A common approach to building volume on your bench press is to perform bench press pyramids. While the name is somewhat descriptive of what the program looks like, it’s not totally self-explanatory.
So what is a bench press pyramid? The bench press pyramid is a series of sets and reps for a single exercise that increases in weight while decreasing reps or decreases in weight while increasing reps in each set. This model puts the lifter through more volume than the standard warm up/working set model.
Beyond the definition, there’s also the question of whether or not a pyramid approach to lifting is any good or if it’s specifically right for you and your goals. Let’s dive into those factors so you can determine whether or not you should add bench press pyramids into your training.
What Is A Bench Pyramid?
The bottom line is that a pyramid set is a group of working sets where the weight increases and the reps decrease with each progressing set, the weight decreases as the reps increase, or a combination of both. As you might guess, this model can be applied to any lift.
Beyond just the rep/load relationships, there are three types of bench press pyramids that you can program into your workouts, depending on your goals and preferences.
Want to improve your bench press technique?
Types of Bench Pyramids
Three pyramid models exist for the bench — ascending, descending, and full pyramid, sometimes called triangles. However, as you visualize these models, you realize calling them “pyramids” is not totally accurate outside of the traingle or full pyramid model.
When we visualize ascending or descending pyramid models, it plots out on a graph to look more like stairs going up and to the right or stairs going down and to the right. Only the triangle model looks like a pyramid going up and then down.
You should also note that the terms “ascending” and “descending” are referring to the load, not the number of reps.
An ascending pyramid begins with lighter weight/higher reps and increases the weight as you reduce the reps. A descending pyramid starts with heavy weight/lower reps and decreases the weight while you increase the reps per set.
The triangle, or full pyramid, starts with ascending weights and then immediately continues with descending weights back down.
Each of these pyramid schemes can be used at your discretion and based on your training goals and preferences.
You may also be wondering if there’s a benefit to doing high reps of bench press. We cover that in detail in 5 Benefits Of High Rep Bench Press (Science-Backed).
4 Benefits of Bench Pyramids
Four main benefits stand out to me as I think of bench press pyramids:
- More volume
- Increased work capacity
- Hypertrophy, strength, and weight loss applications
1. More Volume
Any lifter that has exhausted their newbie gains and has been training consistently for several years will need to increase their volume to continue to see results. As your body adapts to training, it simply requires more training volume to make a difference.
Volume is just math — it’s the product of reps x load per rep. So if your usual weekly bench workout calls for 10 bench reps (regardless of the breakdown of sets) with 225lbs on the bar for each rep, you performed 2,250lbs of volume.
But let’s say you did 10 reps with an empty bar (450lbs total), then 10 reps with 135 (1,350lbs total), then 10 reps with 185 (1,850lbs total) as warm ups. Your total bench volume is actually 5,900lbs.
To further break it down, let’s take a look at how much bench volume you may accumulate in a normal workout:
Compare that with a full bench pyramid, illustrated below:
By doing the pyramid instead of your usual program, you’ve performed 9,550lbs of bench volume.
This is a great approach to add more volume, especially if you find yourself too fatigued to perform more sets with a heavy load. By increasing the reps as you decrease the load on the back end of the pyramid, you accumulate more volume while increasing your chances of avoiding an injury.
Increasing your bench press volume can be especially beneficial if you’re going through a plateau. Check out some other ways to break through a bench press plateau in 9 Tips To Break Through A Bench Press Plateau.
2. Increased Work Capacity
A key element of successful resistance training, in any discipline, is work capacity. Put simply, it’s your ability to sustain intense training over a given period of time.
Your body can only adapt to the stress or stimulus you can put on it. The better your work capacity, the more stress and stimulus you can put on your muscles and the more they grow, for strength or size.
It won’t take you long into your first attempt at a pyramid set to realize it’s hard. That first time will undoubtedly be difficult. But by performing these sets consistently, your body will adapt, which is a benefit you can carry into other areas of training.
With this newly developed work capacity to get through hard pyramid sets, imagine how you can channel that into the rest of your training.
