How to Adjust a Pyramid Fitness Training Program to Achieve the Best Results

A participant in the Murph Challenge performs the pull-up portion of the exercise at Fairchild Air Force Base, Washington.
A participant in the Murph Challenge performs the pull-up portion of the exercise at Fairchild Air Force Base, Washington, May 25, 2023. (Airman 1st Class Haiden Morris/U.S. Air Force photo)

Pyramid training systems are nothing new. I have been using this "perfect workout" since the 1980s, when I got schooled on it at my first SEAL PT run conducted by active-duty SEALs stationed at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. The progressive workout starts easy and makes for an outstanding warm-up, builds up each set until the user fails, then works as a cooldown as the latter sets continue in reverse order.

Here is a question concerning adding exercise options:

Hey Stew. I love the Pyramid Workout that you introduced a few years ago, but I am having issues completing it if I have 3 to 4 exercises (like Pullups, Pushups, Dips, Squats, or Abs). I can finish a full 1-10-1 pyramid with 1-2 exercises. What do you recommend? More rest? Fewer exercises? Or am I doing better, and I need to get into better shape? Thanks for my new favorite workout! Steve

Steve, it is also one of my favorite workouts, and I continue to use it not only as a complete workout, but as a warm-up (first half of the pyramid or ladder), an assessment tool to check muscle stamina progress during a training cycle and as a cooldown after any type of workout. For example:

Using the PT Pyramid 1-10 (first half of the pyramid) makes for a great warm-up for any activity, but I tend to limit this to one or two exercises of the movements we will be doing later in the workout. For instance, we may warm up with pull-ups and push-ups as we prepare for an upper-body lift workout:

  • 1 pull-up, 1 push-up, jog or jump rope 10 seconds
  • 2 pull-ups, 2 push-ups, jog or jump rope 10 seconds
  • 3 pull-ups, 3 push-ups, jog or jump rope 10 seconds
  • 4 pull-ups, 4 push-ups, jog or jump rope 10 seconds
  • 5 pull-ups, 5 push-ups, jog or jump rope for 10 seconds ...

If you want to continue up to 10, you can. But by this time, you can feel ready for any type of workout. You can do the same with squats and toe touches to prepare for a leg-day lift workout as well.

In the example above, it should be easier to go from one to 10 and back to one if you want to complete the full 19-set pyramid that yields 100 total reps of pull-ups and push-ups. The problem is when you add more volume and most likely run out of fuel.

For instance, if you double the push-ups and triple the squats, you are now accumulating the same 100 pull-ups, 200 push-ups and 300 squats. This Murph-level workout is not easy and requires you to be well-fueled to handle this volume of repetitions. It is more difficult to get 100 pull-ups when adding several more repetitions each set. Some pyramids add 400 meters of running each set and can accumulate almost 5 miles of running in 19 sets. That, too, can wipe you out and decrease your ability to complete the pull-up section of the pyramid.

Out of all the ways to make the pyramid tougher, such as adding more exercises to a circuit, multiplying reps and adding cardio each set, it is conditioning and-or fuel that determines your ability to complete what you started. But the beauty of the pyramid is that it is also a way to assess your progress. Each week you do the pyramid, you may see improvements in how high you move up the pyramid and then return down the pyramid (10 to one) in reverse order.

My advice is to keep doing all types of pyramids. Use them for quick warm-ups, add as many exercises to the circuit as you prefer, and test yourself. Learn how to fuel for longer workouts. You will find that a pyramid takes more than 40 minutes to complete; you will need more fuel to finish. Experiment with foods and drinks that provide energy (carbs, not caffeine). Sipping on juice or eating an apple, banana or orange will help you in those final minutes of the workout when you start to fail.

Stew Smith is a former Navy SEAL and fitness author certified as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Visit his Fitness eBook store if you're looking to start a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to

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