A simple way to add additional volume to your deadlift program is to perform pyramid sets. While you may have heard of these before, it’s not always clear what exactly that means.
What exactly is a deadlift pyramid? A deadlift pyramid is an arrangement of consecutive working sets where the weight increases while the reps decrease or the weight decreases while the reps increase. A pyramid set typically allows for more volume than traditional deadlift sets, depending on how it’s structured.
Now just knowing what a deadlift pyramid is doesn’t really tell you if it’s a good or bad approach, or whether or not it’s something you should add to your program. In this article, I’ll discuss:
- What a deadlift pyramid is
- The benefits and drawbacks of deadlift pyramids
- Who should and should not do deadlift pyramids
- How to program deadlift pyramids
Let’s get into it!
What Is A Deadlift Pyramid?
At its core, the deadlift pyramid is simply a cluster of working sets where the weight increases while the reps decrease, the weight decreases while the reps increase, or sometimes a combination of both. This model is applicable to any lift, including the squat and bench press.
Within that general definition are three different types of pyramids.
Types of Deadlift Pyramids
The three types of deadlift pyramids are ascending pyramids, descending pyramids, and full pyramids (or triangles). As you visualize these models in your head, you might quickly realize that only the full pyramid actually looks like a pyramid when you chart it out.
As you think of the weight increasing and reps decreasing with each set, you might visualize it as a line on a graph moving up and to the right. Similarly, a decreasing pyramid would look like a line moving down and to the right on the same graph.
You can save yourself a fair amount of confusion by knowing that the terms “ascending” and “descending” are referring to the change in weight, not the number of reps. However, the reps will also increase or decrease accordingly as the weight goes up or down.
Simply put, an ascending pyramid begins with a set of high reps and low weight, with the weight increasing and the reps decreasing with every subsequent set. A descending pyramid is the opposite, beginning with heavy weight for low reps and decreasing the weight/increasing the reps with each set.
The triangle, or full pyramid, combines these two together, first ascending to a heavy weight and then descending back down to a light weight for many reps, which is significantly more difficult now as a result of the fatigue from performing all the previous sets.
As I’ll discuss below, each of these pyramid models has a time and place in a program, depending on your goals and preferences.
Want to improve your deadlift technique?
4 Benefits of Deadlift Pyramids
Generally speaking, there are four standout benefits to deadlift pyramids:
- Accumulate more volume
- Develop work capacity and endurance
- Diverse training applications
1. Accumulate More Volume
As lifters train for an extended period of time, your body adapts to the point that your previous training is no longer effective to keep you growing or getting stronger. Once you graduate from the period of newbie gains, you must progressively increase your volume to see any changes.
Volume is just a mathematical function — it’s just the product of your total sets x weight per set. For example, if your normal working set for deadlifts is 5 sets of 3 reps at 405, then your volume would be calculated by 405 x 3 reps x 5 sets for a total of 6,075lbs of volume.
But let’s count all your warm-ups as well to calculate your total deadlift volume. You did 10 reps with an empty bar (450lbs), then 10 reps with 135 (1,350lbs), then 8 reps with 225 (1,800lbs), then 6 reps with 315 (1,890lbs), then 5 reps with 365 (1,825) before your 5×5 with 405, and your actual deadlift volume is 13,390lbs.
See it illustrated in the table below:
Now look at how a deadlift pyramid compares to your standard warm-up/working set:
By shifting to this pyramid model, you never did more than 405 for three reps, but your total volume is 17,510lbs.
This can be a great option for getting more total volume into your workout without stubbornly performing more top sets with heavy weight. The more tired you get, the more likely you are to sustain an injury, so the model of decreasing load while increasing reps is a great way to keep working safely while fatigued.
Wondering what we mean when we talk about top sets? Check out Top Sets vs Straight Sets vs Working Sets: How To Use Them?
2. Develop Work Capacity and Endurance
One element of training that is often overlooked is work capacity and endurance. In simple terms, it’s your body’s ability to sustain intense training during a workout. Whether your goals are in strength, appearance, or general health, work capacity affects them all.
