‘Three Day Split RPT’ Routine
Squats, Deadlifts, Bench press, Chins – Think you can’t get big with just these four? Tell that to Martin Berkhan.
Reverse Pyramid Training Explained
What is it?
RPT is a style of set-rep pattern where the trainee puts their heaviest set first, then ‘pyramids down’ to a lighter weight, usually with more reps for the latter sets. It is best suited to the main compound movements (the squat, deadlift, bench press, etc.).
It’s a very time-efficient training style, but it requires very high intensity. It was made popular by Martin Berkhan of Leangains.com who you can see picture above.
Who is it for?
Very high intensity is required to get the desired training effect from the, usually, abbreviated routines. It is not suited to novices who are at greater risk of their form breaking down when pushing close to failure. A straight set-routine (where the weight is kept consistent across all sets) like 5×5 will me much more suitable and effective for these people. If this is you, my suggested routine is The Big 3 Routine or one of it’s variants.
When can it be used?
It can be very effective in either a cut or a bulk. The low volume makes it particularly suited to a cut. The theory on that is as follows:
The goal of the experienced trainee when cutting is merely to maintain muscle mass while they are burning the fat off. -> Under calorie deficit circumstances recovery capacity is lower. -> Training volume is best reduced to match the reduction in recovery capacity. This helps avoid the negative systemic stress effects of too high a workload, which prevents you from experiencing undue soreness and regressing in your training. Yes, I’m talking about getting weaker and potentially losing muscle.
Unnecessary accessory work is therefore not used/removed.
Reverse Pyramid Training, How-To Guide
RPT In A Nutshell:
- Do warm-up sets, gradually working up to around 80% of your ‘top set’ load.
- Put the heaviest working set (aka. the top set) first.
- Drop the weight, rest and do the second working set.
- Drop the weight, rest and do the third working set.
- Rest and move onto the next exercise.
- Push HARD. Do as many reps as you can without reaching failure.
‘Failure’ is defined as the point at which a rep can no longer be completed with good form. You never want to go to form failure with the compound movements because that is where injuries happen. Occasionally it may occasionally happen without your planning – that is what the safety pins (or a spotter) are for when squatting and benching, or the bumper plates and padding on the floor for, when deadlifting.
What does it look like?
RPT is a set-rep pattern, not any specific workout. However, RPT does have popular routine incarnations. One such incarnation is this three day split.
Example using a 3-day split:
2. Weighted Chin-ups
2. Overhead Press
How To Progress
RPT uses a double progression system. So that means the target is to increase either the weight or reps, if you can, at each session. There are rules for doing so.
- For the first workout you likely need to guess at how heavy you should load the bar so that your maximum effort is within the target rep range.
- Let’s say that this week you get 7 reps with 100kg and your target rep range was 6-8 reps. The next week you’re going to stay with 100kg and try to hit 8 reps. If you do that then increase the weight slightly (102.5kg) and try to get 6 reps or more the following workout.
- If you fail to get the minimum required number or reps at any point in time, reduce the weight.
- For your second and third sets, your target rep rage will be a couple of reps higher. Because of this, and the cumulative fatigue of the previous set(s) you will need to reduce the weight on the bar. 10-15% is a ballpark figure for this.
|Example squat progression, target rep ranges 6-8, 8-10, 10-12:
Note that some weeks the weight went up for the back-off sets but not in the “top-set” and vice versa. This is normal.
Adjust all sets independently of each other. The ~10-15% reduction that I’ve suggested is just a guide for your first workout. (If you need to reduce it more or less that doesn’t mean there is anything wrong!) From that point onward you want to adjust your subsequent sets independently as you would for that top set.
Keep the other training circumstances the same, particularly time, and keep rest intervals strict.
For the chin-ups, always keep a full range, keep it slow and smooth. Chin-ups may be very tough at first, that’s fine. Band-assisted chin-ups are a good option until you have built up the strength to do full-reps, as is jumping up and holding yourself in the top position and fighting gravity until it takes you down for as long as you can. – This way you will train both ends of the rep range. Eventually you’ll want to add weight. I have full example progressions here.
