Reverse Pyramid Training For More Strength Gains

What is the reverse pyramid and how to use it effectively.

Akash Vaghela Akash Vaghela · 20 Mar 2018

Training Intermediate
11 Mins

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If you’re not getting progressively stronger in the gym over time, your muscle building results will quickly come to a standstill.

Of all the methods I’ve used to gain strength and build more muscle, none come close to reverse pyramid training (RPT).

It’s a super simple method of progression that breaks through plateaus, keeps you motivated and most importantly, allows you to apply progressive overload with perfect form in your training.

What’s crazy is that I see very few people do it. In fact, most people do the exact opposite of what I’m going to explain here.

HOW TO USE REVERSE PYRAMID TRAINING 


The basic premise of RPT is the following:

  1. You warm up to your heaviest set of the day
  2. You reduce the weight, or ‘pyramid down’ to either stay in the rep range, or perform more reps

For example, let’s say today you need to bench press 3 sets of 6-8 with 100kg. There’s a few ways this might turn out:

Scenario #1: 100 x 8,8,8

All reps were completed, but only the last set was challenging.

Scenario #2: 100 x 8,7,6

Not everyone can handle multiple sets with the same weight in the same manner. Some will always drop off, no matter what. If this sounds like you, that last set will always come up short, and so relying on having to wait till you hit the top end of the rep range in order to progress your weight can be futile.

Scenario #3: 100 x 8,6,4

It’s likely that in this case the first set was an all out 8 rep max, which is why the drop off was so steep.

If you fall into scenario #1, you simply need to add weight.

If you fall into scenario #2 and #3, there’s a better way.

Instead of staying with the same weight, you should ‘reverse pyramid’ the weight down

In scenario #2, they probably could have gone a little heavier for set 1. A better approach would have been:

105 x 6-8, 100 x 6-8, 95 x 6-8

Or even 105 x 6-8, 100 x 6-8, 100 x 6-8

How you drop down is so individual as to how you handle multiple sets. The key with RPT is to work up to one top set, and then back down for your subsequent sets.

What you do on your subsequent sets will depend on your program. You can either reduce loading to stay within the same rep range, or you can train in a slightly higher one.

One of my favourite rep schemes is 2 sets of 5-7, 1 set of 8-10.

This applies perfectly to RPT, and if we took the above example into practice, it could work as follows:

100 x 5-7, 95 x 5-7, 85 x 8-10

I know many of you may be wondering how to progress this week-to-week, so I’ll give you a four week example block:

Week 1 – 105 x 7, 95 x 7, 85 x 10

The top end of the rep ranges were hit on every set, so we’re going to increase the loading next week.

Week 2 – 107.5 x 6, 97.5 x 6, 87.5 x 8

Reps dropped off, so we’ll keep it the same next week.

Week 3 – 107.5 x 6, 97.5 x 7, 87.5 x 9

There was some progression in two of the sets, but our main heavy set remained the same.

Week 4 – 107.5 x 7, 97.5 x 7, 87.5 x 10

All rep ranges were hit, so we’re good to add load next week.

When judging when to add load, I’d use the first set as your main driver of decision making here. However, if your first set is going up regularly, and your subsequent sets aren’t, it may be worth ‘milking’ the weight longer.

If you come to a point where you’re bottomed out on the rep ranges and can’t add any load or reps, that’s when it’s time to recycle the loads and re-start at the top of the rep range again, as explained here.

It’s that simple. So why does it work so well?


THE BENEFITS OF REVERSE PYRAMID TRAINING


1. You Perform Your Heaviest Set With No Fatigue


When using RPT, you have the advantage of being able to perform your heaviest sets when you’re most fresh. Everything is geared towards your top set, so it’s important you’re utilising an effective warm up strategy to maximise this.

If you’re working up to a 100kg bench press for a top set of 5-7, here’s how you could warm up:

Bar (20kg) x 10

40kg x 7

60kg x 5

80kg x 3

90kg x 1

Using this strategy minimises fatigue in your warm up sets and primes you for the sets that count.

This warm up strategy would apply to your first exercise of a muscle group. For the others, you can use 1-3 warm up sets, depending on the exercise and strength level.

In between warm up sets, take 30-60 seconds rest. Before your main set, and in between subsequent sets, take a full 2-4 minutes.

