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Pyramid Sets: The Best Method for Strength Endurance

When I first made the transition from powerlifting to CrossFit with the goal of becoming more well-rounded in my health and fitness, I struggled a lot with body weight movements like pushups, sit ups, and pull ups. This was partly due to my weight but also due to lacking the capacity to perform higher rep movements. I was very good at bracing and preparing my body to move a lot of weight for a single rep but not so much for maintaining stability throughout and performing lower weight movements for higher volume. After doing a bit of research I found a method that I believe is unmatched in helping to develop someone’s ability for strength endurance: pyramids.

What are pyramid sets?

The basis of a pyramid is to start with a low rep count for the first set and progressively increase (pyramid up) reps each set. Depending on the circumstance, the athlete could also come back down the pyramid, decreasing reps each set. First, let’s discuss why this method is so effective and how you can implement it.

One of the reasons the pyramid is so effective is it helps lifters accumulate volume without overtaxing them. Let’s take a person who is trying to increase their pull ups as an example. Currently they can do 5 pull ups.

  • Option 1: Do 3 sets to failure. Set 1 they get 5, set 2 they get 4, and set 3 they get 3 for a total of 12 reps. Because each set is done to failure, they struggle to build much volume after due to fatigue.
  • Option 2: Do 5 sets of 3 for a total fo 15 reps. Volume is higher and they are not going to be as fatigued but they never did any sets above 60% of their max.
  • Option 3: Pyramid up and down. Reps/set= 1,2,3,4,5,4,3,2,1 = 25 total reps. Several sets in the middle are done near maximal and they build considerably more volume.

The true beauty comes when an athlete increase their top set. Let’s say the athlete can now do 6 max reps.  In option 1 they would do a max set of 6, then 5, then 4 for 15 total reps. But if they increase their pyramid to 6 they would do 1,2,3,4,5,6,5,4,3,2,1= 36. That’s a massive increase in total volume.

How do you implement them?

Now that you see how effective it can be at building volume, let’s talk about how to implement the concept. First, you need to decide what your repetition increments are going to be. The higher the current ability, the higher the increments need to be. For example, if you were trying to increase how many times you can bench 225 and currently you are at 8 reps, I would stick to increments of 1 because you will not be able to do anymore than 8 sets building up. However, if you are trying to increase your sit ups and you can currently do 50, you would need to make the increments larger (between 5-10). Along with the increments, you need to decide if you are going to pyramid back down or not. If you plan on pyramiding back down, I would suggest using larger increments to decrease your total sets. If not, you can use smaller increments to keep your total sets up.

If you plan on pyramiding down, I would suggest stopping short of failure on your highest set. When you go to actual failure, it takes significantly longer to recovery and can make it difficult to properly pyramid back down. If you want to go to failure, I would suggest just pyramiding up or increasing the increments on the way back down. For example:

225 Bench Press: 2, 4, 6, 8, 10, 12, 15 (failure), 12, 9, 6, 3

You’ll also need to decide how to split up your rest periods. Typically, there are 3 ways you can do it:

  1. Every minute on the minute. Doing it this way, you decrease your rest time as you increase your reps per set. This is great at learning to crank out reps when fatigued but difficult to build up to higher rep sets with.
  2. As much time as needed to recovery. This way, as you increase reps, you increase rest. This is the best way for building as much total volume as possible.
  3. A set rest time between sets. For example, you get 1 minute break between each set. This is an in between option that helps you build volume without gaining full recovery after each set.

These same variables can all be used to adjust progress as well. You can work to build up to a higher peak set, add in different amounts of descending pyramid sets, decrease rest time, and increase weight from the previous week.

Pyramids work great for any type of movement you are trying to increase strength endurance in. Whether that is to increase your bodyweight movements to get ready for a PT test, increase your 225 bench press test, or just build bigger biceps, I highly suggest you include some pyramid set work into your training. Give it a shot and let me know what you think.

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