What Is Descending Pyramid Training?

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The Crazy Pyramid Training Protocol for Rapid Fat Loss and Accelerated Muscle Gain

In my last blog post two blog posts, I talked about being able to get a great workout anywhere, and how to train in a hotel room (in Vegas, no less).

Both of these posts have a particular theme in mind: When you don’t have access to a kick-ass gym, you still have access to kick-ass workout protocols, and therefore can still get kick-ass results.

Today, I want to talk to you about one of the more “advanced” training methods I use in such situations.

As I mentioned in the Vegas post, while I love bodyweight workouts, I’m really a gym-rat to the core.  However, I don’t care much for hotel gyms when I’m traveling, mainly because they are never stocked well enough to allow me to perform a scheduled workout from whatever program I’m on.

So, obviously, if I want to get a good lift in while I’m on the road (or in a limited facility of any kind), I need to look at some other methods.

And, that, of course, is my subtle segue into today’s post about just one such method—Descending Pyramid Training (DPT), which is an exceptionally adjustable and customizable protocol that, due to its nature, can be used to burn fat while building muscle.

What Is Descending Pyramid Training?

You see, DPT programs are designed with a few specific things in mind: stimulating muscle tissue to create an environment suitable for muscle growth; and increasing the overall metabolic response that will enable you to burn fat without entering into an energy deficit that would make hypertrophy impossible.

Descending Pyramid Training is a method that has been used for decades by some of the world’s most successful athletes.  In fact, the Big Man Himself, Mr. Arnold Schwarzenegger, was a strong advocate and implemented pyramid training of all types (especially DPT) extensively in his training.

The idea of pyramids is pretty simple: do short sets with descending numbers of reps, allowing you to do perform a good deal of work in minimal time (increased density), all while having built-in rest periods.

In order to make this possible, there are two ways to set up DPT exercises:

  1. You can use a single exercise and work your limbs unilaterally in an alternating fashion; in this case, the built-in rest periods occurs quite naturally: while one is working, the other is resting.  When you’ve hit the goal number of reps for each arm, you stop.
  2.  You can set up a DPT “circuit” of 2-4 exercises (usually for different muscle groups), and perform them in short sets.  In this case, you’d alternate each exercise until all reps had been completed for one.

To help illustrate, let’s look at the first method of Descending Pyramid Training.

Here’s an example with bicep: Curl a dumbbell with your left arm 5 times, then with your right arm 5 times; then 4 with your left, followed by 4 with your right.  Repeat for 3, 2, and 1.

Sounds simple enough, but, done correctly, this is actually a rather clever protocol—when you use the right weight, which should usually be a weight above what you could use for the desired reps.

In the example above, let us say you were using your 10-Rep Max, which in a dumbbell curl might be 25 pounds.

If you perform a normal set of 10 reps, you are lifting a total of 250 pounds (10 reps X 25 pounds = 250 pounds lifted). Not too bad.

Let us say you use that same weight for the descending pyramid, as described above.

You are lifting that same 25 pounds, but for a total of 15 reps (5 +4+3+2+1 = 15).  You are able to lift your 10RM for 15 reps because of the rest periods that are built into the protocol, and so you are able to recover and keep working. You’re doing a total of 50% more work, but it’s also taking up a bit more time, so you’ll wind up with a modest (but not huge) bump in density.

Most importantly, over the course of that set, you will have lifted a total of 375 pounds.

With descending pyramids, you are doing more work—in the form of more reps—with a weight you normally could not lift that number of times.

The result is more total weight lifted. Given those factors, it’s not difficult to see how this method can lead to significant muscle growth.

Now, here’s the best part. Because you are doing more work with challenging weight (and more work overall) this is a very calorically expensive training method, which means it’s great for fat loss based on that factor alone.

However, looking further, if you pair exercises together intelligently, you can create fast-paced DPT circuits, which allows you to be lifting supra-maximal weight while getting ALL the benefits of traditional Metabolic Resistance Training.

The end result of this is accelerated fat loss and improved conditioning, all while gaining some muscle.