Resistance training is all about adapting to the stress we introduce to our muscles. The better your ability to train intensively without getting too tired to continue, the more effectively you can put stress on your muscles to get the desired change or adaptation.
Someone who can train intensely for 90 minutes will see better results than someone who can train intensively for 60 minutes.
The first time you attempt a deadlift pyramid, I’m confident it will kick your butt. It will likely be harder than you expected. But by performing them consistently and progressing them over time, you’ll find your work capacity increases along with it such that the same pyramid is no longer as difficult.
This newly developed work capacity can carry over to the rest of your training, enabling you to sustain intense workouts that don’t include pyramids, making you a better athlete to reach your goals.
3. Diverse Training Applications
Deadlift pyramids can be applied to all three of the major goals around resistance training – developing strength, building new muscle, and losing weight.
For anyone focused on building new muscle, deadlift pyramids are a great tool. The total volume should provide the stimulus your body needs to get the message to build more muscle.
Because deadlifts are a compound lift relying on many, many muscles in your body, you’ll develop new muscle in areas you aren’t even aware of. Combine this with a caloric surplus (eating more calories than you burn), and you’ve got a great battle plan to build new muscle.
Learn more about all of the muscles used in the deadlift in Muscles Used In The Deadlift (Ultimate Guide).
If developing strength is more interesting to you, the volume will prove equally effective for you, as volume is a critical element of developing strength. The compound nature of the deadlift means you’ll be training your body’s ability to use many muscles at once to complete the lift.
As well, the sheer volume of reps will force you to practice good deadlift form and technique over and over again, making you form good habits.
Lastly, if you are just focused on losing weight or burning fat, these same elements work in your favor as well. The high volume and the fact that you’re performing a compound lift will burn more calories (more muscles used=more calories burned), and you can even shorten your rest time between sets to maximize caloric output.
Combine that with a caloric deficit and watch the extra pounds disappear over time.
For any interested in more details about getting leaner through lifting, check out our guide on powerlifting for fat loss.
Today we are talking specifically about the deadlift pyramid, but this model can be applied to any lift, whether it’s a compound lift or an isolation lift (lifts that work one muscle group at a time).
Maybe you recognize you need more deadlift work, but you are tired of searching for deadlift variations or deadlift accessory exercises. Throw a pyramid into your deadlift day to get more work and volume out of the standard deadlift.
Maybe you find great results with the deadlift pyramid, so you apply it to the bench press for the next several weeks.
While most of the workout examples I provide below highlight large pyramids with 10 or more sets, you can also shrink these down to as little as 3 sets in a pyramid.
Takeaway: Deadlift pyramids are a versatile programming tool that can be applied to various lifts and rep and set schemes.
Still think pyramids aren’t for you, but need more volume? Check out my resources on back off sets and how to do them properly.
3 Drawbacks of Deadlift Pyramids
There’s always a balancing act of pros and cons, and deadlift pyramids certainly have their downsides.
- Fatigue and recovery
- Injury risk
- Specificity to goals
1. Fatigue and Recovery
Take a moment and write out a deadlift pyramid you’d like to do. Now imagine doing that deadlift pyramid, and you might be a little tired just thinking about it. Deadlift pyramids will wear you out.
Note that a deadlift pyramid has the potential to limit how much else you can do in a single workout. If you do a decent-sized deadlift pyramid, you may not have the time and energy to do anything else after that.
If you’re used to doing some deadlifts and then moving on to do more hamstring, back, or glute work, set your expectations that your old way of doing things may need to change to account for the fatigue of a deadlift pyramid.
Secondly, these effects of fatigue can extend beyond just your deadlift workout. You may find you’re not fully recovered a few days later when you train your lower body again, or even when you’re training a different muscle group entirely. Be prepared to give yourself time to adapt to the energy outputs this option requires.
Finally, the fatigue can even accumulate over several weeks such that you need to take a break more frequently than you usually do. You might find a deload week of programming is necessary more often than with past training programs.
None of these consequences should be deal-breakers when considering pyramids, but they are worth your consideration as you make plans and set expectations for yourself.
