Ask Stew: All the Uses of the Pyramid

Advantages of the pyramid workout system
U.S. Marine Sgt. Miguel Aguirre, a force fitness instructor with Combat Logistics Regiment 17, 1st Marine Logistics Group, executes a kettlebell squat during the High Intensity Tactical Training Installation Challenge at Paige Field House on Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, California, Nov. 19, 2020. (Lance Cpl. Andrew Cortez/U.S. Marine Corps photo)

I didn't create the pyramid workout method. I learned it in the 1980s at the Naval Academy when working to improve my own PT scores and have been using it, altering it and developing new routines ever since.

Here is a new Ask Stew question from one of our readers:

Stew, I like your pyramid workout and have used it to help me with my Army fitness tests in the past. What other uses do you have for them? Have you ever considered mixing them with other exercises, military-style events, new combat fitness test events and cardio workouts? Just wondering what you think and how you would break up each set. Thanks! Max

Max, yes, we have been using a pyramid workout system for decades -- mainly with calisthenics. But over the years, we have gotten creative and added the increase and decrease to each set (reps, time, resistance, etc.), along with other training methods.

Below are many uses of the pyramid:

1. Calisthenics. These exercises help build volume and crush fitness tests. A wide variety of exercises can be used, such as pull-ups, push-ups, sit-ups, flutter kicks, squats, lunges, dips and plank poses, for time increments as you move up and down the pyramid.

2. Warm-ups. We typically will do a 1-10 warm-up pyramid of push-ups or squats, with 25-yard jogs and dynamic stretches between sets during the travel section.

3. Cooldowns. The backside of a pyramid or reverse ladder is a great way to cool down from high-intensity workouts. From decreased reps, timed sets or intensity, the reverse pyramid or ladder never fails to help with those last 10-15 minutes of a workout.

4. Weight training. For strength training, a reverse pyramid or ladder is a classic way to increase weight and decrease reps each set. A 10, 8, 6, 4, 2 progressive drop in reps alongside an increase in weight provides a bit of a warm-up prior to heavier lifts (longer rests between sets). But a 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 is also a classic ladder to get to your one-rep max during a workout session.

5. Weight and calisthenics combo. Calisthenics on the way up the pyramid, increasing weights and decreasing reps on the way down the pyramid. Once again, a variety of weights and calisthenics can be used. We will do this with pull-ups and push-ups and dips on the way up and come down with bench press, pull-downs or heavy rows and overhead press.

6. Swimming laps. An easy way to keep track of your workout and laps is to do lap pyramids: one lap, two laps, three laps, four laps, five laps, etc. Work your way up to 10, and you've got yourself 55 laps in the pool. Do a little cooldown, and you've got 3,000 yards for a good swim workout.

7. Running pyramids. These are tough. Start off with a two-minute quarter mile. Rest for 50% of the time you are running. Then continue to drop 10 seconds every set until you no longer can reach the goal pace for that set. Do a quarter mile in two minutes, 1:50, 1:40, 1:30, 1:20, 1:10. Can you hit 60 seconds? Then repeat in reverse order. On the back side, you can rest up to two times of the time spent running if needed.

8. Bike, elliptical, rower or treadmill pyramids. Every minute on the minute (EMOM), add to the resistance, incline or speed by a level. These will start off nice and easy and provide a good warm-up. The middle section will start to get more difficult until it is near impossible to keep up with the movement. Then, the back side starts to cool down and get easier again. A typical 1-10-1 minute pyramid equals 19 minutes and is a fast and effective method of getting cardio workout on a machine.

9. Other equipment additions. Get creative with other equipment and exercises, such as kettlebells, TRX, jump rope and even elements of the new tactical fitness tests.

The pyramid is as versatile as your creativity. I originally wrote an article about my favorite pyramids and realized I had more than 50 in my archive. The Top 10 Favorite Pyramids article came from that list. My latest book is called the 101 Best Pyramid Training Workouts, and it took some time to come up with 101 different types of pyramids. With some creativity, you can develop these using the "perfect workout system" and exchange exercises, add events and watch how they help you reach your fitness goals.

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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