How to Use Pyramid Sets to Build Strength and Spice Up Your Workouts

When your fitness routine is feeling incredibly stale, turn to pyramid workouts to bring some joy back to strength training — and make gains in the process.

Woman Doing Shoulder Press Exercise
Photo: Getty Images

No matter how obsessed you are with strength training, there's a good chance your gym routine will begin to feel like a mind-numbing chore at one point or another. One easy way to boost your spirits, add fun back to your workouts, and make muscle gains along the way? Bring pyramid sets into play.

To help you do just that, Shape tapped a fitness expert to give the low-down on pyramid sets, including their key features and benefits. Plus, she shares tips on how to add pyramid workouts into your routine to help break you out of your fitness rut.

What Are Pyramid Sets?

Simply put, pyramid sets are a unique way to structure your strength-training workouts and challenge your muscles with various loads and repetition ranges. You'll start by performing a high number of reps of a particular exercise with a light weight. On your next set, you'll reduce the number of reps and increase the weight you're using, then continue that process with each set you tackle, says Tina Tang, an NCSF-certified personal trainer and strength coach in Jersey City, New Jersey. Check out the below example that may help further explain:

Bent-Over Row Pyramid Set Example

  • Set 1: 15 reps with a 10-pound weights
  • Set 2: 10 reps with 15-pound weights
  • Set 3: 5 reps with 20-pound weights

But that's not the only way you can utilize the technique. You can also do reverse pyramid sets, in which you start your workout off by performing a few reps of an exercise with a heavy weight, then decrease the load and up the reps with every additional set, says Tang. Or, you can use both the regular pyramid and reverse pyramid techniques in one set, known as a triangle pyramid set: You'll begin with a light weight and a high number of reps, work your way up to a heavy weight and a low number of reps, then scale back the weight and boost the reps once again.

How much weight you're adding or removing with each set partially depends on the total number of sets you're aiming to complete, says Tang; if you're setting out to do five sets of shoulder presses, for example, you'll likely do smaller load increases with each round than if you were doing just three sets of the exercise, she explains. That said, the equipment you have on hand also matters, as you may not be able to consistently amp up or reduce your weight by, say, exactly five pounds for each set, she adds. TL;DR: There's no one "right" way to adjust your load throughout a pyramid workout; it just depends on the weight options available to you and your goals.

The Benefits of Pyramid Sets

Not sure if pyramid sets are worth testing out? Consider the following key benefits the strength-training technique has to offer for your health and fitness routine.

Adds Variety to Your Strength Workouts

Of all the potential perks pyramid sets have to offer, their ability to spice up your workouts is one of the most noteworthy, says Tang. "In terms of strength training, there are only so many ways to do things and only so many movements your body can do, and I think that's where these different protocols, like pyramid sets, come in," she explains. "It helps add variety for people who do strength training often and don't want to get bored."

Supports Muscle Growth

Along with keeping your workouts fresh, mixing pyramid sets into your training routine can help encourage hypertrophy (aka muscle growth), says Tang. In fact, a small, eight-week study found that pyramid sets are an effective strategy to improve muscular strength and growth.

The reason for these improvements is two-fold. For one, high-intensity resistance training creates small muscle tears that, when properly repaired, ultimately lead to muscle growth, research shows. Plus, using pyramid sets during resistance training helps increase total training volume, according to an article published in the American College of Sports Medicine's Health & Fitness Journal. ICYDK, training volume refers to the amount of physical work performed in a single workout session or throughout an entire exercise program. It's calculated by considering the amount of weight used in each set, the number of reps performed, and the total number of sets in a workout, according to information published by the American Council on Exercise (ACE). The good news: As training volume increases, so does muscular strength and hypertrophy — so long as you're properly recovering between workouts, according to the Health & Fitness Journal.

Primes Your Muscles for Your Workout

By kicking your strength-training workout off with lighter weights and progressively increasing the load during traditional pyramid sets, you'll gradually warm up your muscles so they're ready to tackle the heavier moves to come, says Tang. In this case, the weight you're using won't feel as shocking to your body and mind as if you had started with a heavy weight, she explains. If you were to begin with an ultra-heavy weight, however, you may still need to do a thorough warm-up beforehand to reduce your chances of injury and maximize your performance, research shows.

Who Should Do Pyramid Sets?

Given their potential benefits, pyramid sets can be incorporated into any individual's training routine, even beginners who want to experiment with different rep ranges and weights, says Tang. "It's an option for anyone," she adds. "...[It's] not just a physical workout, but it becomes a mental workout. [With triangle pyramids specifically,] you're like, 'What, I just got down the pyramid and now I have to go back up again?!'"

That said, pyramid workouts don't have to be a key component of your training routine. "It's not necessary to do them frequently," says Tang. "Whatever goals you have for strength training or your workouts, pyramid sets are not necessary to achieve them." Instead, you should focus on the basics of strength training (think: choosing weights that are just heavy enough to complete 10 reps) and think of pyramid sets as something you sprinkle into your workouts every so often to add some excitement, she suggests. This is particularly the case for folks who are focused on powerlifting and testing their one-rep max, as pyramid sets will be too fatiguing to perform regularly, says Tang.

How to Add Pyramid Sets to Your Strength-Training Routine

If you're now convinced to give pyramid workouts a shot, steal these ideas on how to effectively add them to your lifting regimen.

Be Strategic with Your Rest Breaks

Before you give pyramid workouts a shot, you first need to know how much downtime you should work into your training session. There isn't a set-in-stone recommended rest period to place in between pyramid sets, so you'll want to consider your goals and workout's purpose when deciding how long of a breather you'll take. If you're doing pyramid sets of a single exercise as a workout finisher, try keeping your rest breaks to a minimum between rounds in order to keep the intensity high, suggests Tang. "The benefit of not taking rest or taking little rest would be on the metabolic side, where your heart rate is going up," she explains. "It's almost like you're doing a sprint but with weights."

If you're hoping to make gains in the muscle department, however, aim to take a minute-long breather in between sets. "Pausing much longer than 60 seconds would compromise the metabolic stress aspect of training and decrease the potential for muscle growth, but resting for less than 60 seconds doesn't allow enough recuperation for the muscle to perform well in the next set," Sabrena Jo, the senior director of science and research at ACE, previously told Shape.

Use Them to DIY Entire Workouts

Once a week or month, consider trying a resistance training workout structured entirely with pyramid sets, suggests Tang. Pick three to five of your favorite exercises — either upper-, lower-, or full-body — and decide whether you're going to perform pyramid, reverse pyramid, or triangle pyramid sets. Then, do five sets for each exercise, she suggests. If you're doing a triangle pyramid, for example, your target reps might be 10 for set one, eight for set two, six for set three, eight for set four, and 10 for set five, with your weight increasing and decreasing as needed, she says.

Try Them as a Killer Finisher

If you want to burn out a particular muscle group at the end of your strength-training workout, use pyramid sets to get the job done. Select one exercise — say, the glute kickback — and perform three back-to-back sets of the move, increasing from five, to 10, then 15 reps while reducing the weight, suggests Tang. This finisher will test your muscular endurance, get your heart rate up, and leave your booty shaking — in a good way, of course.

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles