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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Fitness Advice for a Busy Bureaucrat (and other busy professionals)

So I’m writing this post on Fathers Day, and its fitting that my dad is the inspiration behind this. He’s a hard-working public servant (aka bureaucrat) that doesn’t have much time to devote to health and fitness, especially in the oft-extremest manner many other ‘experts’ would prescribe. With all the “no days off”, “go all in”, and “live in the gym” notions flying around, its pretty derailing when you can barely string together a continuous hour of free time.

I’m a little afraid too. When I have a 9-5, kids, a half-hour commute, and a house to maintain, will I have time to stay in shape? Will I have time to ensure I hit my macros and the gym?

Luckily, I have some tips to make getting (and staying) in shape a breeze, even for busy professionals and parents!


As we know by now, being in shape (in terms of physique) comes down to two things: hitting your macros and exercising the key muscle groups. Let’s break this thing down into two sections then.

Hitting Macros

There are many different strategies and foods to eat for health, but for manipulating body fat and weight they are all largely irrelevant.

If you eat at restaurants most of the time, then find the nutrition data of your favorite meals at those restaurants. Easy-peasy.

If you have meals cooked for you, and you don’t know the exact macros, check out my macro estimating guide. This comes in handy when you’re eating a home cooked meal from your spouse, at a restaurant with no nutrition data, or at that office party.

One tip: stick to simple food that you are used to eating. That makes eyeballing the amounts easier.

What if you don’t eat out every day, have someone to cook for you, or want to be as accurate as possible with your tracking?

Enter: meal prepping

For busy folks, meal prepping will be an easy way to ensure proper intake with minimal time. All you need is one day to cook for the entire week!

(Sorry, you may be giving up a Sunday. If it gives you an hour of rest during your hectic work days, is it worth it?)

Look at your plan for the next week, day by day, and think of recipes for each day.

You can get as simple or complex as you want. It will be easier to just make a week’s worth of baked chicken and potato wedges. Simply take your normal recipe and multiply it by however many meals it’ll take to hit your macros.

If you want to shake it up (and you should a little to diversify your micros), you can still do that in an easy way.

Literally just pick 4 different proteins/preparations, 4 different carbs sources/preparations, use a few different oils, and mix it all up!

For example: cook up some baked chicken breasts, pork loin, sautéed chicken and veggies, 93% lean ground beef scrambled with veggies, (lightly) fried potatoes, potato wedges, a sweet potato/large russet for baking, and brown rice. That yields 16 meal combos you can make, and you made it all on one day.

Depending on what you make, you can flash freeze, refrigerate, or even elect not to cook. For instance, I just prepare many of my recipes and keep in the fridge. Then when I want to cook it I save time by having preparation already done. This is actually my preferred way so that I eat a freshly cooked meal. It seems that the preparation is more burdensome than cooking, anyway.

 

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Hitting the gym

I always preach the minimal effective dose for the gym. There’s always a law of diminishing returns, and that law comes to fruition when folks to a million sets of a billion reps with like 10 exercises for the same muscle group. You’d spend like a decade per day in the gym to complete this lift. You may have been led to think that this is the way to make any gains at all.

I usually advise to have lifts at an hour and a half, tops (including warm up, stretches, mobility, and extra rest time if needed) and I regularly finish 15 minutes before that limit. For a busy person, I bet you can cut that time in half! All you need to do is focus on the exercises that hit the muscle groups you want to develop.

To maintain an attractive and capable body, you only need a weekly rotation of 6 movements at a time.

For example a week’s workout could look like this:

(3 sets each with 3 minutes of rest, done RPT-style, excluding warmup sets)

Monday:  Weighted pull-ups , barbell rows
Wednesday: Squat, deadlift
Friday: Bench press, standing overhead press

Of course, this is lacking a lot of accessory exercises and a lot of volume for sarcoplasmic gains (read this article for more info on sarcoplasmic gains, and when and how to add volume). Your physique won’t be optimized per se, but you will build/maintain a solid foundation of strength and lean muscle mass. If your body fat is low enough, you will see great muscle definition and

This super-minimalist routine will provide a good starting point if you find a way to free up more time in your day.

