November 09, 2020 10 min read

You’ve been lifting for a while now and the noob gains stopped a long time ago. While you’ve still been seeing some progress, you feel as if you’re plateauing at this point. The things you’ve been doing just don’t seem to be cutting it anymore. 

In the eternal search for training routines that build on previous ones, the reverse pyramid method holds its ground as a terrific way for intermediates to push past plateaus and eke out extra gains.

This is our definitive guide on reverse pyramid training: what it is, how it works, and whether or not it’s right for you. 

What is Reverse Pyramid Training? 

Reverse pyramid training (RPT) isn’t a specific workout routine in and of itself. It’s a name given to a set-rep pattern that’s shaped like a reverse pyramid—hence the name.

The idea behind this style of training is to start with a heavy set, but a lower rep range. For the subsequent sets, you use lighter weights while increasing the reps. For the third (and last) set you do the same. Typically, the weights are lowered around 10%, but anywhere from 8% and 15% isn’t unheard of.

So, it would look something like this:

  • Set 1: 4-6 Reps (heaviest weight)
  • Set 2: 6-8 Reps while reducing the load
  • Set 3: 8-10 Reps while reducing the load further

This has several benefits that we’ll dive into further below, but for now, just know that this method can be great for breaking through plateaus and muscle building. The reason behind this is that it’s a high-intensity workout regime that requires the lifter to exert themselves to near failure (or failure in some cases).

The reverse pyramid method can be understood best when compared to other rep patterns. For example, the one you’re probably most familiar with is straight sets. That means a consistent amount of reps over a number of sets, such as 5 sets of 5 reps, or 3 sets of 8 reps each. Pyramid training is the opposite of reverse pyramid training, with your heaviest set and lowest reps being at the end of the rep scheme.

The benefit here is that warming up is included in the training method. However, the drawback is that you’ll never be able to use your non-fatigued strength for the heaviest lifts—those that matter the most. Which is where the reverse pyramid steps in.

A man doing the bench press in a gym.

Reverse Pyramid for Positive Gains

The characteristics of the reverse pyramid approach make it uniquely capable of getting you out of ruts and imparting gains.

It’s mixing up a low rep/heavy weight and high rep/light weight training program into one weightlifting regime. As we know, using heavier weights while training at lower rep ranges is what we want to do if we’re training for strength gains primarily. On the other hand, if its muscle mass and hypertrophy we’re looking for, it’s a high rep range that’ll get us to our goals.

With the reverse pyramid, you’re able to use your non-fatigued muscles effectively at the very beginning, when loads are at their heaviest. As you can probably see, this melds extremely well with a strength training regime. However, you also get higher rep ranges towards the end of the workout, giving you a taste of both worlds. 

This type of rep-set pattern means a few things when it comes to how routine is usually programmed. For one, reverse pyramid training is usually conceptualized as just 3, full-body workouts each week. You get a day of rest in between each gym day—something you’ll definitely need because of the high-intensity involved.

Furthermore, there’s usually only a couple of big, main lifts each workout. So, things like the bench press, deadlifts, squats, pull-ups, and rows, make up the backbone of this routine. This is important because you’re going to need as much gas in the tank as possible for these lifts, and the reverse pyramid takes a lot of fuel. This also plays into our next point: training till (almost) failure.

Intensity and Training till Failure

The other aspect of reverse pyramid training is that the point is to go until you’ve got no more reps left in reserve, or at least very close to that point.

This is sometimes referred to as AMRAP (as many reps as possible) training since the goal is to gas out your target muscles completely. The reverse pyramid organization is well-suited for this since you’re able to keep squeezing out reps because the load is being reduced.

The research on AMRAP sets is spotty, at best. While there’s some research that shows that taking muscles to failure is conducive for muscle growth, there are several other studies that have shown there’s either no difference at all or the difference only matters for beginners. 

The case is probably that leaving a few reps in the tank is better, at least for intermediate lifters. However, there are scenarios where you might want to consider taking sets to the maximum.

