The Pyramid Principle

Words: Kerry DULIN

The ancient Egyptians were ingenious. Starting with the solid foundation consisting of multiple and precisely engineered stones layered successively in small increments they built the largest and most enduring structures on Earth. No doubt the Kings and Priests of Egypt consulted the best bodybuilders of the day to arrive at a fundamental truth in construction. “Lay the foundation properly and it will withstand the heaviest of loads.”

This brings us to the pyramid principal in bodybuilding.

Inexperienced lifters eager to impress other lifters in the gym swing and flail their arms as they walk towards the bench, load the bar with more weight than they can handle with proper form, and then give their spotter a better workout then they give themselves. I have always said and I’ll say it again. We are bodybuilders, not powerlifters. The amount of pounds that we move is not nearly as important as form and proper resistance. Save the show for when you are on stage. When you are at the gym you need to be concerned with laying the proper foundation, not impressing people.

Pyramid sets to accomplish what we want to do in two ways. A pyramid set typically begins with a light-to-moderate weight that can be lifted with good form for 10-12 repetitions. This serves to warm up the targeted muscle group as well as the joints involved. The higher number of repetitions acts as a catalyst to force blood into the muscle to get the good pump going and to prepare for the heavier resistance that is to come. A minute-and-a-half rest is enough time to load the bar with a weight that you can handle with good form for 6-8 repetitions. Notice the emphasis on form. I’m being redundant for a reason.

There are times when poor form is appropriate. Cheating sets come to mind here too, but this is for another day. For pyramid sets, however, form rules. It’s one of those laws of physics that you just don’t want to mess with.

  • When benching, the bar should touch your chest, not bounce off of it, or stop two inches above it
  • When squatting the back of the leg should reach an angle that is parallel to the floor, or below
  • Never bounce, or swing, the weight.

Now, back to the 6-8 reps. During the second pyramid set, the important thing is that you reach positive failure while maintaining good form in 6-8 reps. Positive failure implies that you cannot complete another repetition without assistance.

Once again you have the luxury of resting for a minute-and-a-half. Use this time to set the bar up for your final set. Your goal is now to reach positive failure with good form in 4-6 repetitions. If you reach positive failure in three reps, or less, lighten the load to six, or more reps.

We have safely warmed up the targeted muscle to accommodate the heaver load now. Using proper form, we have not only called upon the targeted muscle, but a host of supporting muscles as well. Hence, we are less likely to encounter injury while training. By using light, moderate and heavy resistance, we have worked upon fast, slow and intermediate twitch muscle fibre.


KERRY DULIN, a world-renowned fitness guru, first got into professional bodybuilding at age 40. He won his first bodybuilding competition at 41. Now 62, with a physique that would put someone half his age to shame, Dulin has what he calls ‘a manageable programme,’ 12+ top trophies to show for his fitness endeavours and a brace of health and fitness websites. He lives in the US [This article is published by special permission from the author. ©Kerry Dulin].

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