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Pyramiding or Not?

I believe pyramiding is when you increase your weight by set.

I’v heard some people from other sites talk about how they think its a waste of energy, and you should just stay with 1 weight through your sets.

Can anyone share their opinions on this to me? Just wondering.

Its an intensity technique but its relevance should be determined by the progress you’ve made

The easiest and most obivious ways to make progress are:

  • Add more weight to your exercises
  • Do your workout with as much intensity as possible whilest maintaining good form
  • Add more sets/reps to your routine all within a certain timeframe

If you’ve tried the above three methods but have still hit a plateau then maybe look into pyramiding, otherwise just forget it

[quote]RayJay wrote:
Its an intensity technique but its relevance should be determined by the progress you’ve made

The easiest and most obivious ways to make progress are:

  • Add more weight to your exercises
  • Do your workout with as much intensity as possible whilest maintaining good form
  • Add more sets/reps to your routine all within a certain timeframe

If you’ve tried the above three methods but have still hit a plateau then maybe look into pyramiding, otherwise just forget it[/quote]

Perfectly said. The name of the game is progression–whether you choose to pyramid or not. I choose straight sets, because for me it’s easier to keep track of added weight/reps. However, I do warm up for my exercises, which some consider “pyramiding”.

A point that I think is especially relevant for more novice trainers but doesn’t often seem said is:

The things you decide now are “needs” and which you structure things around, are likely to BECOME needs, perhaps unnecessarily, simply out of your becoming dependent on them.

And, abilities that you never develop because you never even try them, are abilities you’ll continue not to have.

It is a fair question to ask – not that the answer is necessarily no, but fair to consider – is it really the best thing to be locked into a situation where every workout, most of your time has to be used doing “getting to the working weight” sets?

Might it not be a nice thing to have no need of that, to be able to go right to it (as for example Yates did on following exercses once into it), having a nervous system that can do its best right from the start of the next exercise, to have the time that others might need for all these “getting to the working weight” sets available for more sets at the working weight, or more exercises?

Fair to ask that.

I think the idea that a more novice trainer “needs” to pyramid up is quite mistaken.

Not doing so will gain the skills to be able to not do so, at least for a time.

Now with time, you may learn that there are some exercises where pyramiding up does work best for you individually. So be it if so! But why assume you need it right off that bat, and then experience the self-fulfilling prophecy of later now being unable to start the sets of the exercise with the working weight without the pyramiding perhaps only because you’ve always depended on it?

(On the general question, an exception would be if going right for singles or doubles, which I don’t think should be done without pyramiding up, but I also don’t think that’s relevant to a more novice trainer.)

I like pyramiding on the big lifts because it forces me to warmup. I get inpatient and tend to do a few half-ass warm sets and then jump into it.

It’s always worth, I think, finding out what is needed with regard to warmup.

I read once that Yates, for example, warmed up barbell rows with 2 sets of 135 lb (which obviously was nothing for him) for 15 reps each. Then he’d go straight to using 405 lb or whatever.

Other folk need intermediate weights on the way, but it’s certainly possible that many overassume how much they need and wind up spending half their workout time doing warmup sets when that could be optimized to much less.

Relative novices I think are much less likely to need pyramiding-up warmup techniques, simply because it’s a lot easier to strain or even injure a muscle, despite being bigger, with a heavy-ass weight than it is with a fairly modest one, regardless that both lifts may represent the same percentage of maximum for each person.

E.g., if someone’s work weight will be 185 in the bench (just because for some reason everyone wants to refer to that lift) it is kind of silly, IMO, to pyramid up with 95, 115, 135, 155, 185. Jeez. Just not needed. Maybe 2 light warmup sets if not already warm from other exercises then go for it.

(And if that is too hard on the shoulders then the real problem is unlikely to be lack of pyramiding, but rather unsuitability to the exercise or a form problem.)

For me, maybe it is mental issue, but I like to pyramid up. I actually warm up to 185 in exactly the way you disparage. I start with just the bar. Going from 135 to 185 is a 50lb jump and mentally, it just feels overwhelming. I don’t bang out a lot of reps as I pyramid up; it’s a warm up and mental preparation for the heavier weight.

But, in general, I do agree with you(BR). There is no need to do it, it is just an individual preference.

I hope I didn’t offend – it’s not that I am disparaging the weights, I am saying that I don’t believe when the force applied in the work set is going to be something like, say, 185 lb in the bench press, that the same issues exist compared to a much higher weight with regards to preparation that may be needed to avoid injury.

Comparing someone whose work sets are 185 to someone whose work sets are much higher, and who both pyramid, it could be that both are fooling themselves and in fact to get best performance and to do it safely do not need to devote all the time to pyramiding that they do.

It could also be that both in fact need such pyramiding to get best performance and to do it safely.

My point was that it’s a lot more likely that the fellow benching 185 in fact does not need to do this, and is taking up a lot of time in his workout because of having gotten started with it for one reason or another and because, having done soe, he has become dependent on doing this (see previous post)

But it’s relatively unlikely that he actually needs to do it. It’s much more likely that he can learn to do his best with the work weight without all that, and entirely likely that – if the exercise is one that that individual should be doing in the first place – it can be done entirely safely without all that.

It wasn’t a knock on such weights, it was pointing out that such weights don’t have the increased injury potential that much higher weights do. Because of that increased injury potential, while by no means is such pyramiding necessary for everybody, and probably for most only in some exercises not all, it’s not unusual for it to be the way to go for a given individual for that reason.

Sort of to make an analogy, not a really good one:

Two people post to the forum saying that they think they have low testosterone because they aren’t raising as much wood lately (still are but not as much) and feel kind of in the dumps.

One is 50 years old.

The other is 17 years old. (I’m not being silly, we just had exactly such a post.)

In the case of the 50 year old, it’s fairly likely that this possible cause of the symptoms is the actual cause.

In the case of the 17 year old, while not impossible, it’s not the way to bet.

The point is, whether a thing is likely or unlikely can depend on the conditions associated with it, such as how heavy a weight is involved.

That was what I was trying (perhaps badly) to communicate, not disparagement of the weights. Any disparagement in the tone (“Jeez”) was in reference to wasting that much time in the workout when the perceived need is not a real one, which it usually won’t be in the case I described.

I see guys all the time that in an hour’s workout, say 40 minutes of it is wasted that way. Now if the fellow is working up to a really heavy weight I would be foolish to assume he is wasting his time. He may well know very thoroughly that he needs to do this. But if, to use the same example, he’s spending all this time working up to weights such as 185 in the bench and corresponding weights for other lifts, then while I can’t know he’s wasting his time on all of them, it’s the way to bet that he’s wasting a vast amount of time overall and quite possibly on every single such exercise he does it on.

And that time and energy could instead go to something productive, which isn’t done because of having been consumed with the unneeded, in that individual case, pyramiding.

I think a key part of your post was, referring to going straight to 185 from some warmup weight, “Mentally, it’s overwhelming.”

That’s exactly right, I believe. Due to not having been doing this, both the neural skills to crank it right out after being physically warm and the confidence to be able to do so have not been trained in and, actually, in the case of the confidence, have been trained OUT. It is a mental thing. But it’s a mental thing under your control, and is it a desirable mental thing to be subject to?

Unless 185 is your weight for a triple or less (and probably even if it is a weight good for two triples) I am confident that you can learn to do your best performance straight off after being physically warmed up, once having learned to do so.

One way to do that, as in the past when training people and seeing in the individual case a benefit to doing this, is to transition to gradually increasing jumps until finally able to go straight from the physically-warming weight to the work weight.

Let’s use again my example of someone who pyramids up with 95, 115, 135, 155, 185 for the same reps each set.

