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Pyramid Resistance Training Programs

Which Style is Most Effective?

Mang, Zachary Ph.D.; Beam, Jason Ph.D.; Kravitz, Len Ph.D., CSCS

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ACSM's Health & Fitness Journal: 11/12 2021 - Volume 25 - Issue 6 - p 28-32
doi: 10.1249/FIT.0000000000000719
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Fitness professionals manipulate several resistance training (RT) variables, such as frequency, rest intervals, repetition tempo, intensity, and volume, to provide enjoyable and effective programs for their clients. Of all variables, it is likely that RT volume and intensity are most important for stimulating hallmark neuromuscular adaptations such as hypertrophy and strength (1–3). Volume and intensity can be quantified together as total volume load (TVL), which is the product of sets, repetitions, and external load used for a given exercise (2). Some have proposed that higher levels of TVL provide a stronger stimulus for positive RT outcomes (2) because compared with lower volume, higher volume leads to superior skeletal muscle hypertrophy (3) and sometimes strength (4). There are several ways for exercisers to increase TVL for a given muscle group, including using heavier weights, completing more repetitions during a set, performing more sets for an exercise, or adding exercises that target the same muscle group during a training session. In addition to these techniques, pyramid training is a straightforward and unique strategy to increase TVL. Two common applications are linear pyramid training (LPT) and reverse pyramid training (RPT). LPT involves increasing intensities as sets progress (i.e., light to heavy), whereas sets are performed in the opposite manner (i.e., heavy to light) during RPT (Figures 1 and 2).

Figure 1
Figure 1:
The three reverse pyramid and LPT programs that can be used in a variety of populations. In particular, program A may be better suited for an untrained lifter who is using lower intensity RT to learn new exercises without using heavy weight. It also may be used by a well-trained lifter who is performing a block of low- to moderate-intensity RT to accumulate volume. Program B can provide a novel modification to break a traditional 3 sets of 10 routine and may be considered a progression from program A for untrained and trained lifters. Last, program C is a progression from program B and can be used for both populations. As before any RT session, have your client perform warm-up sets before they begin either pyramid training session. It may be necessary to perform additional warm-up sets to prepare for the first set of the reverse pyramid session.
Figure 2
Figure 2:
The two reverse pyramid and LPT programs that should primarily be used for well-trained lifters because they involve 4 to 5 sets and intensities that range from 80% to 95% of 1RM. Because these training techniques involve several high-intensity sets with long rest intervals between them (i.e., 3 minutes), we recommend using them primarily for the main exercises during a session of RT. For example, during an upper body day, program D or program E can be applied to the bench press, push press, and lat pulldown, whereas simpler repetition schemes (i.e., 2 sets of 8 to 12 repetitions) can be used for the auxiliary exercises such as dumbbell raise, rear deltoid fly, and biceps curl.

There are several ways for exercisers to increase total volume load (TVL) for a given muscle group, including using heavier weights, completing more repetitions during a set, performing more sets for an exercise, or adding exercises that target the same muscle group during a training session. In addition to these techniques, pyramid training is a straightforward and unique strategy to increase TVL. Two common applications are linear pyramid training (LPT) and reverse pyramid training (RPT). LPT involves increasing intensities as sets progress (i.e., light to heavy), while sets are performed in the opposite manner (i.e., heavy to light) during RPT.


In the 1940s, an RT researcher named Thomas DeLorme developed the first LPT program (5) where he had lifters perform the lightest set first (50% of 10-repetition maximum [10RM]), followed by a moderate set (75% of 10RM), followed by the heaviest set (100% of 10RM). This repetition scheme, which was appropriately named the DeLorme method, was intended to allow the lifter to warm-up appropriately before achieving their peak performance during the final set, which was performed to momentary muscle failure (5). Years later, it was proposed that when using the DeLorme method, lifters would become fatigued before attempting the final, maximal effort set (6). To circumvent this issue, others developed the Oxford training method, a form of RPT where sets are performed in the opposite order compared with the DeLorme method (i.e., heavy to light) (6). As displayed in Table 1, the DeLorme and Oxford training styles involve 30 total repetitions and intensities that range from 50% to 100% of 10RM. Maximal effort is only given during the last set of the DeLorme training style and during the first set of the Oxford training style.