One is that you might never actually know how close you’re getting to your limit if you don’t reach it at some point. Maybe we’ve been aiming for having 2 to 3 reps left in the tank but in actuality, there’s been several more. Pushing some of your sets to the limit will help you better gauge where you’re actually at. 

Another scenario where you might want to consider doing AMRAP is with smaller, isolation movements. While this doesn’t meld that well with reverse pyramid training itself (since that focuses on compound movements), it’s still a useful thing to keep in mind. Especially if you’re looking to complement your reverse pyramid heavy lifts with some isolation exercises afterward. 

The Reverse Pyramid Method for Muscle Gains

The reverse pyramid method is geared primarily towards intermediate lifters who’re stuck on a plateau or advanced-novice lifters at the lower end of the experience spectrum.

We’ll get more into the cons down below, but this is an extremely taxing way of working out. The point is to push your body like you haven’t been pushing it before—at least in terms of intensity. Volume is another topic entirely (which we’ll also explore later).

But the point is that beginners might want to steer clear of this type of routine, instead opting for straight sets.

Straight sets will give you more time underneath the bar, even if the intensity might not be as high. And beginners need to practice those movement patterns in order to progress and perfect their form. Furthermore, the extra volume in a straight set will also help a novice’s endurance and work capacity—a necessary ingredient if a beginner’s trying to progress.

Example Reverse Pyramid Routine

The reverse pyramid routine isn’t actually a routine—it’s a pattern. So, the way you approach the programming is entirely up to you, as long as you’re working out all the muscle groups you should be with enough volume. 

While the standard reverse pyramid routine is 3 days of full-body workouts per week, it can also be organized into a split where specific body parts are hit on each gym day.

While you don’t necessarily want to fatigue your muscles beforehand, warm-ups are as important as ever, so you’ll want to incorporate them as well.

This is how a general workout will look like when following the reverse pyramid approach:

  1. Do some warm-up sets first, but don’t let it get to the point where your muscles are fatigued. The goal here is just to get your blood pumping and muscles primed.
  2. The first set is called the “top set”, and this is what you’ll be racking up first. And as we already know, it’s going to be the heaviest.
  3. Once the weight’s been dropped, take a rest period so your heart rate returns to normal. This is a difference between reverse pyramids and drop sets—reverse pyramids assume that you’ll be able to get more reps in with reduced weight. For your big lifts, a break from 3 to 5 minutes will probably be optimal.
  4. After your rest, do the second working set.
  5. Finish the set, rest so your heart rate returns to normal, and then do your last (third) working set.
  6. The idea here is to push hard. Like, really hard. This is meant to be intense, and you’ll be wanting to push close to failure without reaching it. How close you reach is up to you. 

Below is a sample routine that you can use, or develop according to your goals. It is relatively bare-bones, and it would be a good idea to throw in some isolation movements to further develop your muscles:

Day One

Deadlift:

  • 4 to 6 reps for the first set
  • 6 to 8 reps for the second set
  • 8 to 10 reps for the third set

Chin-ups (weighted):

  • 6 to 8 reps for the first set
  • 8 to 10 reps for the second set
  • 10 to 12 reps for the third set

(Rest Day)

Day Two     

Bench press:

  • 6 to 8 reps for the first set
  • 8 to 10 reps for the second set
  • 10 to 12 reps for the third set

Push-ups:

  • 6 to 8 reps for the first set
  • 8 to 10 reps for the second set
  • 10 to 12 reps for the third set

(Rest Day)

Day Three

Squat:

  • 6 to 8 reps for the first set
  • 8 to 10 reps for the second set
  • 10 to 12 reps for the third set

Overhead press:

  • 6 to 8 reps for the first set
  • 8 to 10 reps for the second set
  • 10 to 12 reps for the third set 

(Rest Day)

The Benefits of the Reverse Pyramid Routine

If you’re not sure whether the above routine is right for you and your goals, we’ve made a pros and cons list down below. Some of these aspects have already been mentioned, but it’s worth bringing them up again.