We don’t need to change the initial warming up weight. Why burn more energy than needed with a weight heavier than needed to get physically warm? There’s nothing wrong with using 50% of the work weight or even less to warm up.

The area to work in is improving the ability to “jump” to the final working weight. So each week, in this example, I would knock the weight of the 4th set down 5 lb. By the time it is down to 135, now the confidence is there that a “jump” can indeed be made from 135 to 185. The 4th set now becomes 185 and the second set increases to 130.

The 3rd set then decreases 5 lb per week until it’s back down to 115. At this point the third set also becomes 185.

The lifter can now almost undoubtedly not only handle the “jump” from 115 to 185 but from 95 to 185 – we don’t have to transitition for that. So the very next week, the routine can go to 95, 95, 185, 185, 185.

And then weights increase as needed according to ordinary training principles.

This is a much more productive use of time than doing 95, 115, 135, 155, 185 for same reps each set (e.g. in a 5x5 program, which to me this is not but some will call it that; or same in the last two or three) and as mentioned it’s unlikely that such pyramiding, in such a case, really is needed. It might be if we were talking much higher weights and I wouldn’t assume such a change probably needed or ought to be done if the weights were a lot higher. But with the lower weights it’s almost surely, IMO, the case.

By the way, another method of adding confidence with going straight to the work weight (assuming being physically warmed already) is this:

If the work weight is for example something allowing 5 or 6 reps, then after any light warmup, if necessary, then do a doubles with about 5% more weight than the work sets. The exact amount is not critical.

So continuing on with the above example, after the lifter has achieved 95, 95, 185, 185, 185 for 5 reps per set but nonetheless still feels that they’re not performing at their best neurally in the first set of 185, he can try 95, 95, 195 (for only two), 185, 185, 185.

Or if the final working weight allows something like 8 reps or more, then the double is with about 10% more weight (again the exact amount is not critical.) So, for example, 95, 95, 205 (for two), 185, 185, 185.

This results in the nervous system perceiving the 185 as something it’s quite ready for.

This isn’t something to do for everything and it’s fine not to do it at all. For example if having a training plan where periodically triples are done, then the nervous system “remembers” such weights and this would usually be needless. Or if the performance is fine on the first set with the final working weight, then no need to waste time with a method like this.

But it can help in some instances where, as you describe, the work weight though in fact doable may seem daunting to the system if headed right into from a much lighter weight.


Joe DeFranco in his WS4SB suggests a progressive steady load increase over at least 5 sets upto 3-5RM on ME day (which is a very specific goal) in order to get more volume.

I found this very useful with deadlifts and squats - where I go 45,95,135 and so on until I either slow down weight increases (for bench) or just hit my weight (for squat). Smaller weight increases seem necessary since after 3-5RM I can’t really repeat the same weight for same reps.

What are your thoughts on this? Maybe a possible alternative in weight increase for 3-5RM ME days?

As the weights get closer to 1RM the more value there is to sets which are short of maximum effort – but are still serious effort – and as you describe a big part of this is how more volume is possible than when truly doing as much weight as can be done for X reps with each and every set.

While I’m not highly conversant by any means with Joe DeFranco’s methods, not having bought his DVD or other product but instead just being generally aware, while your description may have me unclear on what you mean, what it seems to suggest doesn’t seem to me to match up with what I understod DeFranco’s methods to be.

Being not really conversant, though, I went to his website and checked.

That is giving just ONE example and who knows maybe I have a non-representative example, even though he used it as being representative.

His example was, for the squat:

95 X 5
135 X 5
185 X 3
225 X 3
275 X 3
295 X 3
315 X 3

Now my take on this is, I do three or four warmup sets. In the four warmup sets case and using this example of work weights, I myself would do:

95 x 3 (parallel)
95 x 3 (rock bottom)
95 x 3 (rock bottom)
275 x 3
315 x 3
315 x 3

So the question is, if one can do 315 for 3, is there really a substantial difference in overall training effect from those sets between doing three sets of 95 x 3 and a set of 275 for 3 versus doing 95 x 5, 135 x 5, 185 x 3, and 225 for 3?

