Fitness / Strength Training

What Exactly Is Pyramid Training?

How to use a pyramid method to burn fat, build muscle, and get fit fast.

Search “pyramid workouts” in the Aaptiv app, and you’ll have several to choose from, including “Pyramid Row” and “20-30-40 Pyramid.” If the name didn’t give it away, these workouts all include pyramid training. Pyramid training involves a slow, steady increase (or decrease) in intensity or repetitions throughout a workout. The concept behind increasing difficulty to reach a desired result is called the progression principle, which basically states that to ensure the muscles or systems continue to improve, the stimulus must be increased periodically to cause an overload. The interval-style makes pyramid training especially beneficial for metabolic conditioning, muscle building, and, ultimately, fat loss. Here, we break down exactly how to incorporate pyramid training into your workouts and why you definitely should.

The Structure

To give you an idea of what a pyramid workout looks like, here are two examples of the class structure you’ll encounter. In Aaptiv’s “Pyramid Row” workout, you’ll use an indoor rowing machine to perform the following workout:

The intensity, measured by strokes per minute, pyramids up for two rounds, decreases for a rest period, and then you start with the highest intensity and pyramid back down to your low intensity.

In Aaptiv’s “20-30-40 Pyramid” workout, you’ll do strength training consisting of a few rounds of:

The intensity increases here by adding 10 seconds to each work interval per set, so you pyramid up.

Pyramid training can be applied to any workout goal, ranging from strength to cardiorespiratory endurance to muscular endurance. Keep reading to learn how to build your workouts for maximum results in minimum time.

Pyramid Training for Metabolic Conditioning

CrossFit often uses the term “chipper” to describe a long workout that requires you to complete multiple reps of one exercise before moving on to the next exercise. A pyramid workout can be a chipper, but not all chippers are structured in a pyramid fashion. For example, a CrossFit chipper looks something like 15 minutes of:

A chipper workout like this is difficult, but the number of reps stays the same throughout, even if the timer never stops. Therefore, it’s technically not a progression or pyramid. You could also call this type of workout a circuit, as long as you’re resting for 20 to 30 seconds between exercises.

To design a pyramid workout to improve aerobic and muscular endurance, you’ll need to adjust intensity (like in the rowing workout above) or duration (as in the 20-30-40 workout). Or you can try to increase both simultaneously. Here’s a workout that pyramids up in the number of reps, exercises, and duration per round.


Do the prescribed amount of cardio, then do 10 reps of each exercise per round. Each round will contain all the previous rounds’ exercises plus a new one. Rest for 20 to 30 seconds between exercises and 60 to 90 seconds between rounds. Complete all eight rounds.

  1. Round 1: 0.2-mile jog
  2. Round 2: 0.2-mile jog, kettlebell swing
  3. Round 3: 0.2-mile jog, kettlebell swing, barbell curl
  4. Round 4: 0.2-mile jog, kettlebell swing, barbell curl, burpee with lateral hop over box
  5. Round 5: 1-minute row, kettlebell swing, barbell curl, burpee with lateral hop over box, alternating forward lunge
  6. Round 6: 1-minute row, kettlebell swing, barbell curl, burpee with lateral hop over box, alternating forward lunge, dumbbell bent over lateral raise
  7. Round 7: 1-minute row, kettlebell swing, barbell curl, burpee with lateral hop over box, alternating forward lunge, dumbbell bent over lateral raise, dead hang from pull-up bar (30 seconds)
  8. Round 8: 1-minute row, kettlebell swing, barbell curl, burpee with lateral hop over box, alternating forward lunge, dumbbell bent over lateral raise, dead hang from pull-up bar (30 seconds), dumbbell triceps kickback (10 each arm)

The benefit of doing pyramid workouts such as this is that you’re training every muscle group (arms, back, chest, legs, shoulders) while also challenging your heart during the cardio periods. The result over four to eight weeks can be a decreased resting heart rate due to the continuity of aerobic stress in your workouts compared to only weight lifting. Plus, your chest, back, and especially arm muscles will increase in muscular endurance from all the curls, burpees, and swings. For fitness enthusiasts looking to build strength, an ascending pyramid can be used—but in a different manner.

Ascending Pyramid Training for Strength

To build absolute strength, you’ll need to use an Olympic-size barbell that weighs 45 pounds or free-weight dumbbells. You’ll complete all sets of one exercise before moving on to the next exercise in the workout. Intensity is measured by the percentage of your one rep max (1RM), which can be estimated using various equations and tables. Train your barbell lifts, such as the bench press, deadlift, squat, and overhead press, using the ascending pyramid style below.

Barbell Squat

This workout contains three warm-up sets and four work sets, with an increase in weight and decrease in reps each set. An even more advanced strength athlete would start at five reps and end at two, pyramiding up from 87 percent to 95 percent 1RM. Building up strength is key for sports performance, even in short-distance running, because the Type II (fast-twitch) muscle fibers kick in during the final leg of short races.

Some people prefer to use a descending pyramid strategy, meaning they start with heavy weight and low reps, then decrease the load while increasing reps. The descending pyramid ensures more muscular size growth than strength growth.

Descending Pyramid Training for Muscle Building

When performing a compound move such as the barbell or dumbbell overhead press, you can start with the heaviest weight and do it without much struggle because you won’t be fatigued yet. You’ll still do two to three warm-up sets, but then you’ll jump up to 90 percent of your 1RM for a set of four and start the workout there. The idea is that as you progress through the sets, you’ll reach muscular fatigue at every set instead of only the last one, ensuring that your muscles are broken down to their limit. With proper recovery, the result is more muscle versus just giving your all on the last set to get stronger. Try this descending pyramid overhead press workout to tone and build your shoulders:

Dumbbell Overhead Press

There are five work sets here, but the highest number of reps uses the lightest amount of weight. By the time you reach the last set, your shoulders should be shot and ready for some replenishment in the form of a post-workout protein meal.

Why You Should Add It To Your Routine

You can use pyramid training in an interval/metabolic conditioning setting, a strength-training workout, or for muscle-building purposes. If you incorporate pyramid training during circuit training, save time by alternating upper- and lower-body exercises to allow one body part to rest while another is at work. This cuts out a “leg day” by moving the leg exercises to the same workout.

Pyramid training is easy to remember—you don’t need to plan out a year’s worth of workouts to achieve the desired result. For strength training, keep increasing the intensity set after set, workout after workout, until you plateau. Then decrease intensity for a few weeks, alter some other variable such as exercise selection, and start the pyramid again.

Get started with the pyramid workouts available on Aaptiv.

Overall, you can reach any fitness goal by slowly upping the difficulty of your workouts. Having a rep ladder to climb up or down makes training more fun because even if the end seems far, you know it is achievable.

Mark Barroso is an NSCA-CPT and Spartan SGX Coach.

Fitness Strength Training


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