As far as nutrient partitioning and body recomposition, DPT training is one of many effective protocols.  However, as far as advanced methods you can use on the road or in limited space, Descending Pyramid Training is the best there is.

And of course, I’m not just going to stop there—I’ve got a whole DPT workout for you, one that incorporates BOTH methods of using descending pyramids.

Circuit A: Unilateral Descending Pyramid

A) Dynamic Lunges

Sets: 5
Reps: 5, 4, 3, 2, 1

Using your 10 rep max, perform 5 forward dynamic lunges with your left leg, then 5 for your right leg, then 4 for your left leg, etc.

This circuit is to be performed three times, with 60 seconds of rest between each.  After the third circuit, rest 30 seconds and proceed to Circuit B.

Circuit B: Alternating Exercise Descending Pyramid

B1) Bicep Curl
B2) Dumbbell Top-Squat
B3) Overhead Press

Sets: 6
Reps: 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1

Perform 6 bicep curls.  At the top of the last curl, secure the dumbbells on your shoulders and perform 6 dumbbell top-squats.  At the apex of your last squat, press the dumbbells overhead for 6 reps. Drop the dumbbells back down to your sides, and perform 5 bicep curls.  Proceed this way until you have completed all reps.

This circuit is to be performed twice, with 90 seconds of rest between each.

Okay, I want to hear what YOU think about this method: let’s get 80 COMMENTS on the DPT protocol, and I’ll be back with brand new content next week!

About the Author

John Romaniello is a level 70 orc wizard who spends his days lifting heavy shit and his nights fighting crime. When not doing that, he serves as the Chief Bro King of the Roman Empire and Executive Editor here on RFS. You can read his articles here, and rants on Facebook.

Comments for This Entry

  • Mindtomusclefitness

    Great article John! Reverse pyramid training is a solid strength training method. I’ve mentioned this post in my latest article (hope that’s ok). I’ve just sent you an email to share the link. All the best!

    November 14, 2017 at 5:53 am

  • My Homepage

    ... [Trackback]... [...] Informations on that Topic: [...]...

    June 5, 2013 at 8:20 am

  • AK

    I have been using this technique from last 2 years and its perfect.

    October 9, 2011 at 12:01 pm

  • Matt R

    Roman, The thing that makes these good for me is that I workout a home and alone. So quickly changing weights is not ideal. With this it would allow me to really fatigue due to nice short rest periods with some heavy numbers. Thanks for the info

    August 20, 2011 at 5:11 pm

  • Rae

    Hey John, I was wondering if you can explain why a descending pyramid is better than "regular" pyramid circuit training? Does it have something to do with keeping up with higher weights as you descend and making it a higher density workout, or am I way off on my understanding of it? Thanks!

    August 17, 2011 at 9:11 pm

  • Frank A

    Hi Roman, This is the follow up you asked for regarding your Descending Pyramid Workout. I completed the 2nd week of the ShapeShifter redesign program and this is how I incorporated the workout. 9 Aug, Day 2 of Week 2. After doing 15 rounds of Lunge Jumps – 5 reps per side, Mountain Climbers – 4 reps per side, and Stinger – 3 reps per side, I did Circuit B using 15 lb PowerBlocks. I figured all the leg work made up for not doing the forward lunges. I could only do 1 set of Circuit B because my shoulders couldn’t do any more overhead presses – they burned out. And with the rotator cuff issue I didn’t want to push it too much. 11 Aug, Day 4 of Week 2. After doing 1 minute for each of the following; Flamingo Right, Flamingo Left (reps were to be done – I did a hold!), Monkey, Dead Bug, and Dog Burp (again doing theses instead of the forward lunges) I did one complete Circuit B and the 6 – 4 reps for the second round – again the shoulder issue. 13 Aug, Day 6 of Week 2. I did the complete workout using only 10 lb PowerBlocks to accommodate the shoulder. Now this is what I found out. I assumed that the Dynamic lunge was holding the DBs at the sides while lunging – that is what I did. The next time I decide to the Circuit B as a finisher. ;-D I will use 15 lbs PowerBlocks and do as many overhead presses as possible. This way I can get the squat and bicep curls in as I can handle that weight. 14 Aug, Day 7 of Week 2. I did the Neuroboost workout. After that and before the Cool down, I played with doing the DPW as a stacked set using 15 lb Powerblocks by doing 1 forward lunge each leg holding the weight at the sides, then bicep curl, then squat, then overhead press, and then bring the weights down to the sides (using a reverse curl!) and start again with the lunges. I did 10 reps of this sequence. Not as difficult as your original but I was able to do all the overhead presses. I only did one circuit of this. Maybe if someone wanted to do more circuits the rest would be 2 minutes and do it again, etc. What do you think? That would make it a good finisher or something to do if short of time or if equipment and space is limited (like on a cruise!). OR it could be a nice first-thing-in-the-morning workout to get the blood pumping and the metabolism started.

