A popular method of accumulating squat volume is with the squat pyramid. By name alone, you might be able to guess what it means, but it’s not totally clear what it means in practice, and it’s certainly not clear if it’s worth your time or not.
So what exactly is the squat pyramid? The squat pyramid is a program structure for a single exercise in a single workout. It calls for increasing weight while decreasing reps or decreasing weight while increasing reps with each subsequent set. This allows you to work through more volume than you normally would.
Now whether or not the squat pyramid is right for you and how to do it right are other questions we’ll need to dive into as well. Let’s dig deeper into what the squat pyramid is.
What Is A Squat Pyramid?
At its core, the squat pyramid scheme simply means we are increasing the weight as we decrease reps with each set or decreasing weight as we increase reps with each set. As you can imagine, this can be applied to any other exercise you can think of, including the bench press and deadlift.
But there’s more to understand about the squat pyramid than just the rep/load structure. Most importantly, it’s crucial to know that there are three types of pyramids that each have their own uses and benefits.
Types of Squat Pyramids
There are three main pyramid schemes for the squat: ascending, descending, and full pyramid, sometimes called triangles. Clearly, whoever named them wasn’t a geometry expert because the name is a bit of a misnomer in every scheme except the full pyramid, which combines ascending and descending schemes.
With ascending and descending pyramids, we are only visualizing one side of a pyramid or another – going up, or down, more like stairs than a pyramid. Only the full pyramid scheme has us go up then down (or down then up, in some cases).
The terms “ascending” and “descending” refer specifically to the load, not the rep scheme. So an ascending pyramid starts with a light load/high reps and works its way up incrementally to a heavy load/low reps. The weight or load ascends up as the rep scheme does down.
The descending pyramid reduces the load as we increase the reps. Starting with a heavy load for low reps, we incrementally move to a lighter load with higher reps.
The full pyramid scheme starts with an ascending pattern, then immediately continues into a descending pattern.
Each of these pyramid schemes can be used at your discretion and based on your training goals and preferences.
Want to improve your squat technique?
4 Benefits of Squat Pyramids
Overall, squat pyramids are a great tool for four main reasons that stand out to me:
- Increased volume
- Improve work capacity
- Improve strength or size and aid in weight loss
1. Increased Volume
For any lifter that’s been training consistently for a few years, added volume is quite often needed to continue to see meaningful progress in both muscle strength and size. Eventually, we just have to do more work to get results than we needed to before.
Volume is simply the product of total reps x load per rep. So if in a normal squat workout you did 10 squat reps (regardless of the breakdown of sets) with 315lbs on the bar for each rep, you performed 3,150lbs of volume.
But say you did 10 reps with an empty bar (450lbs total), then 10 reps with 135lbs (1,350lbs total), and 10 reps with 225 (2,250lbs total) as warm-ups prior to the 10 squat reps at 315lbs Your total squat volume is actually 7,200lbs of squat volume.
To help you visualize it more clearly, here is how a squat workout may look if you did straight sets:
Compare that with a full squat pyramid, illustrated below:
By the time you complete this pyramid, you’ve performed 13,170lbs of squat volume.
If you are looking for ways to add more volume to your squats, the pyramid is a great way to go. By descending down in weight after ascending to your top set weight, you can safely add more reps and total volume without risking overreaching or serious injury the way you might do by adding more sets or reps with your top weight.
Whether you choose to do a squat pyramid or not, knowing the ideal rep range for squats is important. Learn more in Best Rep Ranges For Squats (Science-Backed).
2. Improve Work Capacity
An important element of training is the ability to train hard over a sustained period of time. This is defined as your work capacity. Building up your work capacity is important so that you can, set after set, continue to exert maximal effort into your lifts.
The lifter who can train with greater intensity for longer will see superior results to a lifter who trains with intensity for less time.
As you can imagine, successfully training through a squat pyramid can have a great impact on your work capacity. While the first time will undoubtedly be difficult, if you train it and progress it over time, your body will adapt to the stimulus of the pyramid, which includes improving your endurance and work capacity.
Even if you are focused on bodybuilding or powerlifting, where your specific sport’s competition doesn’t require you to display work capacity in that moment, bodybuilders and powerlifters who win their sports will almost always be the ones who have developed the ability to sustain difficult, intense training sessions to get the results they need on competition day.
3. Improve Strength or Size and Aid in Weight Loss
Squat pyramids can be applied to all three of the main goals we pursue with resistance training: to get stronger, build muscle, and/or lose weight. It’s almost a fit for everybody!
For those interested in adding more muscle, the volume involved will greatly benefit your pursuits. Combined with a caloric surplus (eating more calories than you need to maintain your weight), squat pyramids are a great path to building more muscle in all the muscles used in the squat.
For those interested in strength, the squat pyramid not only adds the needed volume to build the muscle itself and its endurance, but the repetitive nature allows you to focus on good form over and over again.
For those interested in weight loss, using the pyramid structure with a compound lift like the squats uses more muscles and burns more calories than other exercises. You can shorten your rest time to increase your heart rate and sweat more.
