Pyramid Sets vs Reverse Pyramid Training vs Straight Sets

Hey, here’s a question. Once your overall workout routine is set up and you’ve figured out which exercises you’ll be doing and how many sets and reps you’ll do for each… how exactly do you structure it all?

What I mean is, are you going to lift the same weight each set? Increase the weight from one to the next? Decrease the weight each set? Do more reps in later sets? Do less reps in later sets? Do the same number of reps each set?

Or will you just wing it and hope for the best?

If you don’t have a good answer to this question (and “just winging it” definitely isn’t a good answer), or you just can’t explain how the hell you came to the answer you do have, then you’re kinda being a dumbass because this is a surprisingly important aspect of your weight training routine.

There’s actually quite a few methods for structuring the sets, reps and weights you’ll use for a given exercise, and some will definitely be more or less ideal for you than others based on your goals, experience level and individual needs.

Today I want to cover what are probably the 3 most simple and common set structures of all:

  1. Straight sets.
  2. Pyramid sets.
  3. Reverse pyramid training.

Let’s now take a look at each and figure out which is best for you…

Straight Sets

Doing “straight sets” (which people also refer to as “sets across”) means lifting the same weight for all of your sets of a given exercise. In the traditional sense, you’ll have a set/rep goal of something like 3 sets of 8 reps, where you’ll use the same weight each set and try to get 8 reps each time.

When you successfully do that, you’d then increase the weight being lifted (aka progressive overload) and then try to get 3 sets of 8 reps with a new slightly heavier weight.

Using 3×8 as the example, here’s how traditional straight sets would look…

Traditional Straight Sets

Set Weight Reps
#1 100lbs 8
#2 100lbs 8
#3 100lbs 8

As you can see, the same weight is used in all of the sets of this exercise. It’s not increased or decreased at any point.

You’ll also notice that the number of reps being done (or at least attempted as the goal) remained the same as well. While this is definitely a common way of doing it (hence the “traditional” nickname I’ve given it), it’s NOT a requirement for doing straight sets.

In fact, I most often recommend a modified version of straight sets in the workouts I use and design for others, and a lot of other people do the same. The main modification being made is the use of a rep range rather than one exact rep amount.

So, for example, instead of prescribing 3 sets of 8 reps as the goal, I might prescribe 3 sets of 6-8 reps. Here’s an example of how that might look…

Modified Straight Sets

Set Weight Reps
#1 100lbs 8
#2 100lbs 7
#3 100lbs 6

As you can see, it’s still considered “straight sets” because the same weight is being used in each set. The difference is that your goal isn’t just an exact 8 reps anymore. It’s now a range of 6-8 reps. That means you could get 8, 7, 6 like I’ve shown above and your set/rep goal would have been reached just the same (at which point you’d increase the weight being lifted).

What’s the point of the modification, you ask?

Well, the main reason I (and many others) prefer a rep range is because a lot of people suck at maintaining reps from set to set unless the weight being used is lighter than it should be or you’re stopping each set well short of failure and just not working hard enough.

What often happens instead for these people (and I definitely include myself in this group) is that you end up losing a rep from one set to the next as a result of natural fatigue. So rather than taking forever (if ever at all) to work up to straight sets of the same amount of reps, I prefer to see a rep range used which basically builds what your body is naturally capable of right into the progression itself.

You could still get 8, 8, 8 of course. You could also get 8, 7, 7 or 8, 6, 6 or 8, 7, 6 like I’ve shown and most like to see before the weight gets increased. This modified version just allows for a much better progression than traditional straight sets in my experience.

This of course is exactly why it’s what I recommend in The Muscle Building Workout Routine and many of the other highly proven workouts included in The Best Workout Routines.

Straight Set Recommendations

Straight sets tend to be the default set/rep/weight structure I (and most others) recommend for the majority of the population. Some people prefer it done the traditional way (and have no problem maintaining reps like that), while others prefer the modified version that uses a rep range instead. As for me, I definitely prefer the modified version.

