A COMPLETE GUIDE TO REVERSE PYRAMID TRAINING

This article tells you how to train when the time comes to split your strength training into a three-day split. The primary focus is reverse pyramid training (RPT), but I have also included advice for other set-rep patterns (5×5 for example) to be used with a three-day split, as this is what I find myself using more and more often with clients rather than RPT nowadays.

Reverse pyramid training is a style of training where the trainee puts their heaviest set first, then ‘pyramids down’ to a lighter weight, usually with more reps for the latter sets. It is best suited to big compound training movements that work a lot of the body’s musculature, like a squat, deadlift, bench press, and chin-up.


WHAT IS REVERSE PYRAMID TRAINING?

Routines are usually abbreviated (meaning a low relative training volume) but they require a very high intensity.

A few months of reverse pyramid training can be a solid cure for trainees who have been stagnant at the gym because they have not been pushing themselves hard enough. This is because when many people try RPT training for the first time, they find out that they are capable of far more than they thought. This is because it is the first time they have to consistently push close to failure.

However, this makes RPT unsuitable for rank novices who are new to the lifts and at greater risk of their form breaking down when pushing close to failure.

It also makes it less suitable for more experienced trainees, who may find themselves stagnating because of the low overall training volume. That said, I think RPT is great and I encourage you to give it a try at least once.


A GUIDE TO PERFORMING RPT

  1. Do warm-up sets, gradually working up to around 80% of your ‘top set’ load.
  2. Put the heaviest working set (aka. the top set) first.
  3. Drop the weight, rest and do the second working set.
  4. Drop the weight, rest and do the third working set.
  5. Rest and move onto the next exercise.
  6. Push HARD. Do as many reps as you can without reaching failure.

‘Failure’ is defined as the point at which a rep can no longer be completed with good form. You never want to go to form failure with the compound movements because that is where injuries happen, though occasionally it may happen without your planning. – That is what the safety pins (or a spotter if you have one) are for when squatting and benching, or the bumper plates and padding on the floor, when deadlifting.

A REVERSE PYRAMID TRAINING SAMPLE ROUTINE

Reverse pyramid training is a set-rep pattern, not any specific workout. However, RPT does have popular routine incarnations. One such incarnation is this full body three-day workout split.

Sample 3-Day RPT Split

Monday
ExerciseTop SetSet 2  Reduce load by 10-15%Set 3  Reduce load by 10-15%
Deadlift4-6 Reps6-8 Reps8-10 Reps
Weighted Chin-ups6-8 Reps8-10 Reps10-12 Reps
Wednesday
ExerciseTop SetSet 2  Reduce load by 10-15%Set 3  Reduce load by 10-15%
Bench Press6-8 Reps8-10 Reps10-12 Reps
Push-upsRaise feet off the floor when too easy, add two-second cadence.8-12 Reps8-12 RepsNA
Friday
ExerciseTop SetSet 2  Reduce load by 10-15%Set 3  Reduce load by 10-15%
Squat6-8 Reps8-10 Reps10-12 Reps
Overhead Press6-8 Reps8-10 Reps10-12 Reps

HOW TO PROGRESS WITH REVERSE PYRAMID TRAINING

Reverse pyramid training uses a double progression system. So that means the target is to increase either the weight or reps, if you can, at each session. There are rules for doing so.

  • For the first workout, you likely need to guess at how heavy you should load the bar so that your maximum effort is within the target rep range.
  • Let’s say that this week you get 7 reps with 100kg and your target rep range was 6-8 reps. The next week you’re going to stay with 100kg and try to hit 8 reps. If you do that then increase the weight slightly (102.5kg) and try to get 6 reps or more the following workout.
  • If you fail to get the minimum required number or reps at any point in time, reduce the weight.
  • For your second and third sets, your target rep range will be a couple of reps higher. Because of this, and the cumulative fatigue of the previous set(s) you will need to reduce the weight on the bar. 10-15% is a ballpark figure for this.

SAMPLE RPT PROGRESSION SCHEME

Session NumberLifting RecordLoad Change Next Session?
1150×6, 135×9, 120×12Increase 3rd set
2150×8, 135×10, 125×10Increase 1st and 2nd sets
3155×6, 140×8, 125×11Same
4155×6, 140×10, 125×11Increase 2nd set
5155×8, 145×8, 125×12Increase 1st and 3rd sets
6160×6, 145×9, 130×10Same

TIPS

Adjust all sets independently of each other. The ~10-15% reduction that I’ve suggested is just a guide for your first workout. (If you need to reduce it more or less that doesn’t mean there is anything wrong!) From that point onward you want to adjust your subsequent sets independently as you would for that top set.

Keep the other training circumstances the same, particularly time, and keep rest intervals strict.

For the chin-ups, always keep a full range, keep it slow and smooth.Chin-ups may be very tough at first, that’s fine. Band-assisted chin-ups are a good option until you have built up the strength to do full reps, as is jumping up and holding yourself in the top position and fighting gravity until it takes you down for as long as you can. – This way you will train both ends of the rep range. Eventually, you’ll want to add weight.


