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.
Entrance to the water in a CrossFit competition, one of the sports where the periodisation of the training is more important.
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” refers to the graphic representation associated with the proposed scheme, where:
The fewer and heavier the repetitions, the narrower the funnel, and vice versa.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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 (A-E), polarised (F y G) y equal (H).
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.
Graphic representation of a classic ascending pyramid system.
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.
Graphic representation of a descending pyramid system
Double pyramid training
A hybrid of ascending and descending pyramid training.
It combines both progressions in the cited order:
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.
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.
Graphic representation of a truncated pyramid system.
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.
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.
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:
Graphic representation of a mesocycle with a positively skewed pyramid system.
- 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.
- 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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