TABLE 1 - Outline of DeLorme and Oxford Training, Which Were the Original LPT and RPT Programs
DeLorme (Linear Pyramid) Oxford (Reverse Pyramid)
Set 1 10 repetitions; 50% of 10RM 10 repetitions; 100% of 10RM
Set 2 10 repetitions; 75% of 10RM 10 repetitions; 75% of 10RM
Set 3 10 repetitions; 100% of 10RM 10 repetitions; 50% of 10RM
When using these programs, lifters provide maximal effort during one set of exercise (100% of 10RM), and 60 to 120 seconds of rest is provided between sets. Both training methods were originally designed as rehabilitation protocols and should be reserved for children, elderly clients, and untrained lifters.

It is important to note that the DeLorme and Oxford methods were originally designed as post–World War II rehabilitation protocols that are simple in design (e.g., 3 sets of 10 repetitions) (5,6). Although the research is scarce, studies that have compared these techniques have generally concluded that they are both effective for increasing muscular strength. For example, Fish et al. (7) demonstrated that 9 weeks of DeLorme and Oxford training significantly increased knee extension strength (e.g., 1RM and 10RM) with no differences between them in untrained females and males. Similar findings were reported by Da Silva et al. (8) in RT males who performed the barbell half-squat for 4 weeks while using the DeLorme and Oxford techniques. In a more comprehensive training study, Rasmjou et al. (9) demonstrated that 6 weeks of total-body lifting with both training styles led to significant increases in strength for lat pulldown, knee extension, hamstring curl, leg press, triceps extension, and biceps curl (9). Together, these studies demonstrate that the DeLorme and Oxford techniques have increased muscular strength in programs that used one single-joint exercise (7), one multiple-joint exercise (8), and several single-joint and multiple-joint exercises (9).


According to available research, there is no clear advantage to using DeLorme (i.e., LPT) instead of Oxford (i.e., RPT), or vice versa, because both are equally effective for increasing strength for females and males (especially when they are untrained). Therefore, fitness professionals are encouraged to introduce both training styles to clients and to tailor the RT program toward the client's preference. For example, an elderly, untrained client may enjoy the DeLorme program because sets one and two essentially serve as an extended warm-up and allow them to feel primed for the heaviest set. Yet, a younger, recreationally trained client may enjoy the Oxford program because they perform the heaviest set first without the lingering fatigue from the previous two sets. However, because Oxford sessions begin with the heaviest set, we strongly recommend performing additional warm-up sets to prepare for the first set of exercise. For example, the client could perform two warm-up sets with lower intensities while only performing four to six repetitions in order to keep fatigue levels low. When applying either training method, the standard rest interval (RI) length used in the research is relatively short (e.g., 60 seconds), which may increase perceived effort during exercise and diminish repetition performance (10). As it pertains to hypertrophy, some research suggests that longer RIs (180 seconds) are more effective than short RIs (60 seconds) because of higher TVL performance (10), so fitness professionals may extend RI length during pyramid training to accommodate their client.

Whichever program you choose, we recommend considering the training status of your client when implementing the DeLorme and Oxford techniques because they both involve lighter intensities (i.e., the heaviest set is 100% of 10RM), and only one set is performed with maximal effort. For example, both programs are perfect options for youth and/or untrained lifters who are learning new motor patterns and exercises with low-intensity and high-repetition RT (11). They also may benefit elderly clients, as research shows that they can stimulate significant increases in strength and functional capacity with low-intensity RT (12). It is also important to consider the enjoyment of pyramid training because this may help promote exercise adherence. In fact, Hutchinson et al. (13) recently demonstrated that compared with LPT, RPT had a stronger effect on enjoyment and “remembered pleasure” during exercise. Moreover, the researchers submit that the “slope of pleasure” was positive during RPT, meaning that exercisers enjoyed the session more as it progressed (13). Thus, it is possible that a client may feel more motivated when the intensity decreases as their session progresses and fatigue accumulates. The study by Hutchinson et al. (13) is particularly interesting because they applied LPT and RPT to circuit training, which is displayed in Table 2.

