How to Use Pyramid-Style Workouts to Improve Your Fitness Level

A Marine does push-ups during Headquarters and Support Battalion's monthly physical training aboard Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, N.C.
A Marine does push-ups during Headquarters and Support Battalion's monthly physical training aboard Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, N.C., Aug. 3, 2012. (Pfc. Joshua Grant/U.S. Marine Corps photo)

If you have or have not tried the PT Pyramid, summer is a perfect time to learn this classic workout and take it to new levels. For decades, the Calisthenics Pyramid has been a staple in military preparation and PT test maintenance training. Here is how it works for all levels of fitness:

The First Few Sets Are Warm-ups

The PT Pyramid workout is versatile and creates a "perfect workout," complete with a warm-up, max-out and cooldown. The first part starts as easy as the most basic of workouts. For most people, the first five sets are considered the warm-up; for others, the first 10 sets may become your warm-up.

This workout is not just for military preparation and PT test maintenance but for anyone looking to improve their fitness. Here is how you make a pyramid workout out of these commonly tested fitness events:

Pull-ups x 1, Push-ups x 2, Sit-ups x 3 (or Plank x 3 seconds):

  • Set 1: 1 pull-up, 2 push-ups, 3 sit-ups (or 3-second plank pose)
  • Set 2: 2 pull-ups, 4 push-ups, 6 sit-ups (or 6-second plank pose)
  • Set 3: 3 pull-ups, 6 push-ups, 9 sit-ups (or 9-second plank pose)
  • Set 4: 4 pull-ups, 8 push-ups, 12 sit-ups (or 12-second plank pose)
  • Set 5: 5 pull-ups, 10 push-ups, 15 sit-ups (or 15-second plank pose)

You have done 15 pull-ups, 30 push-ups, and 45 sit-ups/45 seconds in a plank pose. For some, that is a warm-up, but many cannot do that many pull-ups (yet). That is fine. Once you fail at any of the exercises, skip it and continue up the pyramid until you fail at a second exercise.

The Next 5 Sets (Continue as a Warm-up or Start to Max Out)

The next stage depends on your fitness level. If you can continue up the pyramid, continue until Level 10 or until you fail. At the point of failure, your path to continue upward has changed direction, and now you return in reverse order to create the back side of the pyramid, doing the sets back down to Level 1 again.

If you continue up to Level 10, the totals you have accumulated will be 55 pull-ups, 110 push-ups and 165 sit-ups/165 seconds in a plank pose.

  • Set 6: 6 pull-ups, 12 push-ups, 18 sit-ups (or 18-second plank pose)
  • Set 7: 7 pull-ups, 14 push-ups, 21 sit-ups (or 21-second plank pose)
  • Set 8: 8 pull-ups, 16 push-ups, 24 sit-ups (or 24-second plank pose)
  • Set 9: 9 pull-ups, 18 push-ups, 27 sit-ups (or 27-second plank pose)
  • Set 10: 10 pull-ups, 20 push-ups, 30 sit-ups (or 30-second plank pose)

Taking the Pyramid to Advanced Levels (10 and Above)

For most users, a pyramid from one to 10, then back down to one is a perfect workout totaling 100 pull-ups, 200 push-ups and 300 sit-ups/five minutes of a plank pose. However, some more advanced fitness levels can continue up the pyramid and turn it into a one-way ladder to reach new heights in the workout and total volume.

For instance, if you can continue to Level 15, you will accumulate 120 pull-ups, 240 push-ups, and 360 sit-ups/six minutes of a plank pose as a total workout volume. Sets 11-15 are not easy, and repeating them in reverse order packs a high volume to your totals: 225 pull-ups, 450 push-ups, 675 sit-ups/11:15 of a plank pose. When striving for these numbers, try an odd/even exercise swap between a plank pose and sit-ups to balance out the core system and get half sit-ups and half plank-pose time in total volume.

The final option is to stop at Set 15 or try to continue to Level 20 and stop there. This is a tougher challenge with less total volume than the full pyramid, but you still get 210 pull-ups, 420 push-ups, and 630 sit-ups/10:30 in a plank pose.

Your fitness journey with the PT Pyramid can be a major part of your life. I have used the pyramid since the 1980s and still find ways to get creative, add new exercises and work to reach levels that challenge the standard pyramids. For beginners or more advanced exercisers, you can take your fitness to new levels with this dependable workout routine.

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