Combined with a caloric deficit (eating fewer calories than you need to maintain your weight), the squat pyramid is an excellent way to burn fat while maintaining lean muscle mass.
While we are focused on the squat pyramid specifically, the pyramid structure can be applied to any exercise, whether that’s another compound lift, like the bench press or deadlift, or an isolated lift like a dumbbell curl or tricep extensions with a rope attachment to a cable machine.
Wherever you need to add volume to your workout, you can apply the pyramid structure (in any version – ascending, descending, or full pyramid) to add variety to your routine and get more work done on the muscles and lifts that need extra attention.
Sometimes, a lot of squat volume can cause lower back pain or exacerbate pre-existing back issues. If you want to give the squat pyramid a try but want to avoid lower back discomfort, check out 5 of the best squat variations for back pain.
3 Drawbacks of Squat Pyramids
As great as the benefits are to the squat pyramid, there are still some downsides worth discussing. Three main drawbacks come to mind:
- Injury risk
When applying the pyramid rep scheme to a compound lift like the squat, it’s gonna wipe you out, especially the first few times you do it.
This means you won’t have much energy, if any, to do much else in that workout. If you’re accustomed to squatting for a few sets, then performing other quad/leg/glute sets, you likely won’t be able to include that same variety in a single workout when you perform a pyramid first. The same is also true if you like to do deadlifts the day after you squat.
Secondly, performing a squat pyramid may also impact your ability and time to recover for your next workout. While you may not be training your legs the next time you lift, the total energy expenditure of the pyramid can carry over and require you to rest more, or train with decreased intensity the next time.
Finally, if you plan to make pyramids a significant part of your training for several weeks, like in a block periodization model, the accumulated fatigue over time will catch up with you quickly, meaning you’ll likely need to plan more frequent deload weeks than you’ve had to do in the past.
Keep each of these elements in mind as you incorporate pyramids into your program.
2. Injury Risk
There’s no getting around it – the more volume you perform at once, the more tired you get. And the more tired you get, the worse your form gets. If you press through that fatigue with bad form, you’re opening yourself up to injury, even when you’re decreasing the weight incrementally.
Whether you’re performing an ascending, descending, or full pyramid, be mindful of your level of fatigue and how your form is holding up. Record yourself and play the videos back between sets, or have a friend or spotter monitor your form.
Most injuries I’ve come across in powerlifting and strength training have come with submaximal weights. It’s usually when you don’t expect the injury that it happens – on a warm-up or backdown set – and less often with max effort attempts when you fully prepare and are very conscious of the risks.
There are several steps you can take to prevent yourself from getting injured. Check out How To Avoid A Powerlifting Injury to learn more.
This is a combination of the discussion we just had about versatility and the comments I made on fatigue and recovery. If you are expending all of your energy on a squat pyramid, you have little to no energy to spend on anything else. You had better make sure squats are where you want to make your investment for this workout.
If you are interested in isolating other muscles or improving in other areas than just the squat, pyramids will be a big detractor from those other goals. You’d likely be better off doing a smaller amount of squat work (i.e. not a squat pyramid) and leaving energy and focus to perform the other work you care about that the squat pyramid won’t address.
Who Should Do Squat Pyramids
I can think of 3 main groups of people that really should consider using squat pyramids (though this list is not exhaustive and many others would benefit as well):
- Beginning lifters
- Off-season powerlifters
- Lifters who are trying to lose weight
If you are just getting into lifting, I love the idea of a squat pyramid for three reasons:
- Getting lots of reps in early can really help develop and solidify your form.
- Compound lifts are a great way to get started, helping you work muscles you aren’t even really aware of yet, and building a well-rounded base of strength and muscle growth.
- New lifters are able to adapt to the stimulus of lifting much faster than intermediate and advanced lifters.
All three of these things are combined for the novice lifter in a squat pyramid program. By incorporating the squat, a compound lift, into a pyramid that requires many reps to be performed each week and utilizing the lifter’s ability to adapt and recover quickly, the squat pyramid checks several boxes at once.
For those who want a big return on investment of time and effort, this is a great option.
If you’re interested in learning more about newbie gains, check out How Long Do Newbie Gains Last? (Science-Backed).
Note, this does not apply only to those who actually compete in powerlifting. You may enjoy training in a powerlifting style without ever competing, and this advice goes for you, too.
Eventually, every strength athlete needs to take a break from 1-3 rep sets of really heavy loads to build new muscle, improve their work capacity, and give their joints and nervous systems a break. This is referred to as the off-season, and squat pyramids are a great inclusion in the off-season program.
The high rep scheme is a great way to get enough volume for muscle growth, the high reps/set count pushes the lifter to develop better work capacity or endurance, and all of this can be obtained without introducing truly heavy loads on the lifter’s back, giving them the chance to rest and recover from that type of training.
I would recommend this approach for intermediate and advanced strength athletes alike (and you already know I think it’s great for beginners of any lifting discipline based on the comments above).
Lifters Who Are Trying to Lose Weight
I personally lost a bunch of weight several years ago from a combination of resistance training and a caloric deficit. Didn’t run a mile of cardio in that time, so I’m a big proponent of weight loss methods that don’t require me to run or bike.
