Here Are My Top 10 Pyramid Routines

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A National Guardsman performs burpees during the Best Warrior competition.
Texas Army National Guard Spc. Jacob D. Arndt, 176 Engineer Brigade, performs burpees as part of the obstacle course March 5, 2020, during the Texas Military Department 2020 Best Warrior competition at Camp Swift near Bastrop, Texas. (Spc. Jason Archer/U.S. Army National Guard photo)

If you have ever exercised, you likely have used some form of a pyramid program either to build up to a max-effort lift or body-weight repetition. You might have used them with your cardio workouts, too.

A pyramid workout provides myriad options. Here are my top 10 go-to pyramid routines:

1. The Classic PT Pyramid:  This one is no surprise. If you want to have a workout that is part warmup, max-out and cooldown, do a PT pyramid. It's typically done with pull-ups, push-ups, sit-ups and dips (sometimes), but you can use any exercise -- calisthenics or weights.

Basically, each set gets tougher as you move up the pyramid until you fail at something. Then repeat in reverse order going down the pyramid, and soon the workout will get easier.

2. Burpee/run pyramid: This one has grown into a favorite. It can be a warmup when done for 5-10 minutes before a workout, or it can be its own workout or gut check.

Find a place for a short run (basketball court, football field, driveway, etc.). Do one burpee at the start and run 25 meters (or more); stop and do two burpees; run 25 meters, three burpees, etc. Keep running back and forth until you hit your goal. Usually, we will go from one to 10 and then stop, which makes for a really good full-body warmup.

Mixing in dynamic stretches during the 25-meter distances is a great addition to a pre-workout warmup. The gold-standard burpee pyramid is to do one to 25, with runs in between, to equal 325 total. Try to build up to that if you want that kind of a gut-check challenge.

3. Pull-up/burpee pyramid: By simply adding a pull-up bar to the above burpee/run pyramid, you have a great push/pull workout. Make the runs longer, faster and as hard as you prefer.

You also can add in travel events to and from the pullup bar/burpee area like bear crawls, crab walks, fireman carries and farmer walks. You are only limited by your imagination for supplemental travel exercises you want to try. A 1-20 pull-up/burpee pyramid is a legit workout totaling 210 pull-ups and burpees. However, a 1-10-1 full pyramid is 100 pull-ups and burpees -- and still a challenge to many.

4. PT pyramid plus run: Whatever pyramid you do, you will have multiple sets. If you also need to work on your running pace, try adding a mile run every fifth set of your pyramid. After the fifth set and one-mile run, you start where you left off with set numbers 6-10.

This allows you to keep up with your running, work on the PT to run transition, and give you a short break from all the reps being done. Many find that they can go higher up the pyramid by adding a six- to eight-minute mile run every fifth set.

5. Bike Pyramid (also done with an elliptical machine): Start with Level 1 in manual mode on a stationary bike for one minute and keep the RPMs at 80-100. With each minute that passes, increase the resistance by one level. Continue this process until you are having difficulty breathing and/or pedaling.

When you get really good at this, you can take the bike to level 20. Then repeat the cycle in reverse order. This workout will take about 40 minutes if you are that advanced. However, if you only can get up to level 10 and back to level 1, your time investment is only 19 minutes. I do the same on an elliptical machine but find that increasing by two or three levels each minute makes it more challenging.

6. Skip breathing swim pyramids: Swimming requires conditioning and technique. Many people get the technique down to optimal scores long before the conditioning. Here is a quick way to push your cardio when swimming the freestyle stroke. Swim 100 meters at two strokes per breath, then four strokes per breath, six strokes per breath, eight strokes per breath and so on.

You may find that you will need to breathe before those individual arm pulls (strokes) accumulate. That is fine. The goal is to push yourself, open your lungs and get the heart beating. Never do this alone as this is very close to underwater swimming. These are also referred to as hypoxic pyramids.

7. Weight lift pyramids: Start off with a weight you can do 10 times. You next will increase the weight and switch to eight repetitions. Increase the weight and do six reps, four reps and two reps, increasing the weight with each set. Rest as needed between each set.

Keep doing two reps until you only can do one repetition of the heavier weight. This is obviously a strength-training program with a warmup and a max-out built into the reverse pyramid.

8. Reverse running pyramid: Don't be fooled by the first few sets of this workout. Start this workout slow and maintain an easy pace, but build to a nearly impossible sprint. We typically use a quarter-mile as our repeat distance. Here is how the running pyramid works:

  • Run a quarter-mile in two minutes, followed by a light stretch and 100-meter walk.
  • Run a 1:50 quarter-mile, then a light stretch and 100-meter walk. 
  • Run a 1:40 quarter-mile, light stretch and 100-meter walk.
  • Run a 1:30 quarter-mile, light stretch and 100-meter walk.
  • Run a 1:20 quarter-mile, light stretch and 100-meter walk.
  • Run a 1:10 quarter-mile, light stretch and 100-meter walk.
  • Run a 1:00 quarter-mile, light stretch and 100-meter walk.
  • Can you break a one-minute quarter-mile? Try.
  • Then repeat in reverse order for up to 3-4 miles of paced intervals.

9. Swimming pyramid: Have you ever looked for a way to break up the monotony of swimming? Try the 100-, 200-, 300-, 400- and 500-meter pyramid. We typically do this one in reverse, starting with 500 meters as a warmup. Then tread water for a few minutes and do the 400-meter swim -- maybe mix in some hypoxic sets or a different stroke even. Tread for your rest again, then do the 300-meter swim and so on. This is a great way to get in 1,500 meters of swimming, broken up in a way that is less boring than swimming that distance or longer nonstop.

10. Adding thinking games to pyramids: PT pyramids are monotonous, and they either will take you to a happy place to finish or make you realize every single repetition. It all depends on your mindset. Adding thinking games to each set as you start to tire is a good way to break up the monotony as well as challenge yourself when the body and brain are low on glycogen.

Mix in travelling from the pull-up and other areas, but get creative how you travel to and from each set. See what you can develop when the glycogen levels are low and the brain wants to stop working optimally.

This workout tires you physically but still requires you to think creatively and cognitively. Why is this important? In the tactical ops world, where you are tired, hungry and stressed out, thinking clearly is a skill that can be enhanced by adding these types of events to your day.

Enjoy the pyramids.

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 stew@stewsmith.com.

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