Reverse Pyramid Training- Make Your Reps Count

I’m about to recommend the exact opposite of what 90% of fitness professionals recommend, but many consider my advice the best way to lift. This little nugget of info is a training style called reverse pyramid training. 

In reverse pyramid training, or RPT for short, you take the conventional approach to reps and sets and flip it on its head! 

This style was popularized by the kings of effective, efficient, and strength-focused workouts designed to enhance your physique: Martin Berkhan of Leangains, Greg O’Gallagher of Kinobody, Michael Mathews of Muscle For Life, and Radu Antoiu of Think Eat Lift.

Instead of starting with a set of, say 10 reps, and working down to a set of 4, gradually increasing weight…

… we will start with a set of 4 with the heaviest weight possible and work up to 10 reps, gradually decreasing weight.

In this post I will give you four reasons why you why you should use RPT and how exactly to implement it in your routine.

Reason 1) Lifting the heaviest weight you can while you’re still fresh

The primary driver of muscle growth is progressive tension overload. Basically, that is the ability to lift more and more weights over time, aka getting stronger.

Get stronger, and you will have bigger muscles. Period.

That said, you want to focus on a weightlifting routine that emphasizes strength gains. In standard pyramid-style lifting, a lifter completes a number of sets with increasing weight before starting the most important set- the ‘heavy set’.

When they get to the heavy set, they are fatigued from all the other sets. The fatigue limits their force-output and doesn’t allow the lifter to lift to their full potential.

In RPT, however, the lifter hits their heavy set first (after a warmup specific to the muscle group, of course). This allows them to lift to their fullest capacity and focus solely on adding more weight to the bar, which in turn will lead to muscle growth.

Reason 2) Built-in Periodization

I’ve touched on the necessity for periodization here, and I don’t want to rehash it now. But to reiterate what I said about RPT in that post:

RPT is a form of periodization called concurrent periodization. In this, a set of each exercise is done in the different rep ranges attributed to a different type of stimulus.

You will use a rep range of 4-6 for a strength-focused set, 6-8 as a hybrid set, and 8-10 for hypertrophy (pump)- focused set, and 10+ for muscular endurance.

This prevents “de-training”, or the loss of the adaptation you made in one phase (i.e. a hypertrophy phase) when you start making gains in another (i.e. a strength phase).

Another way of saying this is that you can make gains in all areas (strength, hypertrophy, endurance, etc.) at once.

Reason 3) The heavy set will allow you to make the most of the subsequent sets

The heavy set will be very intense and you will be trying to move the weight by all means (within the limits of proper form). This will force your body to use all the muscle fibers, local neurons, and central nervous system to get the job done.

After the taxing first set, your body will still be using all the muscle fibers and nerves that is called upon in the first set.

This is a stark contrast to what happens in regular pyramid training… your body is blasé blasé about the first few sets and you get very little out of it.

Reason 4) It is efficient on time

To get the muscle fiver activation and damage that induces the most adaptation via normal pyramid training you would have to do a multitude of sets just for the single impactful set. This is pretty time-consuming and it sucks.

With RPT, however, you hit that money-making set first thing. It’s done. It’s out-of-the-way. If you had to sprint out of the gym to tend to an emergency, your workout should still be considered a success.

The second set is pretty important just because you need the extra volume. The last set in RPT is just the cherry on top.

If you were pressed on time you could just stop at just two sets and still see results. The third set will just make your workout more phenomenal by giving you more pump.

Note that two sets isn’t ideal for muscle growth from a bulking perspective. But if you are trying to lose weight or want to get the best results for a minimal amount of time, it’s the way to go. (Read Fitness Advice for Busy Bureaucrats for more info on time-efficient and effective lifting.)

I digressed a bit here, but take away that the best way to lift in a time-efficient manner is to do RPT.

Sold on RPT yet? Good! This is how you do it:

  1. Warm up the muscle group you will be using. The key here is to prime your body for the lift without inducing fatigue. There’s no need to get hyper-analytical here; just try 5x 40% of heavy set weight, 5x 50%, and 3x 80%. Alternatively, try 5x 60%, 3x 75%, and 1x 90%, and see which one works better for you. Make sure that you focus on power in these warmups.
  2. The doing RPT for the first time, take your 5 RM (rep max) and use that for your first set. Aim for 4-6 reps.
  3. Rest for 3 minutes minimum. Take longer time if you need it, but 3 minutes should be enough rest without keeping you in the gym for too long.
  4. Decrease the weight by around 10% and perform 6-8 reps.
  5. Rest another 3 minutes.
  6. Decrease the weight by around 10% and perform 8-10 reps.
  7. rest another 3 minutes before continuing to your next exercise.

Simple enough, right?

Keep in mind that RPT is best suited for primary compound lifts. Think squats, deadlifts, bench press, weighted pull-ups, etc. Performing isolation exercises with RPT will be less effective than a straight set at 10 reps. High volume and low intensity suit isolation exercises better. Save RPT for the moneymaking exercises.

An immensely important part of RPT is to STOP BEFORE FAILURE and DON’T GRIND OUT REPS. RPT is an intense form of lifting. It can take a lot out of you if you don’t do it EXACTLY as I tell you. When you push lifts until failure your body can react by creating a state of overtraining, which will make your performance suffer. The same happens when you grind out a rep. Plus grinding reps is usually synonymous with shitty form, which is the reason for 75% of gym injuries. If you are only 50% sure you can perform the next rep, end the set.

Also, if you don’t know your 5 RM (or any RM for that matter) don’t worry. Just get under the bar at a weight you know will be a moderate challenge for 5 reps, get a spotter, and play it by ear. Better to go lower in weight than higher in weight to avoid injury.

That’s a wrap on what I have to say about RPT! I strongly encourage you to implement it in your routine. If you’d like help implementing it, or want a totally new and custom routine tailored to your exact goals, click here!

Comment below if you have any questions!

Share this post with anyone going about lifting in a suboptimal way. Spread this knowledge! You can be the person who gave them this catalyst to reach their dream physique 😉


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