2. Your Focus Is On One ‘All Out’ Set


Since implementing RPT, I’ve found that mentally it’s a lot easier to approach your sessions knowing you have the opportunity to apply maximum effort to one top set.

Every time I advise a client to implement RPT into their training, it always flips a switch and allows them to mentally break through previous plateaus.

Whether it’s the reduced neural fatigue from not having to do repeated efforts at the same heavy weight, or the narrower focus in the training, either way – it works.

3. Your Subsequent Sets Feel Easier


The beauty of working up to one top heavy set is that your back off sets will feel so much lighter. During your heavy set, you’ll be able to maximally activate all muscle fibres.

On the contrary, when you sets with lighter weights, you’ll only recruit all the muscle fibres in the last few reps close to, or at failure.

When using RPT, you’ll train yourself into a heightened state of activation, so the weights used in the back off sets may feel suspiciously easy. And you’ll now be able to extract more from these sets than if you did them beforehand.

4. It Works Great When Dieting


The number one determinant of muscle retention when dieting is strength. One of the best ways to maintain load on the bar when dieting is to use RPT. I’ve seen it time and time again, and used it throughout my last bodybuilding prep. It works especially well when body fat gets really low and energy levels are dwindling, as the singular focus on one top set ensures intensity is kept high.

5. Break Mental Barriers With New Weights


What I love about RPT is the ability to really challenge yourself and step into new territories of loading.

For example, I was stuck on 50kg dumbbell presses for a few months. I just couldn’t get past 50kg for 9 reps until the gym owner brought in a pair of 55s.

In previous sessions, I’d perform max reps on 50kg, then drop down to 45 or 47.5 and do the same.

Since getting the new dumbbells, I’m now using 55kg for my top set of 5-7, and now working the 50kg in a higher rep range.

If I had to do all the sets with the 55s, I think I’d have psyched myself out mentally. This happens with many lifters, but if you think about just going up in weight for one set, you’ll begin to unlock new PRs.

MISTAKES MOST PEOPLE MAKE WITH REVERSE PYRAMID TRAINING


1. Traditional Pyramids


I’ve never really understood why so many people in the gym perform such high reps in their ‘warm up’ sets, or utilise traditional pyramid rep schemes.

If you go into any gym, you’ll see the above 100kg bench press example performed like this:

Bar x 15
40 x 12
60 x 10
80 x 8
90 x 6
100 x 3-4

The problem with this is you’re performing your ‘money sets’ under fatigue. This might be fine you’re strong already and looking for ways to minimise joint stress, but for 99% of people, it’s only short-circuiting your strength and muscle building gains.

2. Performing Easy, Submaximal Sets


This is similar to the ‘scenario #1’ I outlined at the start of this article. If your workout calls for 3 sets of 6-8, and you always complete the top end of rep range while never dropping off, you’re just not pushing yourself enough.

You can’t pace yourself during your workouts like that. No one built significant amounts of muscle coasting through sessions.

3. Performing Every Set To Failure


On the other hand, you have the lifters who take every single set to failure. Every rep of every set is a grind.

I used to be that guy. If the workout called for 3 sets of 8, I’d use my 8 rep max for each set, and rest-pause my way to complete all the reps.

It’s no wonder I was always burnt out, injured and never made any strength gains. The problem with this type of grinding is that you create a ton of neural fatigue. Recovery becomes an issue, and plateaus come round rapidly.

Instead, it’s better to perform your sets in a ‘clean’ fashion and pick only one of your sets to go hell for leather on.

CONCLUSION


If you’re stuck at a plateau using traditional straight set training, give reverse pyramids a go.

I’ve been a strong advocate of this style of training since 2013, and believe it’s the best way to continue making strength gains in the gym beyond your beginner years.
Akash VaghelaAkash Vaghela

Akash Vaghela has spent 10+ years transforming bodies and lives around the world, and in May 2017, founded RNT Fitness to serve this purpose. His vision is to see a world transformed, where ambitious high performers experience the power of the physical as the vehicle to unlock their real potential. He’s the author of the Amazon best-sellilng book Transform Your Body Transform Your Life, which explains his unique and proven five-phase methodology, is host of the RNT Fitness Radio podcast, has been featured in the likes of Men’s Health and BBC, whilst regularly speaking across the world on all things transformation.

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