Pyramid training is probably one of the most common types of weight training yet many might not even realize that they are doing it. Have you ever started out your bench press with 135 lbs for the first set, upped it to 185 lbs the next then 205 lbs the third? Guess what, that’s basically pyramid training in it’s most simple form.
The reverse pyramid has been made popular, largely by Martin Berkhan … and he knows a thing or two about lifting.
The concept of pyramid training is to simply add weight as you go while simultaneously decreasing the number of reps you do. For many, this is the go-to method for building muscle. But is Pyramid weight training really the “best” method for building muscle? Is it even a good method?
Well, the term “best” gets thrown around way too much and in reality what works better for one person might not work for another. However, it’s safe to say that if you’re looking to build stronger muscle, traditional pyramid training is probably not the answer.
Instead, you might want to consider reverse pyramid training. What’s that? Since it’s the opposite of the traditional pyramids, you start with the heaviest weight and decrease the weight from set to set while increasing the number of reps.
The amount of reps can vary depending upon what your main focus is. Here is an example of what the two different pyramids could look like for a common lift like the bench press.
Pyramid Weight Training:
10 reps – 155 lbs
8 reps – 165 lbs
6 reps – 185 lbs
This is considered a 6-10 rep pyramid.
Reverse Pyramid Training:
6 reps – 205 lbs
8 reps – 195 lbs
10 reps – 185 lbs
This is considered a 6-10 rep, reverse pyramid.
What’s Wrong With Traditional Pyramid Weight Training?
Although the pyramid is most likely the “go-to” workout routine for many gym goers, it really is not the smartest approach for building strong muscle. In fact, I would assume that the main reason it is so popular is simply due to the fact that many gym goers don’t have a real plan of attack.
They show up to the gym and start with a fairly light weight. They continue to increase the weight as they go “because they are getting warmed up” and they don’t want to pull a muscle. By the time they reach a fairly heavy weight … they’re now worn out, or at least have a significantly decreased amount of strength.
While I do completely agree, you should definitely warm up prior to lifting, this is certainly not an efficient way to train.
Instead of getting under the bar with your best foot forward, you are now “warmed up” (fatigued) to a significant enough degree that you cannot lift to your real potential. You are never going to be able to handle much heavier weights because you are training your muscles to be tired once the weight gets challenging.
In the end, traditional pyramid training causes you to lift the lightest weights when you are the strongest, and the heaviest weights when you are the weakest … doesn’t make too much sense.
Note: There are some occasions when doing a more traditional pyramid is actually a good thing. If you are focusing your efforts on trying to fatigue the muscle and are shooting for sarcoplasmic hypertrophy then these actually do work really well.
They are also great for beginners since they teach proper form while continually increasing weight at a manageable pace.
How To Do Reverse Pyramid Training
Instead of going to the gym on your next workout with the idea of winging it by doing 3 sets of 10 reps only to find that you actually end up doing:
1 set of 10 reps @ 135 lbs (warmup)
1 set of 10 reps @ 185 lbs
1 set of 8 reps @ 205 lbs (oops, too heavy)
1 set of 7 reps @ 185 lbs (too tired now)
how about planning to do a reverse pyramid.
Now, I’m not saying that I’ve never been guilty doing a set/rep scheme similar to the one above. I am, however happy to say that I’ve learned and seen first hand that this is not the most efficient or effective way to train … and I’ve moved on.
Setting up your reverse pyramid workout
Now that you’re planning on a (good) set/rep scheme, it’s time to pick the rep range you want to work in. A nice benefit to doing reverse pyramids is that you can choose different rep ranges depending on what your goals are.
As a general rule, here are what the different rep ranges work:
1-3 reps – Pure strength & definition
4-6 reps – Mostly strength & definition with little gains in size
7-10 reps – Mostly size with little gains in strength & density
11-15 reps – Pure size
For a more detailed write-up you can check out this article for more on how many reps you should do.
It should also be noted that you can do a tighter reverse pyramid such as only doing a rep range of 8-10 or even a wider range like 8-12 reps.
Here’s what your workout could look like with a 4-7 rep range for bench press.
3 reps @ 145 lbs
3 reps @ 145 lbs
4 reps @ 235 lbs
5 reps @ 220 lbs
6 reps @ 205 lbs
7 reps @ 190 lbs
Note: Working like this is very taxing. Make sure to get sufficient rest between each set; at least 2 minutes between each set and maybe even 3.
Also, these rep ranges are just for an example. I actually feel that traditional pyramids are probably best for muscle size (higher reps), whereas reverse pyramids are probably best for strength gains (lower reps).
You should pick a weight that you can do for the given amount of reps. Your first set should be pretty darn close to failure. You do want to be able to complete 4 reps but if you can do 5 you’ll need to increase the weight on your next visit to the gym.
The following reps should be done 1 rep short of failure. So if you can do 7 reps for the second set you should increase the weight the next visit. If you can do 6, you’re good to go.
Increasing the weight and continually improving is the idea so if you feel you can complete a full 7 reps for the second set then lift to your potential and up the weight. You do want make sure that you are able to lift more rep(s) than the previous sets.