Reverse pyramid training, or RPT for short, is my absolute favorite way to train. It’s an incredibly effective and efficient training style for achieving jaw dropping strength and muscle development.
In this post you’ll learn everything there is to know about reverse pyramid training. The benefits and drawbacks, how it compares to other training styles and of course how you actually do it to gain strength faster than ever before.
What is Reverse Pyramid Training (RPT)?
Reverse pyramid training (RPT) is a training style where you perform your heaviest set first and then pyramid your way down in weight and usually do more reps on your subsequent sets.
Here’s an example of an exercise done with RPT:
- Warm-up sets
- Rest 1-2 min
- First Set: 4 reps x max weight you can lift for 4 reps with good technique and form
- Rest 3 min
- Second Set: 6 reps x max weight you can lift for 6 reps with good technique and form (7.5-10% less weight than first set)
- Rest 3 min
- Third Set: 8 reps x max weight you can lift for 8 reps with good technique and form (7.5-10% less weight than second set)
In the gym world there are three major styles of training that people most typically use, reverse pyramid training being one of them. The other two are ascending pyramid training and straight sets.
As you can see, when doing ascending pyramid training you would start with the lightest set first and work your way up in weight until you reach your heaviest set. With straigth sets you do the same weight on all your sets.
Even though both these training styles has their place, reverse pyramid training is still superior in many ways. So, let’s look at the benefits of RPT now:
The Benefits of Reverse Pyramid Training
Benefit #1 – Time Efficient
Studies show that RPT is more time-efficient than other training styles such as 5×5 and also leads to superior results. This is because RPT relies on very high intensity (weight on the bar & training close to failure), as opposed to other training styles that relies more on high volume (total amount of training being done).
In fact, research has shown that adding more training volume leads to diminishing returns where each additional set causes less and less gains than the previous one. In other words, you get a lot of gains from your first set, less from your second, even less from your third and so on.
Rerverse pyramid training takes advantage of this fact by putting focus on the sets that actually matters, the first few.
Simply said, with RPT where you focus on intensity, people tend to get better results in less time than with any other style of training.
Benefit #2 – Effective When Cutting
Over my years trying out all the different training styles both on myself and on my clients, I’ve learned that RPT is hands down the most effective way to gain or preserve muscle during a fat loss diet.
The reason for this again has to do with the fact that RPT focuses on intensity over volume. When an individual are in a calorie deficit required to get lean, they are also in a recovery deficit. And the last thing you want to do when in a recovery deficit is to turn up the volume in your training.
So, if you want to see great results when cutting, make sure you use RPT!
Benefit #3 – You Will do Your Heaviest Set First When Completely Fresh
By doing your heaviest set first when you are completely fresh, you will be able to handle heavy weights with more ease and power than ever before.
This means that you will be able to more easily achieve progressive overload on your exercises, and progressive overload is key for long-term strength and muscle growth.
Benefit #4 – You Will Perform Only One Set With Maximum Effort
This is one often overlooked benefit, but boy is it a powerful one!
With RPT you’re only performing your heaviest set once. That’s it. One heavy set is all you get per exercise. In fact, by taking your first set to the absolute brink of what you can do, you will not be able to replicate that set again for the remainder of your workout.
The reason why this is so powerful is that you will experience a great wave of relief when you know that you only have to do that heavy set once per workout, in the beginning.
This is a huge mental advantage, it will put you in the winning mindset and ensure maximum effort, which will lead to consistent personal records most of the times you step your foot in the gym.
Benefit #5 – You do Easier Sets After Your First All Out Set
What’s awesome about your maximum effort set is that it will “supercharge” your body.
Doing a set with very heavy weight close to failure requires near maximal muscle fiber recruition from the very first rep. This is unlike training with light weights, where you only recruit all your muscle fibers on those last few really tough reps.
So, by performing your heavy maximum effort set first, you shift your body into a temporary state of heightened muscle fiber activation. This means that the lighter sets you do after your max effort set will promote more muscle growth than if you did them before your max effort set.
I always notice this when I go to do my lighter sets after my max effort set, that the first few reps feel very easy. This is because I’m using more muscle fibers than I’d normaly would if I hadn’t done the max effort set beforehand.