Don’t spend any time in the gym doing stretching and mobility work aside from a quick cool down. Rather, use stretching and mobility to get your blood flowing during work and when you’re at home. Pepper it in those random ~5 minute breaks you have throughout the day. You know, those breaks that are somewhat annoying because there isn’t enough time to get anything done or truly relax. That way you can truly optimize your minutes instead of sitting in limbo.

I don’t have many specific recommendations for what to stretch other than to stretch what feels tight; however, I highly recommend for every one hour seated, spend one minute in a deep hip flexor stretch for each side. I mean DEEP.

Humans aren’t supposed to sit for 8 hours a day, and doing so leads to tight and weak hip flexors that will wreak havoc on your power output, mobility, and physique.

Lastly, for cardio, simply consider walking. An hour of brisk walking can burn 400 calories for an average-built man. Walking can be a substitute for a taxi ride, can be capitalized on during your commute, and already occurs when you get groceries or walk your dog.

Walking is also so low-intensity that you can stack activities with it. For instance, you can have a long phone call as you stroll around your building. You can listen to an audiobook as you walk to and from work. Heck, you can even break open the pocketbook for a treadmill desk so you can work regularly whilst walking!


There you have it, you big-time moneymakers! Getting in shape in a time-starved schedule takes some adjusting and some rounded corners, but it can be done. Don’t let anyone convince you that you need to spend 2 hours in the gym or to spend all your downtime over a stove.

For nutrition, you will front load the work for the entire week and use some eyeballing strategies to hit your macros.

For lifting, you will focus on 6 key lifts that most of my advice, recommended programs, and programs in development are predicated on anyway. You will just miss out on the icing on the cake.

Your will sprinkle in stretching and mobility work throughout your day as you see fit. Be sure to get 1 minute of a deep hip flexor stretch (each side) for every hour of sitting.

Finally, integrate walking into your day and reap the benefits of stacking activities.

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A Primer on Periodization + My Favorite Methods

Stand aside kettlebells. I’m all about that barbell action

Strength training is a non-negotiable when improving your physique and a huge plus when improving your health.

However, the strength training world can be like a jungle full of intimidating factors. Hell, even going to the gym in the first place is intimidating for many!

Yet another intimidating factor is every other lifter trying to push information on you regarding fitness and nutrition.  While this may be good natured, or whether what they are saying is correct or not, it doesn’t matter if you are burdened or confused by what is being talked about. It adds an unnecessary level of woe.

One such nugget of information is the concept of periodization. You may have heard that word tossed around, but you haven’t the slightest idea what it is.

Or maybe you’ve been lifting for a while and are aware of what periodization is, but you opt to ignore it in favor of constant repetition (using the same sets and reps over time). After all, periodization is confusing, right? Is it not reserved for personal training clients, elite athletes, or professional bodybuilders and powerlifters?

Setting up a periodization model with all the associated math, etc. would take up too much time in your schedule! After all, you don’t want to live in the gym; your life doesn’t revolve around fitness!

The alternative to periodization is called constant repetition. Constant repetition is easy and it allows for respectable gains (especially in beginners). In constant repetition, you simply add a small amount of weight or a single rep each workout. It is a very easy plan to follow, and is ideal for emphasizing the most important factor in building muscle: progressive tension overload (just like in reverse pyramid training which is a form of periodization on its own).

Unfortunately, this will inevitably lead to a plateau or even a loss of strength. This is a result of overtraining (aka under-recovering, a more accurate term). If constant repetition worked perfectly, and plateaus never occurred, everyone would be able to bench 315, squat 500, and deadlift a freakin million, all for reps, and within a year or two from the start of training.

Head up fam! I gotchu with the info

Fortunately, there is a way to minimize plateaus. That, my friend, is the one thing you think you don’t have the time or mental energy for: periodization.

Periodization can keep your gains moving forward by minimizing or breaking through plateaus.
Also, keep in mind that there are both simple ways and complicated ways to implement a periodization strategy.

The complicated ways work well for people who basically live in the gym and whose job it is to train others. The complicated way is effective for sure, but at what cost to you- someone who doesn’t want their life to be consumed by lifting?

