fact, the more creative you get with your programming, the more your body will have to adapt. Here are a couple of examples of how you can tweak your training:
Inverse: Keep your reps the same (for example 10 each set), but as you fatigue, decrease your weight in order to hit your per-set goal of 10. Do two to three warm-up sets and shoot for three to four heavy sets.
Double: Use a traditional pyramid protocol for the first three to four sets, then throw it in reverse for the last three to four.
Unilateral: Pick a unilateral exercise, such as a single-arm row, and after a few warm-up sets, do eight to 10 reps with a heavy weight. Repeat on the other side. Then immediately switch back to the first side but do one fewer rep using the same weight. Continue this format for four rounds.