In a sense, the basic components of bodybuilding workouts are numbers. How many sets and reps are you doing? How many grams of protein and carbs are in your meal? How much weight is on the bar or the scales? Arithmetic. But that’s not the only math of muscle-making. Sometimes there’s geometry. Pyramids can be the building blocks of routine construction—whether they’re right-side-up or upside-down. Let’s analyze how and why triangular shapes are so effective at increasing the numbers that matter most: the weights you lift, the reps you do, and the quantity of muscle you carry.
There’s a lot of mumbo-jumbo about the supposedly magical power of pyramids. When it comes to workouts, forget the mysticism and recognize the real-world advantages. A pyramid is a progression of sets which grow heavier as the reps decrease. This culminates with the apex: a maximum set of, typically, 3 to 6 reps. (This apex can be repeated, but, for discussion’s sake, we’ll refer to a single apex per exercise.) The apex is generally the only set you push to failure or beyond, thus preserving your strength for that ultimate effort.
Here’s a sample pyramid that advances to a 6-rep apex:
Set Weight Reps
1 135 12
2 185 10
3 225 8
4 265 6
Not all pyramids have an apex set with six or fewer reps. Any set progression incorporating heavier weights and lower reps is a pyramid, even if the apex is 15 reps. In this way, you can construct an entire routine of pyramids but push only a few select exercises to low-rep maxs.
Pyramids let you work one exercise through a broad rep range, say 15 to 3. Therefore, you can get the muscle-stimulating benefits of moderate or even high reps as well as the strength-boosting advantages of low reps. The progression also allows you to warmup, practice hitting the exercise’s best groove, and gauge your strength before going heavy. These reasons are why powerlifters frequently use pyramids to lay the foundation for their biggest lifts.
PUT IT IN REVERSE
You can also flip the script. A reverse pyramid is a progression of sets which grow lighter as the reps increase. Utilizing the same exercise and strength level as before, a reverse pyramid would look something like this:
Set Weight Reps
1 245 5
2 225 7
3 205 10
4 185 15
You’ll notice more has changed than the order. All the weights and/or reps have been altered, as well. We aren’t going as heavy on the heaviest set, because it comes first and is no longer to failure. Conversely, we’re going heavier for more reps on the lightest set, because it’s now the all-out finale.
With a reverse pyramid, you lose the advantages of progressing to a strength-building, low-rep apex, but you gain the ability to push sets harder throughout. Also, a reverse pyramid should generate a greater pump than its traditional counterpart. Because you’re front-loading the heavy set, if it’s fewer than 10 reps do a thorough warmup first.
By immediately following an ascending pyramid with a descending pyramid you safely build up to your all-out set and then get an extended pump-out as you retreat back down via increasingly higher reps with the next exercise. Therefore, you experience the power of both pyramids and reverse pyramids—a mathematical force that can add up to more strength and muscle.
PYRAMIDED SET BASICS
🔺 A pyramid grows progressively heavier with fewer reps from one set to the next.
🔺 The lighter sets serve as warmups for the heaviest sets.
🔻 A reverse-pyramid grows progressively lighter with more reps from one set to the next.
🔺🔻 Both pyramids and reverse-pyramids let you work an exercise through a broad rep range.
PYRAMIDED SET TIP SHEET
🔺 The fewer reps you do on a set the harder is it to eke out an extra one. Also, making your final set your heaviest set isn’t best for maximizing a pump. For those two reason, you may want to do a final pump-out set of 12-15 reps after your pyramid apex set.
🔺🔻 Alternately, you can combine pyramids and reverse-pyramids, as in our sample quad routine, to alternate between a heavy apex set for one exercise and a light final set for the next exercise.
PYRAMID QUAD ROUTINE
🔺 Squat 5 sets: 12 > 10 > 8 > 6 > 3 reps
🔻 Leg Press 4 sets: 8 > 12 > 15 > 20 reps
🔺 Hack Squat 4 sets: 12 > 10 > 8 > 6 reps
🔻 Leg Extension 4 sets: 8 > 12 > 15 > 20 reps