Pyramid Training: Everything you Need to Know

Pyramid Training: Everything you Need to Know

Pyramid Training is an advanced training method with excellent results both in strength and hypertrophy.

What it pyramid training?

Pyramid training is an advanced high-intensity training system popularised by bodybuilders in the 1970s.

CrossFit competition

Entrance to the water in a CrossFit competition, one of the sports where the periodisation of the training is more important.

This training method quickly spread to other levels of practice (amateurs and beginners), and sports modalities (especially endurance), due to its easy application and practice for applying high intensity in training, transferable to competitions.

What is involved?

Pyramid training is a training system based on varying intensities during training.

It’s best understood with images:

Pyramid Training basic scheme

Pyramid training, basic scheme.

“Pyramid” refers to the graphic representation associated with the proposed scheme, where:

The fewer and heavier the repetitions, the narrower the funnel, and vice versa.

The pyramid system consists of starting with a number X of repetitions and modifying it in subsequent series, adjusting the weight downwards or upwards, depending on whether the repetitions are increased or decreased, respectively.

Who is pyramid training for?

Pyramid training started in a gym in America, as the “pyramid” was a technique that was previously applied involuntarily.

Bodybuilders would perform a muscle failure exercise with an X load that would increase set after set until they completed a certain number of repetitions, at which point the exercise was finished.

They were applying a pyramid training system without being aware of it.

This training has been subject to variations specific to the objectives pursued by the practising user, bringing more control over internal load and fatigue, and increasingly understanding the principles behind its effectiveness.

Weighted dips

Weighted dips.

Those that have put this into practice and have benefited from this training system are:

  • Bodybuilders, fitness athletes and weightlifters.
  • Runners, Cyclists and Swimmers, principally.
However, the training programme is suitable for anyone looking to build strength, resistance and muscle mass.

Benefits of pyramid training

The benefits of pyramid training are those inherent in high-effort work. Let me explain:

  • We now know that load training increases muscle mass, and that increased muscle mass explains up to 70% of the variance in strength gain (Cribb et al., 2007).
  • We also know that the most important variable in training aimed at gaining muscle mass is performing exercise sets close to muscle failure (Baz-Valle et al., 2018).

Many sites will talk about how:

  • An ascending pyramid method is used for gaining strength;
  • The descending pyramid is for building muscle resistance; and
  • Double hypertrophy.

In fact, this isn’t exactly true, as the thinking behind it is based on old training principles that are now obsolete:

Results obtained depending on the range of repetitions used

Expectations vs Reality in the results obtained depending on the range of repetitions used.

Pyramid training is based on increasing the external intensity of an exercise, adding loads or repetitions set after set.

Ronnie Coleman training

Ronnie Coleman training.

Because people do not know how to estimate %1RM variations and reserve repetitions well, they make miscalculations and come much closer, unconsciously, to their maximum effort.

Pyramid method variations

The pyramidal method has been modified to variants best suited to the competition profile required for a particular modality.

Polarised training planning developed from this principle, and is based on the undulation of the predominant intensity of training sessions along a mesocycle.

Pyramid training systems

Pyramid training systems (A-E), polarised (F y G) y equal (H).

For gym pyramid training it’s a lot more simple than for endurance (previous image).

There are 4 main pyramid systems:

Ascending pyramid training

Ascending pyramid training is the classic pyramid training.

It consists of using a moderate load (~60% 1RM) with a medium to high number of repetitions, and increasing the load and reducing the number of repetitions set by set until reaching ~90-95% of the 1RM.

Classic ascending pyramid system

Graphic representation of a classic ascending pyramid system.

It was traditionally used for specific strength gains.

Descending pyramid training

Descending pyramid training is the first variant that developed from the classic ascending pyramid.

It consists of using a high load (~90-95% 1RM) with a low number of repetitions, and increasing the repetitions and reducing the load set by set until reaching ~60% 1RM.

Descending pyramid system

Graphic representation of a descending pyramid system

It was traditionally used for the specific improvement of muscle resistance.

Double pyramid training

A hybrid of ascending and descending pyramid training.

It combines both progressions in the cited order:

Double pyramid training

Graphic representation of a double pyramid system.

It consists of using a moderate load (~60% 1RM) with a medium-high number of repetitions, and increasing the load and reducing the repetitions set by set until reaching approximately 90-95% of 1RM, at this point the last set is repeated and the repetitions are increased and the set load is reduced to ~60% 1RM.

It was traditionally used for the specific improvement of muscle hypertrophy.

Truncated pyramid training

Truncated pyramid training is an ascending pyramid with a modification in the final set.

Instead of performing the heaviest set of the exercise, a set is performed again with the load and the number of repetitions of the first set that makes up the exercise.

Truncated pyramid training

Graphic representation of a truncated pyramid system.

It was traditionally for the specific strength gains and improving hypertrophy, minimising the risk of injury.

Pyramid training for bodybuilding

Any of the previously noted pyramid training systems are suitable for bodybuilding, as long as all the sets are performed at an intensity close to muscle failure.

Double pyramid training is the best of all for pure training volume, as it’s the system where more effective sets are performed, and therefore the growth potential is greater.

Hypertrophy

An example of an exercise within a double pyramid training system aimed at increasing muscle mass might be:

Incline Hammer Press

  • Set 1: 14 repetitions @65% 1RM + RPE 8 / RIR 2.
  • Set 2: 9 repetitions @75% 1RM + RPE 9 / RIR 1.
  • Set 3: 6 repetitions @80% 1RM + RPE 10 / RIR 0.
  • Set 4: 5 repetitions @80% 1RM + RPE 10 / RIR 0.
  • Set 5: 8 repetitions @75% 1RM + RPE 10 / RIR 0.
  • Set 6: 14 repetitions @65% 1RM + RPE 10 / RIR 0.

Hammer Press Machine

Hammer Press Machine.

With this scheme we achieve a total of 6 effective sets of direct stimulus to the pectoral and indirect stimulus to the deltoid and triceps. An excellent way to accumulate quality work for muscle mass gain.

What other sports can benefit from the pyramid method?

Any that would benefit from strength improvements, increasing muscle mass, and anaerobic effort resistance.

That’s to say, over 90% of competitive sports modalities.

The pyramid system is used particularly in endurance sports, especially in the triathlon, but is designed in a different way:

Instead of sets, sessions are counted in the training areas used by the athlete in question, normally R1 (<VT1), R2 (VT1-VT2) and R3 (>VT2), increasing the training intensity as the competition approaches, to set out a skewed right-hand curve:

Mesocycle pyramid system

Graphic representation of a mesocycle with a positively skewed pyramid system.

However you train, the pyramid training system and its variants has a niche for you. And remember! No training system is magic or necessary to achieve your goals.

Bibliographic References

  1. Baz-Valle, E., Fontes-Villalba, M., & Santos-Concejero, J. (2018). Total Number of Sets as a Training Volume Quantification Method for Muscle Hypertrophy. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, Publish Ah, 1.
  2. Cribb, P. J., Williams, A. D., Stathis, C. G., Carey, M. F., & Hayes, A. (2007). Effects of whey isolate, creatine, and resistance training on muscle hypertrophy. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 39(2), 298–307.

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  • If you want to make the most of your training, Pre-Workout Supplements are an excellent help… continue reading.
Review of Pyramid Training

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About Alfredo Valdés
Alfredo Valdés
A specialist in Pathophysiology and biomolecular effects on nutrition and sportive activity who will show you the elaborate world of sports nutrition in his articles, employing a simple and critical writing.
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