Pros, Cons and FAQs of RPT Training
What I like about RPT
- Quick & effective.
- Satisfies the need for intensity without allowing certain personality types from hammering themselves too hard.
- Cuts through the crap & focuses on the exercises that will give the trainee the most bang for their buck.
Drawbacks of RPT
- Not suited for the beginner, but every beginner wants to do it because they feel it’s advanced therefore cool. Form needs to be very good to avoid injury when pushing to rep-maxes.
- Your ‘maximum‘ is highly influenced by gym your gym atmosphere/surroundings. One of my best squat workouts ever was with Dorian Yates sitting on the leg press machine three feet behind me, staring at me, waiting for his rack to become available. Maximum is relative and variable, and it’s too easy for people to pussy out before they truly can’t do any more reps.
- Mentally the workouts are very tough, and knowing you need to push to a max for every set, especially on squat day for example, can lead to people dreading their workouts. This extra mental drain can lead to unnecessary stress and sub-optimal performance. Fixed set-rep patterns (5 sets of 5 for example) without the requirement for failure can be better. And I find myself recommending these more and more, regardless of the level of trainee.
Do I have to stick to those exercises above?
No, that is just an example. Front Squats, Rack Pulls, Pull-ups, Row variations. Basically, multi-joint/compound exercises that lend themselves well to incremental loading are all fine.
What is a good warm-up?
You want to do the minimum that you can to get warm and ready for the top set, without tiring yourself for your main work sets. I’ve covered this in detail in the FAQ in the section, WARM-UP: What should I do?
Please feel free to confirm your thoughts on what a suitable warm-up is by reading that link. However if you have no idea at all then it’s likely you don’t have enough lifting experience for RPT to be suited to you at the moment.
Can I do pull-downs instead of chin-ups?
You can, but they are not as effective. Do not use them if you have a chinning-bar available. In my experience people work a lot harder when then have to do chin-ups rather than pull-downs, probably because their efforts (or lack of) are more public.
Is the omission of dips from Martin’s original template purposeful?
Yes. Dips are a great chest and tricep developer, and it feels awesome to have a couple of plates clanging between your legs as you knock out a few sets of 8, but the risk-reward ratio is skewed in the wrong direction I feel.
What I mean is, it’s very easy to cause yourself an injury by with this exercise, especially as you start adding a lot of weight. (It puts the humeral head in a position far past neutral).
When there are safer alternatives that are equally effective (pushups, the close-grip bench press), I see no point in taking the risk with dips. I no longer do them myself, and I no longer recommend them to clients.
Got any lifting videos/resources?
Best Book: ‘Starting Strength 3rd Edition’ by Mark Rippetoe. It will teach you all about form.
Other Videos: Type any exercise you’re looking for into Youtube along with any of the following names and you can be sure it’ll be good: Mark Rippetoe / Eric Cressey / Tony Gentilcore / Bret Contreras / Jordan Syatt
Martin Berkhan has an excellent article on RPT. It can be found on Leangains.com, ‘Reverse Pyramid Training Revisted‘.
Why does this conflict with the advice of [coach X]?
You will find conflicting advice all over the internet because there are many different ways to reach the same end with training. Every routine has its pros and cons, suitability depends on context. RPT and the routine above is just one way of doing things. It’s not suitable for all people, at all times. Though different coaches have their own preferences and reasoning, the principles of effective training routines remain the same. A big one is, The Principle Of Progressive Overload, which is a guest article by my colleague and friend, Strength and Conditioning coach Naoki Kawamori.
How do I know when I should use a full split routine like the one in the example above?
Great question, this is covered in the article, Which Routine Is For Me?.
Got it, now how do I put together a nutrition plan to go with this?
I’ve put all the diet guides in one place. This includes, How to Calculate Your Calories, How to Calculate Your Macros, Optimal Meal Timing, Calorie & Carb Cycling, Supplements (which I’m not a fan of), and How to Track your Progress. Basically, everything you need.
Continue to -> Diet Guides