3. Hypertrophy, Strength, and Weight Loss Applications
Bench pyramids are applicable to the three main reasons we lift — building new muscle, strengthening our muscles, and losing weight.
If your goal is to build more muscle, bench pyramids are a great tool. By adding the extra volume that comes with the pyramid model and eating in a caloric surplus, you’re following the exact recipe for growing muscle — more volume and more food.
If strength and performance is your focus, bench pyramids are equally useful to you. Not only do they provide you with the needed added volume to make your muscles stronger, they offer you more opportunities to practice good form and bench press technique, which are key for making max effort attempts.
Finally, if you are lifting to lose weight, the bench pyramid is a fantastic approach. Because the bench press is a compound lift, it uses more than one muscle group to complete the lift. You can learn more in our complete guide on the muscles used in the bench press.
Using several major upper body muscle groups, combined with the high volume of the pyramid model and in conjunction with a caloric deficit, you may be able to see weight loss. You can even push things harder by shortening your rest time between sets over time.
If getting leaner is your goal, check out our guide on powerlifting for fat loss.
Although we are focused on the bench press pyramid in this article, you can apply this same approach to other compound lifts, like the squat or deadlift, as well as isolated lifts like biceps curls.
If you find yourself in need of more volume but can’t think of more bench press exercises to do that target the specific area you are focused on, try throwing in a pyramid, whether it’s ascending, descending, or full triangle.
Many of the examples I provide later in this article show large pyramids, with 10+ total sets. You can also customize the size of a pyramid to be as little as 3 ascending, descending, or triangular sets.
Another way to add more volume to your training without adding in a bunch of new exercises is to try back-off sets, which we cover in Back Off Sets: How To Use Them The Right Way.
4 Drawbacks of Bench Pyramids
As with anything, there are two sides to the coin. A few drawbacks come to mind as I think of bench press pyramids:
- Recovery and fatigue
- Risk of injury
- Training specificity
- Different stimulus
1. Recovery and Fatigue
Just write out a bench pyramid and look at it and you know it’s gonna kick your butt. That’s the truth.
This will affect the amount of other training you can do in that same workout. Depending on the size/length of your pyramid, this could potentially take up your entire bench workout for the day. If you’re used to performing other chest/bench-related exercises after your bench sets, you might be in for a shock when you don’t have the energy to do them after a pyramid.
Secondly, the bench pyramid can fatigue you beyond this workout and affect your recovery/energy levels for other workouts that week. While you may not be training upper body the next day, you might not be as fresh and recovered as you normally would be, which affects your ability to train with intensity.
Finally, if you train bench pyramids regularly, like as part of a full 4-8 week training block, you’ll likely experience compounding fatigue over the weeks and months that will need to be addressed. You may need to plan deload weeks more frequently than you used to in order to address the accumulated fatigue.
While none of these are deal-breakers for incorporating pyramids, they are worth your consideration going into it.
Whether or not you incorporate bench press pyramids, you’ll need to be mindful of how often you bench press. Check out How Many Times Per Week Should You Bench Press? for tips on how to find your ideal bench press frequency.
2. Risk of Injury
Injury becomes more likely when you’re fatigued or when you’re unable to maintain good form and technique. Fatigue is going to hit when you’re doing bench pyramids, and fatigue leads to your form falling apart. This means you must be careful and aware of the risk of injury when performing these sets.
Be aware of your fatigue levels, no matter what type of pyramid you are working through. Record your sets and review them for form breakdowns or other information before your next set. Have a spotter or friend watch as well.
The majority of injuries I’ve encountered in my years of powerlifting all come when you least expect it, usually when doing submaximal sets. The times when we get careless, think everything is going to be just fine, get lax with our form or technique, or ignore signs of fatigue are the same times we are closest to getting hurt.
If you find yourself extremely tired to the point that it’s significantly affecting your performance, you may benefit from a full week off from training rather than a deload.
3. Training Specificity
To continue my points about the added fatigue and recovery time that bench pyramids can cause, pyramids can also take away from other areas you need to train.
For example, if you are spending all your energy on a big bench pyramid, you likely have no energy to do other bench-related accessories. If you need to focus on other areas than just your bench press in its standard form, you may not want to spend all your energy there right now.