2. Injury Risk
More often than not, injury comes from form or technique breaking down. Form and technique breakdown usually comes with fatigue setting in. And fatigue comes from doing more than we usually do.
Be in tune with your body’s levels of fatigue as you attempt deadlift pyramids. Video your sets and watch how your technique holds up and how your speed compares from one set to the next. Have friends or spotters watch and comment on what they see.
In all the years I’ve been in and around powerlifting and strength training, the vast majority of injuries have come with submaximal weights, meaning most folks that got hurt didn’t get hurt doing a max effort attempt. It’s often on warm-ups and back-off sets where we think nothing can go wrong and let our guard down.
Ultimately, a deadlift pyramid has the ability to really wipe you out. Be prepared to make a judgment call and quit for the day if you are too fatigued so you don’t injure yourself.
Sometimes, a deload week may not be enough to recover from your training, and you need a full week off instead. Check out the differences between a deload week and a week off in Deload Week vs Week Off: 4 Key Differences to Know.
3. Specificity to Goals
A third downside to the fatigue of the deadlift pyramid is that it can distract from other things you need to focus on. Your goals should always dictate your training decisions.
Case in point, if you zap all your energy doing a deadlift pyramid, you may not have energy or time to do the deadlift-supporting variations or accessories you need more of right now to address weaknesses such as a deadlift lockout.
If you know you need to specifically focus on hamstrings, upper back, or glutes, you may be better off saving time and energy to give them some concerted attention instead of focusing on the whole deadlift.
Wondering what else you might do to fill out your deadlift day? Check out this article: What Else Should I Do On Deadlift Day?
Who Should Do Deadlift Pyramids
I’m sure you can come up with several groups you think should do deadlift pyramids, but here are the top three that come to mind for me:
- Off-season athletes
- Fat-loss lifters
For newbies, I’ve got three great reasons for you to incorporate deadlift pyramids into your training.
First off is that you, as a newbie, will adapt and recover to training faster than an intermediate lifter. For as tiring and taxing as deadlift pyramids are, you’ll handle them better than anyone, able to bounce back and train them again in less time.
Next, because the deadlift is a compound lift, you’ll be working several muscles at once, getting more bang for your buck and building a great base of strength for the future.
Lastly, all the reps and sets the pyramid calls for will give you more opportunities to perform the lift over and over again, perfecting your form and technique and making the lift feel more like a habit.
The deadlift pyramid is a perfect intersection of these three benefits, making it a great option for newbies.
Whether you train as a bodybuilder, CrossFitter, or powerlifter, there’s an off-season for your sport where you can build new strength/muscle and step away from your usual training.
Generally, the off-season is a time for lifters of any discipline to depart from the rigid specifics of their sport and focus on general physical preparedness (GPP) training to add new muscle, improve work capacity, and prepare for the forthcoming time to return to their usual training regimen.
I love the idea of deadlift pyramids for the off-season because you can focus on using them to build endurance and work capacity. The model of the pyramid means you can get really tired really fast without loading up your max deadlift weight, allowing you to safely accumulate a bunch of volume.
You can also use them to address specific issues, like a weak grip, by performing these sets over and over again without worrying about making adjustments too close to competition time.
Personally, I think this is a great approach for the intermediate and advanced strength athlete in their off-season.
Unsure of what do to in your off-season? Check out our complete off-season powerlifting program to get some ideas.
As a person who lost nearly 40lbs without running a single mile of cardio, I’m a big fan of losing weight through resistance training. The deadlift pyramid leverages the same things I did to lose that weight, which is why I’d recommend it to someone wanting to slim down.
When you deadlift, you use many muscles at once. The more muscles you use, the more calories you burn during the workout. After your workout, your body burns even more calories to repair and grow your muscles while you do your normal, everyday activities. You even burn more calories while you sleep.
Now after implementing deadlift pyramids, your body has more muscle, and it burns more calories every day just to maintain that muscle.
