Using Reverse Pyramid Training to build strength and muscle

So, it’s been a good year. You started lifting weights seriously after the New Year, focusing on the big ones all the powerlifters like (Back Squat, Deadlift, Bench Press, & Overhead Press). For those first six months, your numbers shot through the roof and you convinced yourself that competitive lifting is right around the corner! Your maxes doubled in half a year; how long can it take to hit a 600# deadlift and 500# squat?!

And then in June, your numbers stopped jumping. You added another ten pounds or so to your Bench Press and maybe 15-20 lbs to your bigger lifts but the doubling stopped. You’ve hit the end of the newbie gains cycle. Your dreams are dashed. Everything is terrible!

Okay, not really. When you start lifting, most of the gains you make are neurological. Your brain learns how to better use the muscles, recruiting more fibers to do the work you ask them to do. Once you’ve gotten good enough, the amount of muscle fibers you can recruit is maxed out, so the only way to get stronger at the lift is to build bigger muscles. This is where hypertrophy comes in, and the novice lifting program you’ve been working with doesn’t work so well for that anymore.

Reverse Pyramid Training

A lot of programs have you work from low to high weights during your workout, so that your heaviest lifts happen at the very end after some volume of lower weight lifts. There’s a downside: you’re tired! When you’re tired, you can’t use your muscles as well and you’re not as strong. RPT takes this fact and runs with it, reversing the typical lifting cycle so that you start with the heaviest lifts first and then work downward. Every step down lowers the weight and increases the reps, so you get good volume while working at a relatively intense weight.

Each session is 4-5 warm-up sets and 3 working sets. Here’s my favorite split…

Warm-up Sets (1-2 minutes between)

  • Set 1: 5 reps at unloaded barbell
  • Set 2: 5 reps at unloaded barbell
  • Set 3: 6 reps at 40% of working weight
  • Set 4: 5 reps at 60% of working weight
  • Set 5: 4 reps at 80% of working weight

Working Sets (4-5 minutes between)

  • Set 1: 6-8 reps at 100% working weight
  • Set 2: 8-10 reps at 90% working weight
  • Set 3: 10-12 reps at 80% working weight

Why the rep ranges? I’m glad you asked!

Strength, Size, or Both

Your muscles respond differently at different rep ranges as long as the weight you’re lifting is appropriate for that range. In RPT, you choose your main focus and then plan your workouts according to that focus. It should be noted that no matter which focus you pick, the second and third working sets will include a reduction in weight to allow for the higher reps. If we consider Set 1 to be 100% working weight, then Set 2 will be 90% working weight, and Set 3 will be 80% working weight.

Example:

  • Set 1: 100#
  • Set 2: 90#
  • Set 3: 80#

Strength

Training for absolute strength requires lower reps at higher percentages of your 1RM. Your rep ranges are…

  • Set 1: 2-3 reps
  • Set 2: 3-4 reps
  • Set 3: 4-5 reps

Size

For adding muscle mass, we want a workout that has higher reps and relatively less weight to increase the time under load. Your rep ranges are…

  • Set 1: 6-8 reps
  • Set 2: 8-10 reps
  • Set 3: 10-12 reps

Hybrid

Since the Hybrid training tries to serve both training needs, we work in the middle rep ranges at a moderate weight. This adds more strength than a size-focus routine and more muscle growth than a strength-focus routine, but the gains in each are smaller than if you had specialized. The rep ranges are…

  • Set 1: 4-6 reps
  • Set 2: 6-8 reps
  • Set 3: 8-10 reps

Finding Starting Working Weight

You will start at a specific percentage of your 1-rep max depending on your focus…

  • Strength – Working weight should be 85% of 1RM in your first RPT session
  • Size – Working weight should be 70% of 1RM in your first RPT session
  • Hybrid – Working weight should be 77.5% of 1RM in your first RPT session

Routine Example with Warm-up Sets

My current training plan focuses on powerlifting movements. I train Back Squat, Deadlift, Overhead Press, Bench Press, and Chin-ups each week on a two day split. I train every Monday, Wednesday, & Friday which means I do each day three times in each two week period.

Training Day 1: Back Squat, Deadlift, Overhead Press

Training Day 2: Back Squat, Chin-up, Bench Press

  • Week 1
    • Mon = TD 1
    • Wed = TD 2
    • Fri = TD 1
  • Week 2
    • Mon = TD 2
    • Wed = TD 1
    • Fri = TD 2

For each movement, I do the following Warm-up Sets (WUS)…

  • WUS 1 = 5 reps @ bar
  • WUS 2 = 5 reps @ bar
  • WUS 3 = 6 reps @ 40% working weight
  • WUS 4 = 5 reps @ 60% working weight
  • WUS 5 = 4 reps @ 80% working weight

Make sure the warm-up sets are at the indicated percentage of your working weight that day, and not of your 1-rep max.

The three working sets (WKS) I use are…

  • WKS 1 = 4-6 reps @ 100% working weight
  • WKS 2 = 6-8 reps @ 90% working weight
  • WKS 3 = 8-10 reps @ 80% working weight

Your goal in each working set is to get to the highest rep count for that set. So in the Hybrid focus, I am aiming for 6-8-10 reps across all the sets.

Increasing Weight Over Time

Once you can get the highest reps in each set, you increase the working weight in that set by 2.5%. Simple as that. Your working weight can change in each set independently of the other sets.

For instance, if you are on a Strength focus then your target reps are 4-5-6. If on Monday you finish 4-4-5 reps at the weights you’re working with, then you would increase weight in Set 1 but keep it the same in Sets 2 & 3. If on Wednesday you managed to do 3-5-6 reps, you would then increase weight in Sets 2 & 3 but keep the same weight in Set 1.

You only increase your weight in a given set when you can get the target reps in that set.