I don’t know what DeFranco would say on that. I think not. I do think my method burns less energy on warmup and thus allows a little more energy for really hard work. And I have a set that is closer to being real hard work and he might count it as being a work set though I don’t.

But I don’t think DeFranco’s method stinks. The difference in energy burnt in the warmup is not large in this comparison.

So now, is my 315 x 3, 315 x 3 greatly different in overall training effect from those sets than DeFranco’s 295 x 3, 315 x 3?

No great difference. I like my way better but if another likes the other way better, I can’t see the difference as being a large one.

The reason he does it may have to do with what he says about the guys he is aiming this at being ones he can’t have doing explosive work because they have so much trouble doing non-explosive work correctly.

If he’s designing around that consideration, maybe a big plus of his handling the last two sets that way, if skill at performance is such a problem, is that being 20 lbs lighter on that next-to-last set may result in better form for the target audience than would occur with going to the top weight,

so there’s at least some neural learning going on with very nearly the maximal effort weight before form starts to degrade, which maybe is happening with such lifters with the very last set.

Having a slightly lighter but still right up there (only 6.5% lighter) weight as one of the genuinely-working hard sets may help the form of the final set as well as help development of skill overall.

I am sure he could explain, and probably has, the reasons for why he does it as he does better than I can guess them.

Mostly I would say, really on analysis his method in this regard anyway appears not that different from mine.

However, a potential large difference is that personally I only do this in the squat. Perhaps he does it on many things.

If so, there’s a big contrast between doing only real work sets and spending all that time building up each exercise.

In his example, I would call 4 out of the 7 sets sets to be so light as to themselves probably contibute nothing but warmup or improving neural skills for someone who has real problems doing the lift properly, as he describes as being common for those he is targeting.

And spending 4/7 of the workout warming up seems a heck of a waste of time to me that could be put to much more productive use training-wise. It annoys me actually to have to spend 15 minutes warming up squats even when it’s a 2 hour total workout, but avoiding knee injury in my case demands it.

I’d also thought that DeFranco wasn’t really aiming for hypertrophy as the goal. He doesn’t seem, though I could just be missing it, to be touting his method as “don’t be skinny any longer” but rather “be strong though skinny.”

If it’s the case that hypertrophy isn’t what he is optimizing or co-optimizing (if that is a word) for, the goal is different than what I was writing in reference to.

From the standpoint of strength in core lifts only, it may be irrelevant being enabled to do more total hard-work sets and if desired more total exercises with the time and energy freed up from not such a vast amount of warmups. But from the standpoint of hypertrophy it’s hardly irrelevant.

Bill, thanks for such an extensive answer. You found exactly the bit I was basing my understanding and practice of WS4SB on. Being somewhat of an intermediate lifter, I wouldn’t not be comfortable at all doing 95x5x3 and then 315x5x3. When I increase weight from 45 to 315 progressively, my technique improves since if I make small mistakes in lighter sets, I concentrate on correcting them in the next set. I also thing 315x5x3 just wouldn’t fit into 5RM ME framework. After a true 3-5RM ME deadlift no amount of rest will let me do the same weight for the same reps.

The purpose of this 1 particular exercise (there are 2 ME exercises per week total) is strength development and trying to hit PRs every time. I think it’s easier to achieve that with progressively growing weight. The rest of the program is somewhat geared towards hyperthrophy and assumes flat set (same weight, though I sometimes do 1 warm-up set for bigger lifts). Hence I don’t think there is much disagreement.

Now that you’ve explained that this warmup protocol isn’t being done all over the place (so to speak) within the plan but only in this targeted way, I agree that there seems no substantial disagreement, if really any other than detail difference which is inevitable.