The next time you go to the gym with that new muscle, your muscles now require more calories to do the same deadlifts. Continue this cycle for many weeks and months, and you’re literally burning more calories in the other 23 hours of the day outside of the gym than you were before.
Combine this with a caloric deficit, and the pounds really start to fall off. Eventually, you may find you can even eat more calories than you ate before you started lifting without gaining weight again!
That said, nutrition doesn’t get thrown out the window just because you deadlift a lot. There are several reasons not to just eat whatever you want, even if you’re trying to get stronger.
Who Should NOT Do Deadlift Pyramids
Of course, there’s a list of folks I would recommend who should avoid deadlift pyramids:
- Lifters with other goals
- LIfters on a program
- Lifters who hate deadlift pyramids
Lifters With Other Goals
I mentioned before that your goals should dictate your training decisions. If your goals don’t involve adding more deadlift volume or focusing on deadlift improvement in a big way, then don’t do deadlift pyramids.
I can list several great benefits to deadlifting and doing a lot of it. But we aren’t always pursuing those outcomes, so it doesn’t always make sense to deadlift a lot. For example, if you’re simply training for overall health and not interested in adding 100lbs to your deadlift, you may not need to do deadlift pyramids.
Set your goals, look at what needs to be done, and decide for yourself if a deadlift pyramid will help you get there.
Wondering if a deadlift is good enough to train your back? Check out my article Can You Just Do Deadlifts For Back? (Spoiler alert: you can’t.)
LIfters on a Program
Deadlift pyramids are great, and they aren’t going anywhere, so you can come back to trying them out the next time you are ready to change programs. And when you do, be sure to give pyramids the time of day to see the real, lasting results.
People Who Hate Deadlift Pyramids
Most of us started lifting because we enjoy it. And most of us continue lifting because we enjoy it. You should always try to make your program one that you will enjoy doing, or else you’ll very quickly quit doing it.
A deadlift pyramid is great, but if doing it makes you want to skip the gym or load up weights lighter than you need to make a difference, you’d be better off doing something else that keeps you motivated.
That said, I think we all have a few exercises or program elements in our minds that we hate but know we should be doing more of in order to improve. Know the difference between something that becomes an obstacle and something that is uncomfortable because you’re not good at it yet.
How to Program a Deadlift Pyramid
Most of the advice you’ll find online about deadlift pyramids suggests to use them as a shocker to your normal routine.
However, I see the deadlift pyramid like any other program – something to be performed consistently, with intensity, and steadily progressed over time.
See my example below, and know that you can adjust the rep scheme, load, or intensity on your own to make it fit your needs.
In this sample program, the lifter has a 1-Rep Max (1RM) of 565 on the deadlift. In the first week, they work up to 72% for 2 sets of 3 reps. In week two, it peaks at 1 set of 3 reps at 75% of their 1RM. In week 3, we introduce a heavy single in the middle of the pyramid at 82% of their 1RM, and in week 4 that single becomes a double for one set.
To make this program your own, simply plug in your own 1RM and set loads that go up to about 80% of your 1RM at the peak.
Over the four weeks, the total volume increases by about 16%, from 17,510lbs to 20,370lbs of total volume. This progression is relatively low-risk, not one that would be considered an extreme climb.
The first week is designed to introduce the lifter to a full pyramid. If this is too difficult or more difficult than expected and progressing to the next week seems aggressive, I would recommend repeating this week once or twice before moving on.
Week 2 begins the same as week 1 but calls for heavier weights on the descending portion with the same rep scheme.
Week 3 maintains the same ascending and descending portions of the pyramid but introduces a heavy single at the peak.
In Week 4, the pyramid remains the same with the single change of increasing the single rep at the peak to a double rep.
For anyone wanting to continue beyond week four, I would recommend reverting back to the model of the first week but begin with the heavier weights we used to descend in Weeks 2-4 as our starting point and progressing it the same way from there.
Hypothetical Week 5
As I stressed before, mind your levels of fatigue and how it affects your form. Video your sets or have spotters/friends watch for form breakdown as you determine whether or not to keep progressing or repeat the same pyramid for another week before advancing it.
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?
- 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.