If you are lifting to lose weight, the squat pyramid can be an excellent tool to aid in your weight loss goals.
When you squat, you are working a huge portion of muscles in your body, which means you burn more calories to perform the squat itself. When you are done squatting, your body has to rebuild micro-tears in your muscles that occur during resistance training, which means you burn even more calories in recovery.
When your body has successfully rebuilt those muscles, they are now bigger than they were before, which requires more calories to burn to maintain them and keep them healthy. When you perform squats in a squat pyramid, you are doing way more squats than you would normally do, multiplying these effects over and over again.
Combine all of this with a caloric deficit, and you’ve got a fantastic recipe for cutting fat and keeping your hard-earned muscle.
And when you’re done, all that muscle will keep requiring lots of calories to maintain, meaning you can keep eating more calories than the average person and still look great.
It’s a common misunderstanding that powerlifting will make you gain weight. We cover this in-depth in Will Powerlifting Make You Fat? (No, Here’s Why).
Who Should NOT Do Squat Pyramids
There are certainly some people that should not do squat pyramids as well. From my perspective, it’s really three groups of people:
- Lifters with other goals
- Lifters on a specific training program
- People who hate squat pyramids
Lifters With Other Goals
I mentioned this as we discussed the downsides of squat pyramids, but they do come at a cost of not having the energy to do other work. If you find that a squat pyramid sucks all your time and energy such that you can’t do your hamstring, calf, glute, or any other training that is more important to you, then you shouldn’t do it.
There are a ton of benefits to squats, and even more benefits when you do lots of squats. But we aren’t always chasing those specific benefits. Sometimes, we need to do just enough squats to maintain our squat strength while we put more time and energy into other individual muscles or other lifts entirely.
Know your priorities, and use squat pyramids as a tool only if they get you closer to your biggest goals.
Lifters on a Specific Training Program
Don’t break your program just to do some squat pyramids. If you have paid for a specific program like Juggernaut AI, or are paying a coach to write an ongoing program for you, trust that process.
Squat pyramids are great, but they may not align with your goals and plans. Stick to your plan, or talk with your coach or whoever writes your programs about how to incorporate them before you throw out what you’re doing in lieu of squat pyramids.
People Who Hate Squat Pyramids
At the end of the day, if you hate this style of training, don’t do it. The best way to lift is the way you will do it for a long time. If we only lift the way we hate, we’ll likely drift away from it and not do it at all, so find a format of resistance training that you really enjoy.
That being said, sometimes the things we hate are the things we need most. Check yourself, look at your goals and training honestly, and bite the bullet if it means you should do some squat pyramids for a few weeks to overcome a squat plateau or hone your technique.
Related Article: Deadlift Pyramid: What Is It? How To Do It? Common Mistakes
How To Program A Squat Pyramid
Most of what you’ll find on the internet suggests using a squat pyramid as a way to “shock” your training. Most of the articles I reviewed before writing this piece treat the pyramid as a one-and-done approach, like a novelty to throw in there every once in a while to make things hard.
In my opinion, a squat pyramid is like any other training program. If you want to see actual results, you need to do it for 4-8 weeks and progress it over time by increasing the load, the reps, or the total sets.
I’ll share a sample below, but whatever changes you make, ensure that you are increasing the intensity either by increasing the total sets, increasing the reps per set, or increasing the load. You can adjust these independently or change a few of them at once.
In this sample program, the lifter has a 1-rep max of 430lbs on the squat. Based on that 1RM, this pyramid will start by working up to 73% of max for two reps in their first week (2 sets), 78% for two reps in their second week (1 set), 85% for a single rep in their third week (1 set), and 85% for a double rep in their fourth week (1 set).
These are generally safe load percentages that most lifters would be able to perform, no matter what their 1RM currently is.
Over the four weeks, their total squat volume will increase by 16%, from 13,170lbs to 15,310lbs of volume. Again, not a drastic increase to ensure safety and the ability to continue another 4 weeks, if necessary.
In this sample program, we start week one with a conventional full pyramid, ascending our weights up, then doing the exact same weights/reps descending downward.
If this first week was more difficult than expected, I would repeat it without increasing anything in week two before proceeding to the following weeks.
In the second week, the ascending portion is the same, but we select heavier weights for our descending portion instead of doing the same weights as we did while ascending.
In week 3, we maintain the same plan as week two, but with the addition of a single rep at 85% of 1RM.
Finally, in week four, the single rep at 85% of 1RM is pushed to a double before descending as in the previous two weeks.
If I were to continue this progression, I would revert back to the format of week one, but my ascending weights would match the increased descending weights we implemented for the last 3 weeks, for another 4% increase to volume, like so:
Hypothetical Week 5
My tentative plan with the lifter would be to repeat the same 4-week scheme from these new starting weights. Depending on how the lifter progresses week over week, how they report their overall fatigue, and with regular reviews of their form in training videos, I would make adjustments accordingly.
These adjustments may include modifying the number of reps done in each session or adjusting the percentages by which the weights increase each week.
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.