Pyramid Sets

The traditional text-book definition of pyramid sets involves increasing the weight each set while decreasing the number of reps being done. For example…

Traditional Pyramid Sets

Set Weight Reps
#1 80lbs 10
#2 90lbs 8
#3 100lbs 6

As you can see, as the weight goes up, the number of reps being done goes down (hence the name “pyramid” sets). This example shows it being done over a rep range of 6-10, but it can just as easily be done over a smaller or larger range (4-12, 3-6, 8-10, 6-8, etc.) by using smaller or larger increases in weight.

In this case, your program wouldn’t prescribe something like 3 sets of 8. It would either call for 3 sets of whatever the rep range is (6-10 in this example), or specifically say something like 1 set of 10, 1 set of 8, and 1 set of 6 with guidelines to increase the weight by a certain amount each set.

Now, this traditional form of pyramid training is probably still the most common set structure you see these days in typical bodybuilding routines and fitness magazines/articles, and it’s practically the only one you ever saw years ago.

It also tends to be the default method that most people just start out using or eventually end up using, kinda like how Monday somehow just becomes “chest day.”

But the funny thing is, despite this popularity, pyramid sets are the dumbest set structure of them all.

You see, what traditional pyramid sets essentially cause you to do is greatly fatigue your muscles and nervous system BEFORE you reach your heaviest weights. You end up lifting the lightest weights when you are at your strongest and freshest, and are then at your weakest when you finally get to your heaviest weights. Yeah, real smart.

This of course is completely ass-backwards from the way it should be for most people to make their best progress. Plus, in many cases, those early sets serve more as warm ups rather than actual work sets that are truly challenging for you and are truly capable of creating the training stimulus you’re working out to create in the first place.

Granted, if you’re not warming up properly then I guess pyramid sets could serve a purpose in that regard. But then again, you SHOULD be warming up properly. You shouldn’t be turning your work sets into borderline warm up sets to make up for the fact that you train like a moron.

Pyramid Set Recommendations

For the majority of the population, none of what I just described is very ideal. And for that reason, traditional pyramid sets are typically the worst possible set structure to use. Can it work? Sure… assuming everything else is done right. But is it best or even remotely smart? Nope.

The one possible exception here would be beginners who are still learning proper form. In this case, pyramid sets serve the same purpose as training wheels on a bike. You get to start off each exercise by “practicing” with a lighter weight, and then continue to practice with slightly heavier weight as you go from set to set.

But beyond that, it’s just a stupid way to train. I don’t recommend it.

Reverse Pyramid Training

The traditional text-book definition of reverse pyramid training involves decreasing the weight each set while increasing the number of reps being done. For example…

Reverse Pyramid Training

Set Weight Reps
#1 100lbs 6
#2 90lbs 8
#3 80lbs 10

As you can see, it’s the complete reverse of traditional pyramid training (which means the International Workout Method Naming Department did a damn fine job on this one).

As the weight goes down from set to set, the number of reps being done goes up. This example shows it being done over a rep range of 6-10, but it can once again easily be done over a smaller or larger range (4-12, 3-6, 8-10, 6-8, etc.) by using smaller or larger decreases in weight.

And just like pyramid sets, your program wouldn’t prescribe something like 3 sets of 8. It would either call for 3 sets of whatever the rep range is (6-10 in this example), or specifically say something like 1 set of 6, 1 set of 8, and 1 set of 10 with guidelines to decrease the weight by a certain amount each set.

The main difference between reverse pyramid and traditional pyramid training is that here you’re NOT training like an idiot. You’re starting with your heaviest weight and then working down to your lightest weight, which makes MUCH more sense than traditional pyramid sets where you do the opposite.

This way is just much more ideal for creating progressive overload (which is really your #1 goal).

In addition to allowing you to start with your heaviest weight (which straight sets also do), some people may also like the fact that the weight gets lighter from set to set (which straight sets don’t do).