If you have a need to address an isolated muscle, like your triceps, or some other areas outside of just the bench, the bench pyramid will be a distraction from those. You might be better off doing some bench press work and then putting more focus and energy into the other areas that need your attention.
Wondering what other exercises you can do along with your bench press training? Check out What Else Should I Do on Chest Day?
Who Should Do Bench Pyramids
While there are likely many, many groups that would benefit from bench pyramids, there are three groups I want to highlight as great candidates for them:
- Off-season lifters
- Lifters focused on weight loss
For beginners, there are three great reasons to train your bench in the pyramid model.
The first is that your body will adapt and recover faster than those who have been at it for a while, so you can bounce back from these intense sets more quickly and keep pushing hard.
Secondly, because the bench is a compound lift, these sets will work muscles you don’t even know you have and build a good foundation for the future.
Finally, all the volume that comes with these sets means lots of opportunities to practice your form through lots of repetition.
The bench press pyramid combines all three of these great benefits at once, giving you a great bang for your buck, so to speak.
Related Article: Squat Pyramid: What Is It, How To Do It, and Common Mistakes
You may enjoy training in powerlifting, CrossFit, or even bodybuilding. In each case, there is an off-season when you have a chance to build and improve on your last competitive result.
The off-season is the time when competitive lifters in any discipline can step away from the specificity of their sport to rely on general physical preparedness (GPP) training to be more prepared for the next round of competitions ahead.
I really like bench pyramids for off-season lifters because the high-volume nature of the pyramid provides the needed stimulus to grow new muscle or strengthen what’s there. The high volume also allows the lifter to improve their work capacity before beginning an intense sport-specific training block, and descending pyramids can be incorporated to avoid heavy loads while keeping the intensity high.
Whether you are an intermediate or advanced strength athlete, this can be a great approach to your off-season.
If you’re looking for more ways to train during your off-season, I wrote a complete off-season powerlifting program that you may want to check out.
Lifters Focused on Weight Loss
I am a great example of how a person can lose weight through resistance training, so I’m a big fan of this benefit right here. I lost nearly 40lbs without doing a minute of cardio by training in a way similar to this.
When you bench, you work several large muscle groups in your upper body, not just your pecs. The more muscles you work, the more calories you burn while you do it. After your workout, your body works to rebuild those muscles. The more muscles you worked, the more calories your body burns in recovery.
As you build more muscle, your body has to burn more calories just to maintain that muscle mass, even as you sit and sleep and move around. This means you burn more calories each day.
When you return to the gym to bench again, you have even more muscle to build and maintain, meaning you are burning more calories in your workout than you did in your first ever bench workout.
When you mix all of that with a caloric deficit, you have a perfect recipe for weight loss! And over time, all that increased caloric expenditure means you can eat more than you did before and still keep the weight off.
With that said, nutrition will still be an important factor in both your performance and your body composition. There are several reasons why you shouldn’t eat whatever you want, even if you’re in the middle of a tough powerlifting training block.
Who Should NOT Do Bench Pyramids
Of course there are some lifters I would not recommend bench press pyramids to. They include:
- Lifters with different needs
- LIfters on another training program
- Lifters who hate bench pyramids
Lifters with Different Goals
I touched on this earlier, but if you have a specific goal to improve your tricep strength or appearance, your shoulders, or another area of your body entirely, you probably shouldn’t do bench pyramids. Focus on the immediate goals you have first and foremost.
I can think of many great benefits to benching and benching a lot. But we aren’t always chasing those benefits, so we need to apply the right program to reach our goals instead of spinning our wheels on areas we aren’t focused on.
Define your goals and decide if bench pyramids are really a tool to get you there or if you can stash it for later application.
Wondering if bench presses are enough to strengthen or add muscle mass to your triceps? Get our expert opinion in Is Bench Press Good Enough For Triceps?
LIfters on Another Training Program
Plainly put, if you are already following a program like Juggernaut AI or Greyskull LP, stick with it. You’ll never get anywhere hopping from program to program if you don’t stick with anything long enough to see the results.
