First things first, what is a pyramid set? Basically it is a standard progression of starting with lighter weight for higher reps and then increasing the weight each set while doing fewer repetitions. A common example would be doing 15 reps followed by 12, 8, 6, and 4. It seems simple enough. But why do it?
Pyramid Sets are great strength builders
Now when we say doing a set for 15 reps we don’t mean using a light weight like you would for a warm-up. Instead you are looking for a weight that is challenging for that number of repetitions. As the weight increases and the reps drop it should because you can’t do more than that, not that you have reached a certain rep count.
What working out in this manner does is teach your body to deal with muscle stress over a wider variety of weights and number of repetitions. Far too many people only go for maximum effort on their last set at low repetitions. But, working in this manner stresses the muscle over a wider range which in turn helps spur growth.
They push you
Many people never truly test themselves or their strength. Sure, you might push it on one set, but for 5 sets? This type of workout really lets you cut loose and figure out exactly how strong those muscles you have been working so hard on really are. As you train in this method you should see a nice increase of strength across the entire level allowing you to reach a new higher maximum lift. That of course means you are gaining strength (and size).
Use in Moderation
While this is a great training technique, it is very stressful on your body. It is recommended to only use this type of training on the larger compound movements for legs, back, and chest (plus shoulder presses) and even then only once or twice per session. The smaller muscle groups can easily become over trained if you jump right into a big pyramid set with them. Plus the smaller groups will grow along with the larger as they typically assist in compound lifts.
Starting a Pyramid
Typically this is a good training option for people with spotters. But you can still use pyramid training by yourself via a Smith-Rack, using machines, or just asking for a spot when the weight gets heavy on certain exercises. Typically the beginner should start with a basic rep scheme of 12, 9, 6, and 4. To start just add 2.5 to 5 pounds per set. If you find that isn’t challenging enough at the end of the workout, next time add 5 to 10 pounds.
As you advance you can move to a standard 5 set pyramid of 15, 12, 8, 6, and 4 or 12, 10, 8, 6, 4. Both are excellent pyramid options. Again for weight start at 2.5 to 5 pounds and increase to 5 to 10 pounds if you need to.
This is a high-intensity type of workout. It is really recommended for people who have put in some basic work and just need something different to kick things into high gear. But expect that such a demanding training method will cause excess fatigue and muscle breakdown and you will need to plan for proper recovery if you wish to spur maximum growth.