How to Build Strength and Save Time With Reverse Pyramid Training

The first set is the toughest.

It’s bad writing to say that any one method of getting strong, big, lean, or whatever goal you have, is the best way to do so. There are countless different training methodologies and they’ve all been useful to somebody.

And if one aspect of strength training rings true, it’s that doing the exact same set-and-rep scheme every time you work out will eventually lead to a plateau. The same program forever isn’t a great idea.

With that said, if you haven’t done a block of Reverse Pyramid Training (RPT), you’re missing out. It builds strength, it builds muscle, and it gets you out of the gym faster than a 5×5. Here’s how it works.

deadlift image
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What Is Reverse Pyramid Training?

It got its name because as you walk down from the top of a pyramid — or if you were building a pyramid upside down — you start with a small number of stones and they increase as you proceed.

With RPT, your first set has the smallest number of reps and the most weight, then you add reps and decrease the weight as you continue through them. Typically the decrease in weight is 10 or 15 percent or so of the max weight, though this can vary.

Here’s an example that you might use for squats. Start with three warm-up sets of 40, 60, and 80 percent of your working weight.

Set 1: 6 reps at 300 pounds.
Rest 3 to 5 minutes.
Set 2: 7 to 8 reps at 270 pounds.
Rest
Set 3: 8 to 10 reps at 240 pounds.

We would say “and so on” but RPT training often ends at two or three sets. This is because, and this is the most important part, the first set should be very heavy and very, very difficult to finish. While you might want to leave one rep in the tank, the standard protocol is that the first set is an AMRAP. (That stands for “As Many Reps as Possible.”)

The idea is that you hit your heaviest lift when you’re the most fresh, at the start of your workout. As you get fatigued the weight drops, but you add an extra rep or two to each set. It’s based on the notion that your workout matches your body’s ability to produce force.

You should be adding reps or weight to each workout if possible.

front squat
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Reverse Pyramid Training Benefits

It’s Useful for Strength and Muscle Gain

This is a generalization, but research suggests that heavy, low-rep sets are better for strength while higher rep sets are better for muscle gain.(1) While it’s not very high volume, RPT does a good job of bringing together the strength and the muscle gain factions.

It’s Smart Intensity

It’s intense and max effort, but the hardest set is the first of the workout. Then the intensity reduces as the volume increases, so RPT satisfies that need many of us have to experience gut busting savagery under a barbell without being as taxing on the nervous system as multiple max out sets.

It’s Fast

It’s intense, but the sets are low and you normally stick to three to six exercises so you’re in and out of the gym pretty quickly. Nothing wrong with that.

It Can Be Useful for Bulking or Cutting

This is effective stimulus for cutting or bulking, just remember that when you’re in a calorie deficit it’s harder to recover, so you might want to stick to two sets of the toughest exercises per workout.

Powerlifting Meet
Photo By Jordan Jovkov / Shutterstock

Reverse Pyramid Training Drawbacks

It’s Still Intense

Yup, that’s definitely a pro for some folks, but for others it can bring about a sense of dread as you walk into the gym. The “this is not going to be fun” mentality can definitely settle in and that can be deleterious for certain athletes. Obviously, how much you enjoy these workouts is dependent on your personality. We’re just saying for some, it’s not the kind of lifting they like.

[Learn more: 20 athletes share their pre 1-rep max thoughts.]

Not Beginner Friendly

If you don’t have a solid foundation of strength, it’s not always the best idea to train tricky compound barbell lifts at such a high intensity all the way to failure. Not only might you lack the right balance of strength to safely pull off the movements, but a lot of newcomers are unsure of when they’re pushing themselves productively and when their form is crumbling.

Low Volume

This can be an upside of RPT, but if you’re a particularly experienced trainee with a lot of muscle, you might be concerned that there’s not enough volume or time under tension to really maximize hypertrophy.

It Needs Some DIY

RPT is a pattern of building sets and reps, but it’s not a full training program. They’re typically low volume, they might take the form of body part splits, maybe they’re push/pull… you’ll need to shop around.

Sample Reverse Pyramid Training Program

Typically there’s at least one day of rest between workouts. Here’s one popular program Martin Berkhan of Leangains.

Back day: Deadlift, overhead press, weighted chin ups, rows, bodyweight chin ups
Chest day: Bench press, incline dumbbell press, bicep curls, tricep extensions
Leg day: Squat, hamstring curl, leg extension, cable crunch, calf raises

Every set is two or three sets that start at 6 to 8 reps, except the deadlifts which are 3 to 5.

[See our complete breakdown of the Leangains diets and workouts!]

Wrapping Up

Actual competitive strength athletes don’t train to failure often, so we’re not saying this is an ideal program for meet prep. But for recreational exercisers, a few weeks or months doing reverse pyramid training can be just the change in stimulus you need to bust through plateaus or to limit strength loss while cutting. Plus, you get out the gym and into your post workout meal more quickly.

Featured image via takoburito/Shutterstock

Reference

1. Schoenfeld BJ, et al. Differential Effects of Heavy Versus Moderate Loads on Measures of Strength and Hypertrophy in Resistance-Trained Men. J Sports Sci Med. 2016 Dec 1;15(4):715-722.

Nick English

Nick English

Nick is a content producer and journalist with over seven years’ experience reporting on four continents. At BarBend his writing more on nutrition and long-form content with a heaping dose of strength training. His underlying belief is in the middle path: you don’t have to count every calorie and complete every workout in order to benefit from a healthy lifestyle and a stronger body. Plus, big traps are cool.

1 thought on “How to Build Strength and Save Time With Reverse Pyramid Training”

  1. I find the reverse pyramid to be tricky for some people because fatigue is different for everyone. When some people get close to failure on a set, reducing the weight just keeps them at the same rep range depending on their slow twitch/fast twitch make up. That is unless they train in this method for a while and build endurance or take long rest periods between sets.

    In the end it doesn’t really matter for gaining muscle. Normal pyramid or reverse, as long as you take your sets to the point of fatigue, you’re good to go.

    The one thing that is great about reverse pyramid on the low rep range spectrum, is that you aren’t burnt out before you get into the strength rep ranges. Meaning you get a bigger stimulus before sapping your power with the higher reps if you were working from 12 down, for example.

    Great article.

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