    August 15, 2011 at 5:24 pm

  • Nora

    How do you do a top squat?

    August 12, 2011 at 4:50 pm

  • Liz Lemaster

    Did this workout yesterday and it was tougher than I thought! I ran out of time for the B circuit but I was OK with that because my shoulders were screaming at me!

    August 10, 2011 at 8:36 pm

  • Yllek

    hi john roman, what do you mean by dynamic lunges? i've searched for it on youtube and it showed me several kinds of dynamic lunges which do not look the same. can you also explain DB top-squat please? thanks..

    August 10, 2011 at 12:55 am

  • Dean

    Wow, this looks like PURE HELL. I remember seeing this in FPFL as a finisher & I did not scared me & I was already exhausted. Got to do this. ROMAN, I have SHW, but didn't get the nutrition, etc. How do I pick that up? Thanks.

    August 9, 2011 at 3:18 pm

  • Andreas

    Hey Roman, Thanks for another great workout. It reminds me a little bit of one of my favorite workouts - the Kenny Chesney workout (awesome singer AND awesome lean body), which was featured in Mens' Health ( "So what if you just have 10 minutes? Try this pushup drill that Chesney uses when he doesn't have a minute to spare. "Start with 10 pushups, then rest 10 seconds," says Meng. "Then do 9 pushups, and rest 9 seconds; do 8 pushups, and rest 8 seconds, and so on, until you work your way down to 1 pushup." Warning: This isn't easy, so if needed, start with fewer pushups. Of course, as your fitness improves, you can also do more. "At one point, Kenny got to where he could start this drill at 24 pushups," says Meng. "Do the math: That's 300 pushups in 10 minutes.""

    August 9, 2011 at 1:57 pm

  • Suzi

    I'm always looking for variations to keep from getting bored -- will give it a try !!

    August 9, 2011 at 7:33 am

  • Bill

    This will make working out while traveling AND get that lean muscle. Appreciate the awesome tip and looking forward to the next Rocking ones !!

    August 9, 2011 at 7:28 am

  • Tina

    This sounds great for travel and lunch-time training in between meetings!

    August 9, 2011 at 3:32 am

  • Lino

    Looks like a great workout. Thanks also for your hotel workout. i travel a lot and its ideal for me. Thanks for the info.

    August 9, 2011 at 12:21 am

  • Liz

    Worked up a good sweat!

    August 8, 2011 at 10:39 pm

  • Andrew

    Definitely a great variation of circuit training my friend. Cant wait to take this to the beach with me my friend. Would you say though that this may lean more to fat loss than muscle building or does it depend more on the performer?

    August 8, 2011 at 10:03 pm

  • Liz Lemaster

    Ready to hit it tomorrow morning! Can't wait to give it a try.

    August 8, 2011 at 9:44 pm

  • Patty

    Sounds like a great training workout...going to try that soon! Keep it coming, Roman!

    August 8, 2011 at 8:39 pm

  • RJ

    This is cool Roman! I usually come up short on my lunge reps, since I do them after squats most of the time. This will help me squeeze out more reps on my sets!

