Ask Stew: Is the Pyramid Workout Structure Optimal for Training?

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Maj. Breck Perry, left, and Sgt. Christopher Rateau-Holbach swim laps with fins during a scout swimmers course Oct. 21, 2014 at the Camp Hansen Aquatics Center. The final event is a two-kilometer surface swim with fins. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Abbey Perria)

You will see in both my Military.com articles and my books that I like the Pyramid System of training. Though it does not make up a majority of my programming, it has a significant part in building a foundation of fitness for beginners, intermediate and advanced tactical athletes, depending how you use it.

The pyramid is a perfect workout, complete with a warm-up (first few sets), a max-out (failure point) and a cool down all rolled into one. That’s the main reason why I use it so often, but here’s a good question from a veteran who has experience with the pyramid system (as well as others) and is just curious as to why it is so popular when doing PT workouts:

Stew – Long time reader and user of your programs. I like (not love) the pyramid workout with calisthenics, but love it with weights (drop sets and 5,4,3,2,1 type heavy lifts). Is it really a versatile workout that is optimal for training? Are there better ways to train?

Personally, I do love all the pyramids. We do them all the time with calisthenics like you do with weights, but also with running, biking, even swimming. So, yes, they are that versatile. In fact, I’ve even written on the top ten uses for the pyramid. There are all kinds of ways to add variety to the pyramid to make them harder, easier and adjusted to fit your goals. I personally have not found a use for the pyramid that did not work for a goal.

But your question is more difficult to answer: are they optimal?

Really the best way to answer this question is to test different workouts and see what works best for you. You sound like you like lifting more than calisthenics. I was the same way and found the PT Pyramid to be a great tool to build up the muscle stamina and endurance needed for high repetition military fitness tests (two minutes) that require a competitive score.

They were also a great “in workout” assessment tool. One day you do the pyramid and fail at set eight at an exercise, but the following week you fail at set nine or 10. You can see progress each time you do it, just as you can see increased weight on the barbell when lifting for increased strength numbers. I found that to be a nice comparable when not in a heavy weight lifting cycle during cardio and calisthenics (muscle stamina and endurance cycle) which is needed for the tactical athlete.

The best test is to cycle through workouts that focus on different elements of fitness through the year in a tactical periodization program. While doing that you can see what styles work best for you. You may prefer circuits, super set, split routines, 5x5, 3x10, weights over calisthenics, weight vests over TRX, or max repetition sets depending on your current goals. Regardless, the PT Pyramid, Weight Lifting Reverse Pyramid, Bike Pyramid, Swim Pyramid, and other activities that you can apply to the pyramid rep or set system creates a solid foundation for you in every element of fitness used.

Check out the following articles on “what does optimal even mean” when related to the tactical professions.

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