Why? Because as you naturally become more fatigued from one set to the next, the weight being lifted is reduced in a way that almost compensates for that fatigue.

This could be especially beneficial for certain people based on age, genetics or just personal preference, as well as people in an already reduced state of recovery/work capacity, such as those in a caloric deficit for the purpose of losing fat.

I have a feeling this is a big part of why Martin Berkhan uses reverse pyramid training (and quite successfully, I might add) as part of his IF/Leangains approach. It’s probably at least partially responsible for reverse pyramid training’s increase in popularity in recent years, even though it’s been around forever.

Reverse Pyramid Training Recommendations

Simply put, I like it. In fact, I like any set structure that involves starting with your heaviest weight at the point when you are at your strongest, freshest, and most capable of using and progressing with it.

Reverse pyramid training does exactly that AND has a built in way of dealing with potential performance drop-off from set to set (sort of like modified straight sets does, just to a larger degree). I probably wouldn’t recommend it to beginners, but for anyone at the intermediate or advanced level, it’s definitely one of many options to consider.

Are There Any Other Methods? Which Is Your Favorite?

Yup, there are other set/rep structures out there besides traditional pyramid sets, reverse pyramid training and straight sets, although these definitely seem to be the 3 most popular among the average person.

As for which one I like the most of the three, it’s usually the modified version of straight sets done using a rep range (although the traditional version might be better suited for beginners). However, I also REALLY like reverse pyramid training and have personally gotten good results using both set structures.

That’s why these are the 2 methods of progression I prescribe for most of the workouts included in my new premium guide, The Best Workout Routines.

Traditional pyramid sets on the other hand are the clear loser in my opinion. I spent my first few years training this way and I consider it one of the (many) dumb things I’ve done that hindered my progress. It’s not a training method I recommend often, if ever.

But if you really want to know what my personal favorite set/rep structure is, then it’s actually none of the methods I’ve mentioned in this post.

Instead, I’ve personally gotten my best results using a method that can best be described as a linear and nonlinear combination of straight sets AND reverse pyramid training that I tend to refer to as modified reverse pyramid training.

Don’t worry, you’ll definitely be hearing more about this training method in the future.

How’s that for a tease? ;-)

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43 Comments

  1. Darren says

    Hi,

    Great site you have here. The Ultimate Workout Guide is an awesome idea. Good to see all the current information that most top trainers/coaches agree on, in one place.

    One other method that is gaining a lot of followers and starting to show up in many routines is the ‘ramping’ method – pyramid up in load while keeping reps constant.

    It is used by Borge Fagerli (aka Blade) in his RPE method as well as Daniel Roberts’ HCT-12 program. Also, Jason Ferrugia has been using it lately. Seems to be borrowed from PL’ing.

    • says

      Thanks Darren, glad you liked it.

      Yup, ramping up to a top set while keeping reps constant has been around for a while as part of many strength oriented programs. I actually kinda prefer it the other way around (starting with the top set, then ramping down instead).

      And speaking of Blade, Myo-Reps is about the only thing that has ever made my calves grow. Big fan of his.

  2. Tom says

    While we’re waiting for the article on modified reverse pyramid training, let me ask you this:

    Right now I’m doing a 5×5 program and having good success with the exception of the bench press which I’m struggling with.

    I’m wondering if it’s better to stick to the 5×5 and tough it out until I see progress or use a reverse pyramid for that exercise only.

    Any thoughts?

    • says

      Let me ask you this first. The 5×5 program you’re doing… is it something you’ve put together yourself or an already well established program intelligently designed by some smart/respected person?

      If it’s the latter, then I’d usually say NOT to change anything. If the program already has guidelines for what to do if an exercise stalls, follow them. If it doesn’t, maybe try deloading just the bench press and then work your way back up and then (ideally) get back to making new progress.

      If it’s something you’ve put together yourself, then I’d say maybe make a change. Or, maybe try deloading it first just the same as I mentioned before.

