3 Tips to Make the PT Pyramid Workout More Challenging

U.S. Army Spc. Trevor Acord of the Hawaii Army National Guard performs a  push-up during the Expert Physical Fitness Assessment portion of the annual Top Intelligence (TOPINT) 2024 competition on Schofield Barracks.
U.S. Army Spc. Trevor Acord of the Hawaii Army National Guard performs a push-up during the Expert Physical Fitness Assessment portion of the annual Top Intelligence (TOPINT) 2024 competition on Schofield Barracks, Jan. 22, 2024. (Staff Sgt. Matthew A. Foster/U.S. Army National Guard photo)

The PT Pyramid is an all-time classic workout that countless people have used to prepare for fitness tests for decades. It is my favorite workout to do each week, using various methods. Whether you increase sets, add weight or mix in cardio activity, the PT Pyramid is yours to use however you want to progress.

Here is a great question about the next levels of the PT Pyramid and how you can enhance the workout:

Stew, do you recommend increasing the peak set of the PT pyramid past 10? Or should we start doing the PT pyramid with a weight vest instead of increasing the total reps past 100/200/300? Thanks, Evan

Most people know the Classic PT Pyramid as the perfect workout, complete with a warm-up, max-out and cooldown. It's typically done with pull-ups, push-ups, sit-ups and dips, but you can use any exercise -- calisthenics, weights and even cardio events. Here is how one version of the pyramid works:

If you see a 1-10-1 Pyramid with the following components -- pull-ups x 1, push-ups x 2, sit-ups x 3 -- this means:

Set No. 1: 1 pull-up, 2 push-ups, 3 sit-ups ...

  • Set No. 2: 2 pull-ups, 4 push-ups, 6 sit-ups.
  • Set No. 3: 3 pull-ups, 6 push-ups, 9 sit-ups ... and so on. Up to level 10 (10, 20, 30 reps)

Basically, each set gets tougher as you move up the pyramid until you reach level 10 (or fail at something). Then repeat in reverse order going down the pyramid, and soon, the workout will get easier.

The answer to your question is that it is up to you and your abilities. If you are finding the 1-10-1 pyramid getting easier, you have a few options:

1. Add a Weight Vest

Adding 10-20 pounds in a weight vest will test you in these exercises, though you may not want to do sit-ups with a weight vest and instead opt for plank pose by doubling the push-up reps in seconds. So if you do 10 push-ups (fifth set), you will do 20 seconds in the plank pose with the weight vest.

2. Add More Sets

If you do the math, the 1-10-1 pyramid above will yield 100 pullups, 200 pushups, and 300 sit-ups. However, if you add two more sets and continue up the pyramid to level 12 (and back down), you get a significant bump in volume: 144 pushups, 288 pushups, and 432 sit-ups. At this volume, you may want to mix in different pushups and abs options (wide, close, knee pushups) or Flutter kicks, plank pose, and knee ups vs doing 400+ sit-ups only.

3. Add a Higher Multiple

Another option is to keep doing the 1-10-1 pyramid but multiply by two on the pull-ups or by three on the push-ups to increase the volume of repetitions for each set. You may find that in some sets, you will have to do the x 1 pull-up or x 2 push-up reps to get through the higher numbers, but you will have increased total repetitions significantly.

The beauty of this type of workout is that it is a progressive tool to see improvements each time you do it. You will know when you can make it harder if you are getting all the repetitions in each set without struggling and limiting rest to a minimum. A great way to assess your ability to recover is to do the workout with little to no rest, other than the transition time to do the next exercise set after set. When you can do the 1-10-1 without struggling to complete and with minimal rest, you may be ready to ramp it up to the next level.

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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