Bench pyramids are great, and they’ll still be here later in your life. If you have already committed to a different training program, see it through before making changes.
People Who Hate Bench Pyramids
We all have to enjoy exercise if we want to do it for an extended period of time. Most of you reading this have gravitated to resistance training because you like it more than other ways to exercise.
The same logic applies to the pyramid model of training sets. If you like it, great! Use that as added incentive to train often by putting it into your program. If you hate it, don’t do it! You don’t need to make training harder by programming something you don’t enjoy.
That said, most of us would benefit from doing the type of training we avoid the most. So check in with yourself and determine if you should avoid something entirely, or if you’re just being a wimp and need to suck it up and do the thing you hate.
Related Article: Deadlift Pyramid: What Is It? How To Do It? Common Mistakes
How to Program a Bench Pyramid
As I looked around the internet to see how others approach the bench pyramid, I mostly see material about using it as a curveball or a way to drastically change your programming for a week.
The way I see it, the bench pyramid has more value when applied like any other program. To see results, program it for 4-8 weeks, progress it over time, and keep it intense enough to drive a result by adjusting the load, reps, and sets.
You can review my example below for reference, but feel free to adjust your plan by changing the weight, reps per set, or total sets. You can even change 2-3 at a time if you’re smart about it.
In the below example, the lifter has a 1-rep max of 315lbs on the bench press. Based off that 1RM, this pyramid begins with a heavy set of 71% of max for two reps (2 sets). In the second week, it increases to 77% for two reps (1 set). The third week introduces 84% for a single rep (1 set), and the program peaks in the fourth week with that same 84% for a double rep (1 set).
You can plug in your own 1RM with these general percentages to see how your loads would look on this program.
The program steadily progresses over the four weeks to show an increase in volume of 17%, from 9,550lbs to 11,190lbs of total volume. This increase in volume is intended to be less than extreme to allow the lifter to steadily adapt.
The first week introduces the pyramid. Both the ascending and descending portions of the pyramid are identical. This week can be repeated in week 2 before continuing to the next stage of the program if you feel it was too difficult to be progressing.
Week 2 begins the same as last week, but the descending portion of the pyramid now calls for loads slightly heavier than those on the ascending portion of the pyramid, increasing the total volume.
In this week, we maintain the same descending portion of the program but add an additional set in the middle — a single rep with 84% of 1RM before beginning the descending portion.
Finally in week 4, the middle set that was introduced in week 3 turns from a single rep into a double rep before descending in the same pattern as we have over the last 2 weeks.
If you wanted to continue this program for another 4 weeks, my recommendation would be to make the higher descending weights your new ascending weights and plug them into the Week 1 model. This represents just a 5% increase from week 4 and a 23% increase in total volume from week 1.
Hypothetical Week 5
The plan would be to repeat the original 4-week plan, but start with these higher weights and progress from there. You’ll need to watch yourself and mind your fatigue and levels of exertion to make sure you can sustain each following week and make adjustments accordingly.
Additional Programming Resources
- 2 Day Powerlifting Split: How To Structure It The Right Way
- 3 Day Powerlifting Split: How To Structure It The Right Way
- 4-Day Powerlifting Split: How to Structure It The Right Way
- 5-Day Powerlifting Split: How to Structure It The Right Way
- 5×5 vs 3×10: Which Set & Rep Scheme Is Better?
- Top Sets vs Straight Sets vs Working Sets: How To Use Them?
- Bro Split vs Upper Lower: Pros, Cons, Which Is Best?
- Upper Lower vs Full Body: Differences, Pros, Cons
- PHUL vs PPL: Pros, Cons, & Which Is Better?
- Full Body vs PPL: Differences, Pros, Cons
- Bro Split vs PPL: Pros, Cons, & Which Is Better?
About The Author
Adam Gardner is a proud resident of Utah, where he lives with his wife and two kids. He has been competing in powerlifting since 2016 in both the USPA and the APF. For the past three years, he and his wife, Merrili, have coached beginning lifters to learn the fundamentals of powerlifting and compete in their first powerlifting competitions.