  3. Bill says

    Spent most of the last year (after not picking up a weight for close to 15years) doing the traditional pyramid. Made some early gains from being so out of shape, but quickly stalled.

    Switched to 5×5 straight sets about 2 months ago and man what a difference. Constant progression over those two months.

  4. Tommy says

    I totally agree with your modified straight set approach. In fact, I usually combine it with a reverse pyramid, too.

    Meaning, I starting with my heaviest weight. And then, maintain that weight if I can stay within the rep range. Or, drop the weight by a small increment (usually about 10%) to stay within the recommended rep range.

    So, it might look like this:
    Target: 6-8 reps

    1st set: 100×8
    2nd set: 100×6
    3rd set: 90×7

    While I’m not a bodybuilder, I’m certainly an experienced lifter. And, I’ve always thought it was assanine and insane to increase the weight in working sets.

    The only benefit I can think of is that you – might – avoid absolute failure earlier in the sets.

    However, if my first set is 100, second set is 110 and third set is 120, how much effort was I really putting into my first set? What, maybe 70%?

    It just makes zero sense to me that you’d increase the weight with additional sets. Because, you’re strongest, and freshest, at your first set!

    Great stuff. Thanks for posting all this.

    I’ve read A LOT of material, and there are a handful of guys who I respect and actually like their stuff. And yours matches up with any of the dozens of ebooks I’ve bought over the years. And, YOURS IS FREE!

    That’s pretty kick-ass. Thanks, man.

    • says

      Thanks for the compliments… definitely appreciated.

      And yeah, I’m definitely in agreement on the idiocy of increasing the weight from set to set in most cases. It’s just the complete opposite of everything that makes sense.

      Also, that modified straight set/reverse pyramid hybrid you showed is getting pretty close to the “non-linear modified reverse pyramid training” method I teased in the post. Stop giving away all of my SeCReTz!!!! ;-)

      Works quite well though, doesn’t it?

  5. Bryan says

    Darren, great article, thanks for breaking those down, very insightful.

    Tom,

    Hope you gave the reverse pyramid stuff a try. I too was doing something similar to 5X5, Mark Rippitoe’s Starting strength (3X5) and was struggling on bench to up my weight every workout. I ran across Martin’s site (leangains) and looked and his client and read their testimonials and was impressed, especially since he is not selling anything at the moment. I decided to give the RPT stuff a try and have seen some really good results in the last month. I have increased by bench by 20-25 pounds. My chest has always lagged behind (long arms like a monkey, weak triceps), so I decided to work chest Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Now, Martin does not recommend this, but since I am using a rep range that is high intensity/low volume (sets of 3-5), I can recover in time for my next workout. Needless to say I am increasing my top set by 1 rep every workout and then I hit the top end, 5 in this case, then next workout I up my top set. The other sets if I hit the rep range, I have been increasing those by 5 pounds the next workout. So far, I have increased those set every workout as well. Now, I have only been doing this for a little over a month now and I plan on monitoring myself for signs of over-training, but I figure if I keep upping my weights/reps every workout then I must be doing something right.

    Hope this helps.

  6. Jay-C says

    I have been doing the traditional straight sets for a long time. Just like you explained, I was using lighter weight to make sure I would get the same reps for each sets. I ended up working hard only on the last set. I am positive I could’ve made a lot more gains. Today at the gym, I tried the modified straight sets. The intensity went to the roof! Hopefully I get better gains in the next few weeks…

  7. Amit says

    Finally I got a Bible for work out. The information in it are so useful and practical..Thank you for sharing all the important information with us.

  8. Jimmy says

    Like to hear your opinion on this simplistic approach that ive been doing for past few years. 2 warm up sets of 50% 10 rep max 12 reps each 90sec rest between sets (this is very light so you wont fatigue).Then 3 working sets of 10-8-6 reps with 3 min rest between sets. The working sets will be 100% of your 10 rep max using the same weight for all 3 sets. The reason i say 10-8-6 is because if you max out on the first set of 10 you will not be able to get 10 on the second but rather 8 and you will not be able to get 8 on the third but rather 6. The goal here is to get 12 on the first set and 8 on the last set before advancing. When ready to advance add 5 pounds to each side of the bar or dumbell. Example: 95-2×12 185-3×10-8-6. This sheme is also kinda cool in that it provides an average of 25 reps per exercise.

