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.
RPT is a very time-efficient training style, but requires very high intensity. It was made popular by Martin Berkhan of Leangains.com (picture above).
Who is it for?
Due to the very high intensity necessary to get the desired training effect from the abbreviated routine, considerable lifting experience is required to pull it off effectively and thus it is not suited to beginners (more thorough explanation and suggested routine here).
When can it be used?
RPT can be used in a cut or a bulk and can be very effective in either case. The low volume makes it particularly suited to a cut. Theory:
The goal of the experienced trainee when cutting is merely to maintain muscle mass while burning the fat off. -> Under calorie deficit circumstances recovery capacity from workouts is lower. -> Training volume is best reduced to match the reduction in recovery capacity to avoid the negative systemic stress effects of too high a workload, which can have negative repercussions on diet progress (strength & muscle maintenance, mood, soreness and body composition).
Unnecessary accessory work is therefore not used/removed.
Reverse Pyramid Training – How to Guide
Reverse Pyramid Training 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, go to failure.
- Drop the weight, rest and do the second working set. Go to one rep short of failure but still push yourself REALLY HARD.
- Drop the weight, rest and do the third working set. Again, go to one rep short of failure.
- Rest and move onto the next exercise.
What does it look like?
RPT is a set-rep pattern, not any specific workout. However, RPT does have popular routine incarnations.
Example using a 3-day split:
2. Weighted Chin-ups
2. Overhead Press
How To Progress
RPT uses a double progression system. The target is to increase either the weight or reps, but there are strict rules for doing so.
- For the first workout, choose the weight here you think you will ‘fail’ in the target rep range.
- Let’s say that this week you get 7 reps with 100kg and your target rep range was 6-8. 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, reduce the weight.
|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” is just a guide for your first workout. From that point onward you want to adjust your subsequent sets independently as you would for that top set.
‘Failure’ is where you can no longer get another rep with perfect form, not where you can no longer lift the weight. For chin-ups, it’s where you can no longer get a full rep out.
Keep the other training circumstances the same, particularly time, and keep rest intervals strict.
Chin-up progression (weighted/band-assisted). 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. Eventually you’ll want to add weight. Full example progressions here.
Pros, Cons and FAQs
What I like about RPT
- Quick & effective.
- Satisfies the need for intensity without allowing certain personality types from hammering themselves too hard due to the lower volume.
- Cuts through the crap & focuses on the exercises that will give the trainee the most bang for your 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 or near.
- A persons ‘maximum‘ and thus failure point is highly influenced by gym atmosphere/surroundings. One of my best squat workouts ever was with Dorian Yates sitting on the leg press machine, staring at me, waiting for his rack to become available. Maximum is therefore 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 here.
Do I have to stick to those exercises above?
No, that is just an example. Front Squats, Rack Pulls, Dips (weighted/assisted), Pull-ups, Row variations. Basically, multi-joint/compound exercises that lend themselves well to incremental loading.
What is a good warm-up?
Regardless of the routine, you’ll 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, WARM-UP: What should I do?
Please feel free to confirm your thoughts on a warm-up above. However if you have no idea at all about this it’s likely you don’t have enough lifting experience for RPT to be suited to you.
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 they don’t want to be seen to fail.
Got any lifting videos/resources?
Best Book: ‘Starting Strength 3rd Edition’ by Mark Rippetoe. It will teach you 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 wrote an excellent article on RPT. It can be found here.
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. The principles of effective training routines remain the same however. (See article, The Principle Of Progressive Overload.)
How do I know when I should use a full split routine like the one in the example above?
Covered in the article, How to Progress from ‘The Big 3′ to Split Routines.
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, How to Track your Progress, basically everything you need.
Continue to -> Diet Guides