Of course, you could spend money to have a trainer set everything for you, but that’s not the route for everybody. Plus, complicated periodization is a long-term plan; what if you or a loved one gets sick, your car breaks down, you have a big project at work, or have some other reason you can’t make it to the gym? That would throw the whole program off!

So, is there a way to train self-sufficiently, benefit from the simplicity of constant repetition, and still enjoy the effectiveness of periodization?

In this post I hope to teach you a few things. The first are some common models of periodization, and the last two are periodization models that I recommend for simplicity and effectiveness.


What is periodization, anyway?

Periodization is simply cycling of any of the variables in lifting (intensity, volume, tempo, etc.) in a planned manner.

You may hear some other terms related to periodization as well: macrocycle, mesocycle, and microcycle. A macrocycle is the big picture- the plan for about an entire year. A mesocycle is the period of 3-4 months. A microcycle is usually within a single month.

There are three main types of periodization: linear, block, and daily undulating (DU), and one less talked about one: concurrent periodization.

Linear Periodization

The most popular periodization model is linear periodization. With this model, you are gradually increasing intensity (weight lifted) and decreasing volume (reps performed) For example, lets tale a month of training and divide it into 4 weeks. In weeks 1, 2, and 3, you lower the number of reps as you increase the weight lifted. Week 4 is called a deload week, and you drop the intensity to what you did in week 1, but only perform half of the volume. This is your recovery period. In week 5, which is actually week 1 for the following month, you will do the same volume as you did in week 1 but with slightly higher intensity. From there, you increase intensity and lower volume with weeks 2 and 3, then deload in week 4. After the deload, repeat the process again.

Block Periodization

The second of the common types is block periodization. With this, you have blocks of  three months (for example). Each month has a certain theme of training: work capacity and endurance, strength, deload, and for athletes, prehab/rehab.

With block periodization, you start by building up your work capacity by greatly increasing the volume you do for a specific exercise while keeping the intensity the same. Otherwise known as the volume accumulation phase, it sets the stage for rapid muscle growth in the strength phase that comes next.

In the second phase, you drop volume and build up intensity. Your body will overcompensate due to the great work capacity you built up in the accumulation phase, and you will experience strength gains very quickly. At a certain point, you will peak, and then start your deload. The process starts over again in the accumulation phase, but this time with more weight than before.

Daily Undulating Periodization

Daily undulating periodization (DU) is basically block periodization condensed into a single week. There is usually a power-focused phase added as well.

For instance, Monday may be a day dedicated to hypertrophy and work capacity with higher volume and lower intensity. Wednesday may be a day dedicated to power with low volume, moderate intensity, and a fast tempo (time to complete a rep). Lastly, Friday may be a day dedicated to strength with low volume and high intensity. The drawback here is that you would have to perform full body lifts each day to fit in all the muscle groups, and that may get taxing over time.

Concurrent Periodization

Finally, we have concurrent periodization. In this, you have multiple phases of muscle growth in the same workout. For instance, you may have power, strength, hypertrophy, and endurance, all for the same exercise and on the same day.

Whenever you see a program with one muscle group being trained in different rep ranges in the same workout, then that workout is employing concurrent periodization. The idea behind this is to not regress in any of the phases because you are consistently training each.

When you do reverse pyramid training (RPT), and each set is in a different rep range (i.e. 1-4, 4-6, 6,8, etc.) then you are doing concurrent periodization.  Concurrent periodization (or RPT for that matter) can give the illusion of being a constant repetition model if you are either slightly increasing intensity or volume each week. Just like DU periodization, though, this can get pretty taxing if you don’t take recovery seriously.


So, what would I recommend for simplicity and effectiveness?

When it comes down to it, periodization can do one of two things that constant repetition can’t: reduce the chances of overtraining, and cause supercompensation for strength gains.

It does this by avoiding the repeated bout effect, which happens when a muscle responds less and less when it is subjected to the same stimulus over and over again. We aren’t sure what exactly causes this, but it could be neurologically based, connective tissue based, cell based, or even psychologically based. It is the repeated bout effect that causes plateaus the vast majority of the time.