    August 8, 2011 at 8:10 pm

  • Christian

    I'm so pumped to try out some DPT!!

    August 8, 2011 at 7:55 pm

  • Larry

    WOW THATS AN AWESOME "right to the moon" type of workout...we want more

    August 8, 2011 at 7:06 pm

  • JOE

    INTERESTING! Just had my "rest day" so this will be a great way to start back up again! Definitely like that it's great for burning fat. Trying to get past that last 10 pound plateau!

    August 8, 2011 at 4:51 pm

  • Shanna

    "Well, in terms of recovery, increased protein intake CAN help, but really the best thing to do in this case is just focus on rest and soft tissue work. You can't speed it up any more than your body wants, so just take it easy." Thanks for the advice, Roman. The bad part is that I have a desk job and sitting just seems to aggravate it even more. I've been trying to get up a lot and walk around. It just sucks not being able to train. I had gotten through the first week of the SHW. I really want to get back to it, but I know I need to let this heal first. I'm just extremely impatient.

    August 8, 2011 at 4:31 pm

  • John Romaniello

    Phil I am DEFINITELY interested in hearing your results.

    August 8, 2011 at 4:08 pm

  • John Romaniello

    Frank, definitely give it a shot this week. Can't wait to hear what you think

    August 8, 2011 at 4:07 pm

  • John Romaniello

    It's definitely a "fun" way to train!

    August 8, 2011 at 4:07 pm

  • John Romaniello

    Excellent. How'd you like the hotel workout? I'd love to hear how it went.

    August 8, 2011 at 4:06 pm

  • John Romaniello

    Well, in terms of recovery, increased protein intake CAN help, but really the best thing to do in this case is just focus on rest and soft tissue work. You can't speed it up any more than your body wants, so just take it easy.

    August 8, 2011 at 4:05 pm

  • John Romaniello

    You'd be surprised how well this works for building muscle, actually. Try it with heavy weight and you'll really get to see how effective it can be.

    August 8, 2011 at 4:04 pm

  • John Romaniello

    Exactly right! Both you and your muscles will be "fooled." That's why it's so devilishly effective. And difficult.

    August 8, 2011 at 4:03 pm

  • John Romaniello

    Excellent. Good luck with tomorrows workout =)

    August 8, 2011 at 4:03 pm

  • John Romaniello

    When you say incorrectly, what were you doing? I'd be curious to see what it was.

    August 8, 2011 at 4:02 pm

  • John Romaniello

    Sweet. Let me know what your thoughts are. I'd love to hear about your results!

    August 8, 2011 at 4:01 pm

  • John Romaniello

    Sweet. Give it a shot, Marie, let me know your thoughts!

    August 8, 2011 at 4:01 pm

  • John Romaniello

    Very very similar. Works especially great with complexes. Great point.

    August 8, 2011 at 4:00 pm

  • John Romaniello

    Thanks, Limastar! Let me know what your results with DPT are

    August 8, 2011 at 3:57 pm

  • Mark Gruen

    I have heard this referred to as Reverse Pyramid Training (RPT) and have done this without realizing it during complexes. Cosgrove's Evil Eight function like this (6,5,4,3,2,1).

    August 8, 2011 at 3:56 pm

  • John Romaniello

    Sweet. What's your new max?

    August 8, 2011 at 3:56 pm

  • John Romaniello

    Love/Cry. Same thing =) Thanks for the comment, my friend.

    August 8, 2011 at 3:54 pm

  • don

    I like the way you utilize different muscles in the same workout, will do this tomorrow,thanks

    August 8, 2011 at 3:41 pm

  • Wilfried

    Looks like interesting! I'm gonna try it tomorrow :) !!

    August 8, 2011 at 3:08 pm

  • Jason

    I like the idea of shortening time whenever possible... so I'll take it. This seems like it'd be better for fat building than muscle gain to me, so I'd be more likely to do it on the road or in different situations where I don't have equipment.

    August 8, 2011 at 2:29 pm

  • Jody Tubergen

    AWESOME! Thanks so much. I did your hotel workout last weekend! Very nice! No excuse NOT to workout.