The Drawbacks of Reverse Pyramid Training
Drawback #1 – Not Good For Building Skill & Proficiency For Specific Sports
Even though reverse pyramid training is a very good way to train for most people, it’s not so for everyone.
Reverse pyramid training is not optimal for powerlifting, olympic weightlifting and for other sports where the athletes need to develop motor patterns and technical proficiency on their sport specific exercises.
To become a competitive athlete in various strength sports, you can’t rely on 2-3 sets to failure two or three times per week. No, you’re going to need a lot more volume, more days in the gym and a completely different view on progressive overload.
Drawback #2 – May Not be Optimal For People Who Respond Poorly to Strength Training
One final thing that I’ve noticed, and I must say that I see this very rarely, is that some unlucky guys who respond poorly to strength training in general also seem to respond poorly to RPT.
Guys who don’t respond very well to strength training usually need more training volume to grow. They simply have to do more work, stay in the gym for longer and become more fatigued than others just to see less results.
But like I said, very rarely do I see people who respond poorly to strength training, but the ones who do definitely seem to get better results from doing more volume focused training rather than RPT.
Reverse Pyramid Training vs Ascending Pyramid Training
The opposite to reverse pyramid training is the very common ascending pyramid training model that’s very popular among bodybuilders. With the ascending pyramid you start with lower loads and higher reps, then progress into higher loads and lower reps for your subsequent sets. You perform your heaviest set last.
In my eye’s and many others, ascending pyramid is the least effective way to train. The reason for this is that muscle grows best when stimulated hard. This means that if you do 3-5 lighter sets before your heaviest set, you’re not only getting suboptimal results from your lighter sets, you’re also coming into your heaviest set already fatigued. You basically limit your strength on your main set, the last one.
RPT is completely different. You do your heaviest set first when you’re fresh and can express maximal strength and in doing so achieve full muscle fiber recruitment from the get go. Simply said, RPT rocks APT sucks!
When is Ascending Pyramid Good?
- Almost never
Reverse Pyramid Training vs Straight Sets
Straight sets (like 3×8 or 5×5) might be the most commonly used way to train all around the world. I like Straight sets as I use it in combination with RPT in almost every workout.
RPT is superior for strength gains on bigger compound lifts but Straight sets allows for higher volume to be performed, and hence that I like doing Straight sets on my assistance/isolation exercises.
The reason why I believe Straight sets to be worse than RPT for stength gains is because you must pace yourself on each set and not use the heaviest weight you’re able to lift. For instance, if you’re doing 3 sets of 5 reps you can’t use your 5RM weight, you must use your 8RM weight simply because if you go with your 5RM you will only be able to do that on your first set.
Finally, for super advanced trainees who has gained a ton of strength already, Straight sets might be needed above RPT. At the very advanced stages RPT loses some if its effectiveness simply because the trainee needs more training volume (number of sets) to continue building strength and muscle, but they are now so strong that going all out in an RPT fasion makes them unable to recover because they train to close to failure.
When is Straight Sets Good?
- For adding extra volume on assistance/isolation exercises
- For very advanced individuals who has plateaued on RPT
How to do Reverse Pyramid Training
1. Warm up Before Your Heavy Set
This is VERY important. Since you will be doing your heaviest set first you need to be warmed up, otherwise injury will be inevitable. The goal of the warm-up is to prepare the nervous system as well as your mind for the heavy set without causing unnecessary fatigue.
The best way to become ready for your first set is to do the 5/3/1 warm-up.
The 5/3/1 Warm-Up
The 5/3/1 part means 3 sets, where the first set is 5 reps, the second set is 3 reps and the third set is 1 rep.
- Your first warm-up set should be done with ~60% of your work set for 5 reps.
- Your second warm-up set should be done with 75-80% of your work set for 3 reps.
- Your third and final warm-up set should be done with 90% of your work set for 1 rep.
For weighted pull ups or dips you can do bodyweight for 5 reps, then put on your lifting belt and use 1/3 of work set weight for 3 reps and then 2/3 of work set weight for 1 rep.
You should rest between 1-2 minutes between your warm-up sets and the same before your heavy work set.
Remember that you only need to warm up once for each muscle group. So for instance, if you do incline bench press first and then do dips later you only need to warm up before the incline.