Understanding this reason for plateaus, we can take the principles of periodization and bend them to fit in with a constant repetition model. By doing this we can milk as much strength gains as possible while avoiding plateaus.

There is a model of periodization that I recommend for each of the two primary set schemes I consistently follow: RPT and straight sets. Both involve something I call intuitive periodization, in which the timing of the periodization relies heavily on your body’s feedback rather than what is decided upon at the start of the workout program.

Deuces plateaus. Can’t say I’ll miss ya
Periodizing with RPT

For intuitive periodization with an RPT-dominant workout program, remember that you are doing concurrent periodization already. Assuming you don’t grind out reps or take sets to failure, you may not need to deload as often as you would with other set schemes (meaning you may hit plateaus less often). However, you will inevitably plateau on your strength set (your 4-6 set for example), and then you will essentially use block periodization.

Because of its RPT’s high intensity and low volume nature, it would benefit nicely from a volume accumulation phase like that of block periodization. I recommend once you stall in your strength set (4-6 rep range) 2 weeks in a row with RPT, switch to a higher volume and lower intensity set scheme.

5×6 with a straight set progression model should do the trick. Or you could stick to RPT but use higher rep ranges.

Straight Set

When switching to straight sets (SS), start with a 15% drop from your plateau weight. Complete all the reps at the same weight. If you fail a rep in your last set, then complete that rep next workout. If you fail a rep in a set that isn’t your last set, lower the weight for all remaining sets. Finally, if you complete all the reps in all the sets, increase the weight by the smallest amount possible.

Do this for 6-8 weeks, then return to RPT in the normal rep ranges. You will see the supercompensation effect lead to rapid strength gains here.

RPT

You could also stick to an RPT set scheme but in the higher rep ranges. For example, you should drop the weight 15% from your plateau weight and do 6-8 reps, then do 8-10, then do 10-12. This will save you time, as 5×6 will take longer. It will also let you stick to whatever progression model you were doing with RPT before the switch to higher reps.

However, sometimes you may just want to switch up the set scheme for no reason other than novelty; the decision to do so is totally yours and most likely won’t matter on a physical level.

Another IMPORTANT factor

Switch exercises as you change phases if you choose to (i.e. barbell bench press for dumbbell bench press). Switching exercises will help you hit different stabilizers (small yet important muscles) or challenge you in a novel way (using weighted chains/resistance bands on a barbell instead of weighted plates). This will also help you break through a plateau. I highly recommend it, and for most, it is even a necessity.

Note: RPT is a scarcely studied set scheme, and all periodization studies (to my knowledge) use anything but RPT. While I have no scientific evidence backing this up, I have principle-based reasoning and anecdotal evidence, which is still very useful.

Periodizing with Straight Sets

If you are following a primarily straight set schemed program, then linear progression is the simplest method to follow. Follow exactly what I wrote earlier in this post. The only thing that makes this intuitive is the fact that instead of doing a deload week in regular intervals, you will do a deload week whenever you have subjective feelings of fatigue.  If you are fully recovered from last week’s workout, there is no need to do a deload- even if you had one planned. Let your body guide you.

You may also want to employ a volume accumulation phase with straight sets as well. For this, you simply bump the reps up and lower the weight for 6-8 weeks; no need to change rep schemes. Progress following a straight set loading model or linear periodization model (just like you. Feel free to change the exercise between phases too.


Well, there you have it! Those are some of the common forms of periodization, and my favorite ways to periodize. Next time you hear some of the aforementioned buzzwords tossed around your gym, hopefully you’ll have an baseline idea of what everyone is talking about.

If you liked the way my periodization method looked, then feel free to try it!

I will be writing more posts explaining other methods I use and concepts I apply, all intended to be maximally effective for a relatively minimal effort, so subscribe and check back often!

If there are any other topics you’d like to see or any questions you might have, let me know in the comments! I’d love to hear from you.

Finally, note that this is a young blog. Any underlined terms in this article are topics I wish to elucidate in future blog posts, and then link to this post for your convenience. They will also be links to scientific articles when applicable. I appreciate your patience!

 

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