  9. Chris says

    I always thought why do anything other than straight sets? I used to watch pure bodybuilder types on bench and think if you can do 225lbs why do less work drop it to 205lbs for the same reps for your next set? I only worked in 5 rep range but if I could get 5 reps (even 5rm) I could get up to 5+ sets no problem with a few minutes rest. It was only when I started doing 10+ reps that I discovered keeping up the reps on straight sets is actually difficult.

    Is this likely to be a case of my genetics and muscle fibre makeup being more suited to power/strength work and lacking endurance, or is this a normal response suggesting that higher rep ranges would get the biggest benefit from reverse pyramid work, while pure strength work should be kept as straight sets?

    • says

      Could be a lot of things. For example, if you’ve mostly only done low reps, you’re gonna suck at higher reps. In time this can improve.

      Some people also just suck at maintaining reps from set to set. I’m one of them. Most likely a genetic thing. So 5×5 sucks for me because, unless the weight I’m using is fairly light, I’m never going to be able to do multiple sets of the same weight for the same number of reps. I’ll always lose 1 or 2 reps from set to set if I’m going heavy enough.

      • Chris says

        Ok thanks. I think I am seeing improvement in my higher rep stamina across sets.
        I don’t know why I didn’t consider that it also depends on the weight, 225 squats isn’t going to get as hard on subsequent sets compared to 315. I guess that leads into a whole world of HIT where one main set supposedly becomes sufficient and sets across become less important.

  10. Adam says

    How would you warm up using this straight sets method of 3 x 8 or 8,7,6.

    WOuld you go straight in to your work sets or do warm up sets and if so how man reps and at what weight?

    Thanks

  11. Marley says

    Awesome article man!! Im 17 and havent been doing weights for too long. What method would you advise to bring up my maximum bench press weight. Im having troubles with putting up the weight and i get stuck on one weight.
    Thanks

  12. Curtis says

    Nice article, and I could not agree more with you about pyramid sets…ass backwards is the perfect way to describe it. I really do like your modified straight sets approach. The biggest problem with the reverse pyramid is that I spend more time changing the weights on the bar then I do actually lifting it. It’s kind of a PITA when you’re pressed for time.

  13. Tiago says

    Hi,

    Very nice article, and i definitly try this but i have one doubt what the time you recommend to rest beetwen sets in the RPT, and if i can combine the RPT and the straight sets?

  14. Lokesh says

    Thanks man!! Your advice helped me a lot.. I also agree to the point that PYRAMID SETS are nothing but a waste of time. It is just opposite to the thing that makes sense. I am new to BODYBUILDING.. Just been 6 and a half months. I spent my first two months doing Pyramid Sets, I noticed some (but very little) growth in my muscles. Then in the next month, I switched on to Reverse Pyramid Training and continued to it. I noticed a massive growth in my muscles in the next two months. I made a great progress by doing RPT. Now, I Was able to lift more every next week.. Now, I will use your technique of combining Modified Straight sets with RPT. I am sure that this will also be a good move for me. Thanks Again..

  15. John says

    Great advice, I been using the modified straight sets unintentionally and been wondering if it was a good thing. Would this same concept apply across exercises using the same muscles? Say I do pullups with the the modified straight sets and I would like to do three more sets of concentration curls. Would it be fine to uses reverse pyramid on the concentration curls? My biceps would not be able to lift as much as I usually can due to the pullups. Thanks

  16. Leena says

    Love this article! I’ve been doing straight sets, but was thinking about changing to reverse pyramid…but I think I’m going to try modified straight sets instead. Thank you.

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