What Are the Right Rest Periods During Calisthenics Circuits and Pyramids?

A corporal conducts pullups during company physical training  at Marine Corps Base Hawaii, Nov. 16, 2016. (Marine Corps photo/Aaron S. Patterson)
A corporal conducts pullups during company physical training at Marine Corps Base Hawaii, Nov. 16, 2016. (Marine Corps photo/Aaron S. Patterson)

How much rest you take can be the difference between a 30-minute workout and a 60-minute workout. The body needs rest during hard training, and you need to recover so you can avoid injury in the next set by using ideal form.

In some workouts, the rest is built into exercises designed to build muscle stamina and cardio endurance. Here is a question about the classic PT Pyramid from a new user:

Stew, when I use the pyramid workout with calisthenics and mix with running every set (like you added), when do I rest or how much time should I rest? I am not sure what you mean by “minimum rest.” Thanks, and I love the workouts. – Quinton

The PT Pyramid holds the elements of the “perfect workout,” since it has a warmup, max out and a cooldown all built into it by design. That design is helpful for beginner, intermediate and advanced athletes who are seeking to increase strength-endurance. If you add in running every set or every other set, you can train and increase recovery time by doing active rests between sets of exercises.

The Pyramid Explained

You can place whatever exercise you’re looking to improve into a pyramid. We typically mix in pull-ups, push-ups, squats, dips or overhead press. The workout will progress with repetition in each set as described below, but the rest of the pyramid is actually other exercises or even running. Yes, you eventually can “rest with running” as your endurance and muscle stamina start to improve.

Here is how it works:

Set 1: 1 pull-up, 2 push-ups, 3 squats, 2 dips, run 100 meters

Set 2: 2 pull-ups, 4 push-ups, 6 squats, 4 dips, run 100 meters

Set 3: 3 pull-ups, 6 push-ups, 9 squats, 6 dips, run 100 meters

Keep going up to level 10 if you can or stop when you fail to reach the numbers in more than one event. Use an easier option if you fail to finish the sets: Try assisted pull-ups, knee push-ups, half squats or bench dips.

Where do you put the rest periods?

The rest periods can be an “active rest” when you work another muscle group with the lower-level sets. Try push-ups, dips, sit-ups, plank, jog or bike 1-2 minutes. However, as you start to fatigue, you may want to rest for a few minutes until you are recovered fully so you do not fail at the next set.

You may find that a longer jog or bike is a good way to recover your muscles without stopping movement. The need for active rest will decrease as you get into better shape. Eventually, you will not need any rest, other than a sip of water or a light few-second stretch during the workout.

What should you do when you have peaked?

Even though the goal is to complete the pyramid in reverse order once you get to your max level, stop if you are at your limit of fatigue. You also can start over at level one again to see how high you can go up the pyramid (or ladder) the second time. You can turn the pyramid into a double ladder if you prefer and build in some easier sets as a form of recovery when you reach your peak.

If you can do the entire 1-10-1 pyramid with constant active rest and movement, you will have achieved a level of strength-endurance that is above average with 100 pull-ups, 200 push-ups or dips, and 300 squats in a workout. If you do the pyramid with the built-in recovery, you can last longer and continue to improve your volume without burnout or failure.

A 1-15-1 pyramid, which yields 225 pull-ups in a single workout, is common in many advanced training programs. This kind of strength and endurance growth depends on being able to handle the repetitions in each set while keeping your heart rate in that low aerobic zone.

Big tip: Do not be in a hurry to get this workout done as fast as possible. The goal is not to finish the fastest, but to improve your volume performance by exceeding your previous peak of the pyramid. The next step is to repeat in the pyramid’s reverse order or to start with another ladder to accumulate more volume after hitting a new peak.

When going aerobic, it is amazing how much fuel you have left in the tank to continue volume training. The pyramid method helps the athlete stay in the aerobic zone longer and therefore increases overall total volume that day for the athlete.

The pyramid is an excellent assessment tool, and you can see improvement each time you do it. My advice is to do the pyramid a few times a week and every other day at a maximum. It will get old if you do it too many times. I have been doing this workout since the 1980s and still do it 3-4 times a month.

Stew Smith is a former Navy SEAL and fitness author certified as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Visit his Fitness eBook store if you’re looking to start a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to stew@stewsmith.com.

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