    August 8, 2011 at 1:24 pm

  • Renita

    This is such an efficient way to exercise. And I like how it naturally creates variety/momentum by shortening the count each time. Thanks!

    August 8, 2011 at 10:30 am

  • Frank A

    I'll add to the comments to get another workout! ;-D This is almost like stacking... I can dig it! It provides a total body workout with just a few exercises... Coooooooolllllllll!!!!!!!

    August 8, 2011 at 10:10 am

  • Hatz

    This is great - it seems like it would get easier as the reps are going down, but really you're working harder - love it!

    August 8, 2011 at 9:45 am

  • Phil Faris

    This is an interesting variation and I'm going to use it starting today. I'll let you know how it works for a 62 year old. Keep up the good work.

    August 8, 2011 at 9:44 am

  • Marie

    Sounds like a plan, I'm going to give it a go!

    August 8, 2011 at 9:40 am

  • Jason

    Thank you for this post! I have been doing the same old same old workout for a while and was looking for a new twist and this is the new twist I needed! It sounds incredible you made it very simple to understand! I love the circuits you gave us i will definitely be trying those. Question though, does DPT work effectively for bench press? I assume it does but just wondering your thoughts on that.

    August 8, 2011 at 9:39 am

  • david

    Very clever. Thanks.

    August 8, 2011 at 9:33 am

  • Karin

    Thanks for posting, and explaining in great detail how it works. Looking forward to giving it a try!!!! Thank you for all your help, and advice. Keep up the great work!!

    August 7, 2011 at 8:05 am

  • Peter

    Thanks. Now I get what pyramids are for. I'd seen and used them from time to time but never had any specific reason for them. I never knew how to use pyramids effectively, so they were just another rep pattern to throw into the mix and keep things from getting too stagnant. This should help me over some plateaus.

    August 6, 2011 at 9:43 pm

  • Shanna

    This looks awesome, Roman! I can't wait to try it. Unfortunately, I pulled a muscle in my lower back and stupidly ignored it only to make it worse. So, last week I didn't workout at all and it's driving me insane. I'm not sure about next week at this point. Any tips to help with recovery? Should I increase protein intake or something? I can't really think of any exercise that wouldn't agitate it more, but at the same time I dont want to lose muscle mass. I dunno, you know how when you're used to working out and have to take a just really screws with you head and general mood. Anyway, I plan to try this as soon as I think it's safe.

    August 6, 2011 at 8:55 am

  • Charles Mclaughlin

    Great ideas Roman! It gives some great insight on why that protocol worked so well. I can see why it would be effective for both fat loss and muscle gain. I had to read the article twice to fully understand everything. Also circuit b looks really cool. It sound kinda of like a complex but without a barbell. Also some bodybuilding authors (Mike Mentzer) feel that strip sets are pointless since using maximum weight is what causes the muscles to grow while some bodybuilding authors (Charles Poliquin) believes that even using a sub-maximum weight for repeated sets is what causes muscle growth. Your program seems like a blend of the ideas since your weight didn't change but is very challenging. The weight is heavy enough and repeated for several sets. I believe that the old bodybuilders used a descending pyramid while also decreasing the amount of weight used but I haven't seen anything that states for sure that they did this. I believe your idea is the best I have seen for descending while giving your muscles time to recuperate while burning calories.

    August 6, 2011 at 8:49 am

  • Darren

    Tried it in the past, incorrectly--glad to know exactly what it does and will be used in the future. Sounds great!

    August 6, 2011 at 6:25 am

  • Limastar

    Ready to give it a try. Your blogs are always full of interesting ideas and exercise routines. Thanks for all your work.

    August 5, 2011 at 4:55 pm

  • Daniel

    I have blasted my old push-up max, mostly in thanks to DPT's. I can dig it.

    August 5, 2011 at 3:16 pm

  • Ylwa

    I love DPT! Meaning that I hate it, especially for legs. It makes me want to cry.

    August 5, 2011 at 3:06 pm

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