Focus on Explosive Power During Your Warm-Up Sets
By focusing on explosiveness during your warm-up sets you will turn on the central nervous system and better prepare it to crush your heavy set.
Lifting explosively has been linked in research to better strength gains than simply “going through the movement”. So, make sure that you lift everything as quickly and explosively as possible but also keep control of your lifts so you don’t injure yourself.
2. Do Your RPT Sets
After your warm-up it’s time for your heavy set! Now, what your heavy set will be depends on what your training routine call for. But I recommend that your first set is done somewhere in the 4-8 rep range for best strength to muscle carry-over.
So, let’s say for this example that you’re doing RPT with the goal to do 5, 6 and 8 reps respectively on your 3 sets.
- After warming up, you’ll start your first set with a weight that allows you do do 5 reps: Full range of motion, with good technique and form. This set is max effort.
- Rest 2-3 minutes
- For your second set, you’re going to drop the weight by 10% and strive to get 6 reps: Full range of motion, with good technique and form. This set should be high effort, but not taken to failure.
- Rest 2-3 minutes
- For your third set, you’re going to drop the weight by 10% once again and strive to get 8 reps: Full range of motion, with good technique and form. This set should be high effort, but not taken to failure.
How to Make Progress With Reverse Pyramid Training
Ensuring that you make progress is THE most important thing you can do if you want great results. To do this it’s essential that you track your workouts. You must know exactly how many sets and reps you did in your last workout as well as how much weight you used.
The reason you need to know this is because the weight you’re going to use during your next workout are based completely on your last workouts performance and not on how you feel.
The 4 Progression Models
There are 4 ways you can make progress with RPT, where the first progression model is the quickest one and the fourth is the slowest one. Now, what’s important is that how quickly you can make progress depends on your training experience. The less training experience you have, the quicker you will be able to make progress and vice versa.
With that said though, even if you’ve been training for a while and are just switching to RPT, you should still start out with the quickest progression model first. If you can make good progress on the quickest progresion model, that’s awesome so stick to it! If however you notice that you can’t make progress (by becoming plateaued) with that model, then you move on to the next model and try that one out.
So with that said, let’s cover the 4 progression models one by one:
1. Increase Weight Every Workout (Fastest Way to Make Progress)
This is the absolute quickest way you can make progress. This progression model is usually only applicable for complete beginners or people who have returned to lifting after a long break. But it can also work for a while if you’ve been training with poor strategies.
With this progression model you increase the weight on the bar with:
- 5 lbs (2.5 kg) on your smaller compound lifts (incline bench press, pull ups, shoulder presses etc.) and with;
- 10 lbs (5 kg) on your bigger compound lifts (squats and deadlifts etc) each time you come to the gym.
Here’s an example of the increase weight every workout progression model using incline bench press:
Workout 1: 100 lbs x 5; 90 lbs x 6; 80 lbs x 8
Workout 2: 105 lbs x 5; 95 lbs x 6; 85 lbs x 8
Workout 3: 110 lbs x 5; 100 lbs x 6; 90 lbs x 8
As you can see, reps remains the same but you increase in weight every workout. Once this stops working, which is when you hit a plateau when trying to increase weight it’s time to move on to the next one:
2. Micro Loading Weight Every Workout (Second Fastest Way to Make Progress)
This progression model is works in the exact same way as the previous one, the only difference is that we slow down the rate of progress by adding less weight to the bar each workout. This is usually effective for another couple of months after you plateaued on the first model outlined above.
With this progression model you increase the weight on the bar with:
- 1-2.5 lbs lbs (0.5-1 kg) on all your lifts
Here’s an example of the micro loading progression model using incline bench press:
Workout 1: 110 lbs x 5; 100 lbs x 6; 90 lbs x 8
Workout 2: 112.5 lbs x 5; 102.5 lbs x 6; 92.5 lbs x 8
Workout 3: 115 lbs x 5; 105 lbs x 6; 95 lbs x 8
In this example I increased with 2.5 lbs (1 kg) per workout. Once you’re not able to do that anymore drop your increments to 1.5 lbs per workout and after that to 1 lb per workout.
