Workout of the Week: Pyramid Warmup, Pyramid Lift

Sailor performs bench presses with dumbbells.
Chief Damage Controlman Marcus White of San Antonio lifts weights aboard the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Spruance. (Petty Officer 2nd Class Ryan D. McLearnon/U.S. Navy photo)

If you have built your foundation of fitness using a popular method of PT pyramids, you may like this next-step progression as you start to add weights to your regimen. As you know, the PT pyramid is a series of calisthenics exercises that increase in repetitions each set. A classic PT pyramid is the pull-up, push-up, squat pyramid.

If you do it with the following method, you can build to finish a Murph Workout in 19 sets:

Sets 1 to 10, then back down to 1 (19 total sets) with alternating exercises.

The standard is (x1) pull-ups, (x2) push-ups, (x3) squats each set:

  • Set 1: pull-ups 1, push-ups 2, squats 3
  • Set 2: pull-ups 2, push-ups 4, squats 6
  • Set 3: pull-ups 3, push-ups 6, squats 9 ...

Keep going up until you fail or can get to level 10:

Pull-ups 10, push-ups 20, squats 30: Repeat in reverse order, starting at 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 -- that will yield 100 pull-ups, 200 push-ups and 300 squats in 19 sets.

PT pyramid warm-up, going up, lift coming down

Here is the new twist to the above pyramid. Go up the pyramid until you fail with calisthenics. Treat it like a warmup, as you will do corresponding weighted exercises on the way down the pyramid, but increase the weight each set if you can.

You can make this a full-body day and add leg exercises or just focus on the upper-body exercises and skip the leg exercises up and down the pyramid. Maybe add in another upper-body or core exercise if you prefer:

We tend to warm up with half of a PT pyramid and do a reverse pyramid with the weighted versions (dumbbells or TRX).

It looks like this: Do a short cardio of your choice warmup to get the blood flowing for 5-10 minutes. Another option is to add in a 400-meter run every set of this workout.

  • Pull-ups x 1 -- Most keep this at x 1, but if you are really good at pull-ups, try x 2 per set.
  • Push-ups x 2 -- If you are really good at push-ups, try x 3. It is a game changer for getting more reps.
  • Squats x 2 -- Some will resort to x 3 if able or skip if want to do only upper body today.
  • Dips x 2 -- Some will resort to x 1 if needed.
  • Abs of choice x 3 -- Make these a variety of core activities from sit-ups, flutter kicks, plank pose/second = a rep.

Depending on your abilities, you can multiply these exercises by one, two or three if you prefer. Remember: This first section of the workout is to warm up the muscles that will be involved in lifting on the back half of this workout.

It is up to you when you stop. Often if you cannot complete a 1-10-1 pyramid, just go up the pyramid until you fail at something or maybe two exercises. These usually are pull-ups and dips around 6-7. Then do the following:

Each one of these exercises is done in a circuit fashion with the following reverse pyramid repetition for a total of five sets: 10, 8, 6, 4, 2, with all the exercises getting a little heavier each set:

  • Circuit: 10, 8, 6, 4, 2 (each exercise)
  • Pulldowns
  • Bench press
  • Leg press
  • Biceps curl/military press
  • Plank pose 1 minute
  • Water break each round

Break it down into a circuit so your first set is 10 reps of each of the exercises. Rest in plank pose for 1 minute and take a water break. Repeat that sequence of exercises and plank and water break for the following sets and do eight reps each, then six, then four and finally two. It is up to you whether to make each set heavier.

This type of workout is a good transition as you move from a high-repetition calisthenics phase into a strength and weight training phase of training. I call this transition the "50-50 Workouts."

Basically, half of your workout is calisthenics and half is weight training. As you improve with calisthenics, you will see that half a pyramid is a good warmup for heavier activities.

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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