THE PROS AND CONS OF RPT TRAINING

WHAT I LIKE ABOUT RPT

  • Quick & effective.
  • Satisfies the need for intensity without allowing certain personality types from hammering themselves too hard.
  • Cuts through the crap & focuses on the exercises that will give the trainee the most bang for their buck.

THE DRAWBACKS OF RPT

  • It is not sustainable and will eventually cease to provide enough training stress to drive progression. Training close to failure at very high intensity is bad for recovery. This means that the workouts can only be performed with a low frequency. Volume is also low, as it’s not possible to train to failure for a high amount of volume. As volume is one of the key drivers of progress, eventually RPT will cease being effective.
  • Not suited to the beginner. Training too close to failure is bad for proper motor learning. Form needs to be very good to avoid injury when pushing close to technical failure for rep maxes.
  • Your ‘maximum‘ is highly influenced your gym atmosphere/surroundings. One of my best squat workouts ever was with six-time Mr. Olympia Dorian Yates sitting on the leg press machine six feet behind me, staring at me, waiting for his rack to become available. ‘Maximum’ is relative and variable, and it’s too easy for people to pussy out before they truly can’t do any more reps. Think about it this way – if I put a gun to your loved one’s head, you could probably do a couple more, right?
  • Mentally the workouts are very tough, and knowing you need to push to a max for every set, especially on squat day for example, can lead to people dreading their workouts. This extra mental drain can lead to unnecessary stress and sub-optimal performance. Fixed set-rep patterns (5 sets of 5 for example) without the requirement for failure can work better. And I find myself recommending these more and more, regardless of the level of trainee.

A BETTER WAY TO DO A 3-DAY SPLIT?

Due to the drawbacks mentioned above, I most often find myself using a fixed set-rep pattern without the use of failure instead of RPT with clients. As the cumulative fatigue will be lower, additional exercises can be added to each day and have been in the example below.

Example 3-day Split Using 5×5 and 3×8 Set-rep Patterns
Monday
ExerciseSetsRepsRep Total
Deadlift5525
Weighted Chin-ups5525
Additional Compound MovementFront Squats, for example.3824
Wednesday
ExerciseSetsRepsRep Total
Bench Press5525
Push-ups28-1216-24
Additional Compound MovementSeated Cable Rows, for example.3824
Friday
ExerciseSetsRepsRep Total
Squat5525
Overhead Press5525
Additional Compound MovementSeated Cable Rows, for example.3824

REVERSE PYRAMID TRAINING FAQ

Is reverse pyramid training effective?

Yes, reverse pyramid training is effective if you stick with it. But there’s a high chance you’ll brown your pants at the thought of your next squat workouts if you put in the effort it demands.

What is reverse pyramid training?

In reverse pyramid training, the trainee puts their heaviest set first, then ‘pyramids down’ to a lighter weight, usually with more reps for the latter sets. It is best suited to big compound training movements that work a lot of the body’s musculature, like a squat, deadlift, bench press, and chin-up. The sample routine shows you how to use it.

How much rest do you need between pyramid sets?

I recommend you rest approximately 3 minutes between pyramid sets, Specifically, as long as necessary to catch your breath and for your muscles to be ready to give your best effort to the next set.

Do I have to stick to those exercises above?

No, that is just an example. Any multi-joint/compound exercises that lend themselves well to incremental loading (Front Squats, Rack Pulls, Pull-ups, Row variations) are all fine.

Can I add in more exercises?

If it helps you progress quicker. If you’ve come to this page from a google search or forum recommendation, I’d highly recommend that you read my article, The 5 Training Principles That Count, so that you have the background knowledge to know when adjustments are appropriate.

What is a good warm-up for RPT training?

You want to do the minimum that you can to get warm and ready for the top set, without tiring yourself for your main work sets.

Can I do pull-downs instead of chin-ups?

You can, but they are not as effective. Do not use them if you have a chin-up bar available. In my experience, people work a lot harder when they have to do chin-ups rather than pull-downs, probably because their efforts (or lack of) are more public.

Is the omission of dips purposeful?

Yes. Dips are a great chest and triceps developer, and it feels awesome to have a couple of plates clanging between your legs as you knock out a few sets of 8, but the risk-reward ratio is skewed in the wrong direction I feel. What I mean is, it’s very easy to cause yourself an injury with this exercise, especially as you start adding a lot of weight.

When there are safer alternatives that are equally effective (pushups, the close-grip bench press), I see no point in taking the risk with dips. I no longer do them myself, and I no longer recommend them to clients.

Is this routine for a cut or a bulk?

It can be effective in either a cut or a bulk; it all depends on how much training stimulus you personally can recover from. Just note that under caloric deficit circumstances, our recovery capacity is lower, so training volume is best reduced to match the reduction in recovery capacity.

Why does this conflict with the advice of [coach X]?

You will find conflicting advice all over the internet because there are many different ways to reach the same end with training. Every routine has its pros and cons; suitability depends on the context. Reverse pyramid training and the routine above is just one way of doing things. It’s not suitable for all people at all times. Though different coaches have their own preferences and reasoning, the principles of effective training routines remain the same.

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