Pyramid Power: Building A Firm Foundation!

A pyramid set typically begins with a light to moderate weight that can be lifted with good form for 10 to 12 repetitions. Learn why this technique works so well!
The ancient Egyptians were on to something. Starting with solid foundation consisting of multiple and precisely engineered stones layered successively in smaller increments they built the largest and most enduring structures on Earth. No doubt the Kings and Priest of Egypt consulted with the best bodybuilders of the day to arrive at a very fundamental truth in construction. Lay the foundation properly and it will withstand the heaviest of loads. This brings us to the pyramid principal in bodybuilding.

Inexperienced lifters eager to impress other lifters in the gym swing and flail their arms as they walk toward the bench, load the bar with more weight then they can handle with proper form, and then give their spotter a better workout then they give themselves. I have said it before and I'll say it again. Were bodybuilders, not powerlifters. The amount of pounds that we move is not nearly as important as form and proper resistance. Save the show for when you are on stage. When you are at the gym you need to be concerned with laying the proper foundation, not impressing people.

"We're bodybuilders, not powerlifters!"

Pyramid sets accomplish this in two ways. A pyramid set typically begins with a light to moderate weight that can be lifted with good form for 10 to 12 repetitions. This serves to warm up the targeted muscle group as well as the joints involved. The higher number of repetitions acts as a catalyst to force blood into the muscle to get a good pump going and to prepare for the heavier resistance that is to come. A minute to a minute and a half rest is enough time to load the bar with a weight that can handle with good form for 6 to 8 repetitions. Notice the emphasis on form. I'm being redundant for a reason.

There are times when poor form is appropriate. Cheating sets come to mind here and will be discussed in another article.

For pyramid sets however, form rules. It's one of those laws of physics that you just don't want to mess with. When benching, the bar should touch your chest, not bounce off of it or stop 2 inches above it. When squatting the back of the leg should reach an angle that is parallel to the floor or below. Never bounce or swing the weight. Now, back to the six to eight reps. During the second pyramid set the important thing is that you reach positive failure while maintaining good form in six to eight reps. Positive failure implies that you cannot complete another repetition without assistance.

Once again you have the luxury of resting for a minute to a minute and a half. Use this time to set the bar up for your final set. Your goal is now to reach positive failure with good form in four to six repetitions. If you reach positive failure in 3 reps or less than lighten the load, six or more increase it.

What Have We Accomplished During This Set?

  • We have safely warmed up the targeted muscle to accommodate the heaver load.
  • Using proper form we have not only called upon the targeted muscle but the host of supporting muscles as well. Therefore we are less likely to encounter an injury while training.
  • By using light, moderate and heavy resistance we have called upon fast, slow and intermediate twitch muscle fibers.
  • See description of muscle fiber below.

Types Of Muscle Fibers

Red slow-twitch fibers
Thin fibers containing slow-acting ATPases, contain abundant myoglobin for binding oxygen, and contract slowly are oxidative fibers. They have an abundant blood circulation and oxygen supply, many mitochondria and enzymes that catalyze aerobic pathways for ATP production. These fibers have endurance capability, or fatigue resistance, as long as oxygen is available, but alas, they are thin and generate little power.

White fast-twitch fibers
Much thicker fibers, perhaps double in diameter, containing little myoglobin and are therefore white in color, contain fast-acting ATPaces and contract rapidly. These fibers have few mitochondria for producing ATP, but have large glycogen reserves. They are called glycolytic fibers because the create ATP anaerobically from glycogen. This storage form of carbohydrate is easily depleted, and lactic acid is produced by its' metabolism. Therefore, these fibers are easily fatigued, but are very powerful, suitable for short-term, rapid intense movements, such as jumping.

Intermediate fast-twitch fibers
These fibers are pink in color because the contain moderate amounts of myoglobin, and are intermediate in size between the red-, and the white fibers. They are rich in blood supply, are oxygen dependent, have fast-acting myosin ATPases, and depend mainly on aerobic metabolism. They are only somewhat fatigue resistant.

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The mixture of muscles that a person has seems to be determined genetically, and various athletes have fiber types that facilitate specific activities. For example, basketball players and long-distance and marathon runners have a high percentage, perhaps 80 percent, of slow-twitch fibers, and sprinters have 60 percent as fast-twitch fibers. Weight lighters and football players have an approximately equal number of fast-, and slow twitch fibers.


Pyramid sets are not without their detractors. The debate however is not whether or not they work. They do. The question is weather of not other types of sets are superior in enhancing strength and growth. While the jury is still out on this subject it is important that you vary your routine.

For now, pyramid sets are a time tested and proven method of safely building mass and strength. The Egyptians were onto something and we have a lot to learn from their example.


"Role of Physical Dissections of Biological Organisms" at