To get this progression model to work you probably need to get your hands on micro plates. This is because most gyms don’t carry weights under 2.5 lbs (1.25kg). Ideally, you would get a set of ¼, ½ and 1 lb plates. This would give you the luxury to increase the total weight by 0.5 lbs (250g) to 3.5 lbs (1.5kg) and everywhere in between by the half pound. You can read about the micro plates that I got and recommend here.
3. Independent Set Loading (Third Fastest Way to Make Progress)
This is a progression model that I learned about in the ShredSmart Program. With this progression model you alterante between adding 5 lbs to your first set or your subsequent sets.
Here’s an example of the independent set loading progression model using incline bench press:
Workout 1: 120 lb x 5; 110 lbs x 6; 100 lbs x 8
Workout 2: 120 lbs x 5; 115 lbs x 6; 100 lbs x 8
Workout 3: 125 lbs x 5; 115 lbs x 6; 100 lbs x 8
Workout 4: 125 lbs x 5; 115 lbs x 6; 105 lbs x 8
With this progression model you first increase 5 lbs to your third set, then your second set, and finally your first set. This model would have you add 5 lbs to your main set every third workout while keeping the reps the same.
This model is very effective as long as you don’t rush it or try to push your sets to complete failure. By pushing all your sets to complete failure you will remove the “predictability” of your strength level the next workout.
I did this mistake a lot in the beginning because I always wanted to push every set to complete failure. But then when I came in for my next workout I sometimes made progress, but more often I couldn’t complete the same number of reps as I did the previous week.
I learned why this kind of “unpredictability plateau” happens and how to fix it from this awesome video by Radu:
4. Double Progression (Fourth Fastest Way to Make Progress)
This is perhaps the progression model you will work with the most once you’ve become more advanced, when adding weight to the bar is starting to get slower.
A double progression model means that you’re adding weight to the bar only after you’ve hit the top of a given rep range. You first increase reps and only then do you increase weight.
When it comes to RPT, each set has it’s own rep range and they are increased independently of each other. When you reach the top of the rep range in a given set, you increase the weight in that set with the smallest plates available (whether that’s your gyms weights or your own micro plates).
After you’ve increased the weight you will most likely lose 1-2 reps, your goal is not to add back the lost reps and reach the top of the rep range again.
With this progression model you work in the following rep ranges:
- Set 1: 4-6 reps
- Set 2: 6-8 reps
- Set 3: 8-10 reps
Here’s an example of the double progression model using incline bench press:
130 lbs x 4
120 lbs x 6
110 lbs x 8
In this example you are at the bottom of the rep range on all your sets. Your target now is to add reps to one or more of your sets the next workout.
130 lbs x 4
120 lbs x 7
110 lbs x 10
Awesome, you’ve made some gains! In this workout you increased with 1 rep on your second set and 2 reps on your third set. You’ve made it to the top of the rep range on your third set so your goal is to increase weight on that set the next workout.
130 lbs x 5
120 lbs x 8
112.5 lbs x 9
Cool, you’ve gained strength once again! This time you added 1 rep to your first set and 1 rep to your second set and you increased weight on your third set while losing a rep (part of the plan). You’ve made it to the top of the rep range on your second set so your goal is to increase weight on that set the next workout.
130 lbs x 6
122.5 lbs x 7
112.5 lbs x 10
Congrats! You added 1 more rep to your first set, you increased weight on your second set and lost 1 rep (remember part of the plan!) and managed to reach the top of the rep range on both your first and third set so your goal is to increase weight on both those sets the next workout.
There we go, that’s how you progress with double progression RPT. It’s a very effective and productive way to make progress once you’ve become more advanced.
Here’s an example of RPT done with double progression by Greg from Kinobody:
Okay so there we go, I think that I covered everything surrounding the powerful training style called Reverse Pyramid Training.
Now reverse pyramid training is only part of what makes up a great training program. The exercises you use, the number of sets, reps and how often you should train etc. is very important to set up correctly if you want to see great results.
Also, if you want to see awesome strength and muscle gains you need to have your nutrition on point as well.
To make sure you get this and a LOT more I recommend that you get your hands on the ShredSmart Program. This is what I did and it sure helped build my physique and knowledge about training (and dieting) more than anything else.
You can learn more about the ShredSmart Program here.