The biggest benefit of reverse pyramid training is that all of your energy will go into the very first set. You want to be lifting heavy if you’re looking for strength gains, and a traditional straight set that has you going for a fixed number of reps can gas a lot of people out—especially towards the end. And the end is where it matters most.

While the high intensity and low volume in this type of routine might not be optimal for everyone (especially for beginners), it does provide some unique benefits that other routines don’t

Within the scope of progressive overload and periodization, the reverse pyramid method is posed to give you the best of both worlds. You don’t really have to worry about complex programming in order to get the periodization you need to progress, since you bang out a few heavy lifts, move onto lighter ones, and then you’re done.

Intensity and Cutting

We’ve been talking about intensity this entire time, but it’s worth saying again.

A reverse pyramid training program satisfies any need for intensity in a workout while also limiting how hard you can gas yourself out. This type of training is also pretty good for when you’re going through a cut.

Cutting is all about losing fat while retaining as much muscle and strength as possible. However, a cut usually means we need to dial back out lifting due to the nature of limiting calories and spending more time doing cardio. With reverse pyramid training, you’re able to retain that strength since you’re doing heavy lifts at the beginning of the workout—showing your body that it still needs that muscle mass.

Also, the speed of a reverse pyramid workout session will give you extra time for cardio if you need it….

A man doing squats in a gym.

Build Muscle and Strength Quick

Since reverse pyramids are focused on big, compound lifts, you’re going to be cutting through a lot of the BS. It’s the best bang for your buck training you can do, even if you do decide to add some isolation movements at the end of your workouts.

This type of training is all about efficiency. Three training sessions per week and they don’t have to be more than 45 minutes each. It’s a really quick way to challenge your muscles enough to elicit growth and development.

While it’s mostly focused on the intensity part of exertion, it also gives you a generally good mix of volume along with intensity.

The Cons of the Reverse Pyramid Routine 

Since this programming is particularly specialized, it’s bound to have several drawbacks that might cause certain lifters to avoid it. 

The biggest issue is the intensity/volume balance of the routine. While training till failure (or almost till failure) does have its benefits in certain circumstances, doing so at a high intensity is bad for recovery. Since recovery is essential, workouts can only really be done at a low frequency which limits the volume you can lift.

While this volume difference might not look too big in a single workout, it can really catch up to you in the long term. This is especially true when it comes to more advanced lifters who need the volume to drive progress. Gains come harder the more you’ve got, and at that level, the reverse pyramid scheme isn’t optimal.

The reverse pyramid routine isn’t that great for both pros and beginners.

Furthermore, it’s pretty mentally challenging. Going into a set or even a gym session with the knowledge that you’re going to have to push to failure on every set, can really make you dread working out. Especially for certain lifts (looking at you, squats), this might even affect your performance. Looking at a straight set that doesn’t need to be worked till failure is a much smaller mountain to climb.

Lastly, we’ve got the fact that this scheme isn’t conducive towards building muscular endurance, otherwise known as work capacity.

This is a necessary ingredient to improving your lifts, and it’ll only come with higher volumes. The minimalism of reverse pyramid training isn’t a great routine to hold for the long term if you’re looking for holistic strength gains.

Progressing with the Reverse Pyramid 

With reverse pyramid training, you’re always looking to push yourself into new territory to keep the gains flowing. In this context, pyramid training relies on a double progression system. This basically means you’ll be increasing the weight or the reps, preferably after each training session.

When you’re lifting and going as far as you can, the goal will be to hit the highest rep range for that set. So, for example, 6-8 reps for the first set. Once you get to the point where you reach 8 reps and can continue onwards, you’ll raise the weight slightly. The remaining sets will reflect this change with a slightly higher load while remaining around 10% lower than the set preceding.

This provides a guarantee that you’ll always be pushing your muscles into uncharted territory, and therefore, securing the gains.

And of course, if you’re looking to consolidate those gains, you’re going to have to have a solid nutritional and recovery foundation. Put all these pieces together and you’ll be plowing through plateaus and reaching new (pyramid) peaks before you know it.


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