TABLE 2 - Research by Hutchinson et al. (13) Applied Linear and Reverse Pyramid Paradigms to Circuit Training, Which They Denoted as “Up” and “Down” Circuits, Respectively
“Up” Circuit “Down” Circuit
Round 1 10 repetitions; 55% of 1RM 10 repetitions; 75% of 1RM
Round 2 10 repetitions; 65% of 1RM 10 repetitions; 65% of 1RM
Round 3 10 repetitions; 75% of 1RM 10 repetitions; 55% of 1RM
During the “Up” circuit, intensity increased between rounds while intensity decreased between rounds during the “Down” circuit. The following exercises were performed for both circuits in rotational fashion: 45° leg press, hex bar dead lift, chest press, seated row, overhead press, and lat pulldown. During each round, 30 seconds of rest was allotted between each set, and 3 minutes of rest was allotted between rounds. Ten repetitions were performed for each set of exercise regardless of the round or intensity.


Some clients may prefer to train at a variety of repetition ranges instead of the traditional 3 sets of 10 repetitions that are intrinsic to the DeLorme and Oxford programs. Fortunately, research in untrained lifters has shown that training with 30% to 80% of 1RM is effective for increasing endurance, hypertrophy, strength, and power (14,15). Generally speaking, higher intensities lead to greater increases in strength (1,14), and multiple-set programs are more effective than single-set programs for hypertrophy and strength (4). As such, fitness professionals can use this information to design more diverse LPT and RPT programs. For example, if a client wants to emphasize muscular endurance and hypertrophy, they can perform three sets of an exercise while using 10RM, 15RM, and 20RM (16) (Figure 1). The same client may wish to emphasize muscular strength later in their program, for which they can perform three sets of an exercise while using 4RM, 8RM, and 12RM (17) (Figure 1). In short, fitness professionals can use repetition ranges of 4 to 20RM (i.e., 50% to 90% of 1RM) when designing LPT and RPT programs for their lesser trained clients.

As your client becomes more experienced, they may prefer to perform more than three sets of an exercise and to use higher intensities (90% to 95% of 1RM) during some of their training sessions. The literature is lacking longitudinal studies that have directly compared LPT versus RPT with such volume and intensity. However, fitness professionals can apply the results from several recent studies when designing pyramid training programs for their well-trained clients (Figure 2). For example, research on trained lifters has demonstrated that high-intensity (2 to 4RM) and moderate-intensity (8 to 12RM) RT are both effective for increasing hypertrophy and strength (18). Although single-set training was as effective as multiple-set training for strength, another recent study in trained lifters reported a dose–response relationship between RT volume and hypertrophy as sets per exercise increased from one, to three, to five (3). Lower intensities also may be considered, as others have reported that training with intensities as low as 20RM (i.e., ~50% of 1RM) still had positive effects on body composition and total body strength in trained participants (19). Thus, the evidence suggests that when prescribing pyramid training programs for well-trained clients, fitness professionals can use 4 to 5 sets of exercise with loads that range between 2RM and 20RM (i.e., 50% to 95% of 1RM) (Figure 2). In general, it is important to instruct the client to perform their sets close to momentary muscle failure (20), especially when using lower intensities (1). In addition, there are several ways to overload LPT and RPT, but increasing the number of sets per exercise is a simple option that may further promote adaptations, especially skeletal muscle hypertrophy (3).


Pyramid RT originated as the DeLorme and Oxford techniques, which are simple and effective repetition schemes that are especially suitable for inexperienced lifters because intensities are low (50% to 100% of 10RM) and maximal effort is only given during one set. Although there is currently no available research for pyramid training techniques with moderate to high intensities (70% to 95% of 1RM), it is plausible that pyramid training can help trained lifters train for hypertrophy and strength in the same session when these intensities are used. For instance, there is evidence that repetition ranges of 2 to 20RM are effective at stimulating hallmark neuromuscular adaptations to RT, and we strongly encourage fitness professionals to use this entire repetition range when designing RPT and LPT programs. Moreover, some research suggests that RPT is more enjoyable than LPT, meaning that beginning sets with higher intensities may have psychological benefits that increase performance while promoting exercise adherence. Fitness professionals are always seeking ways to train clients effectively, and the evidence suggests that RPT and LPT are very good options to consider, as these programs provide a wonderful opportunity for professionals to creatively design RT programs.


Fitness professionals are always looking for new strategies to make RT programs more enjoyable and intriguing to their clients. Moreover, there is a need to maximize TVL during RT sessions, as this consistently leads to improved muscular strength and skeletal muscle hypertrophy. Because these variables are positively associated with cardiometabolic health, fitness professionals are encouraged to use RPT and LPT as viable options to improve their clients' fitness and health concomitantly.


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Linear Pyramid Training; Reverse Pyramid Training; Total Volume Load; Muscular Strength; Hypertrophy

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