My physique and strength are built on Reverse Pyramid Training (RPT). My clients? RPT. In my 19 years of weight training, I’ve tried countless methods, but always revert back to RPT. It’s the most reliable and effective I’ve ever come across.

If it wasn’t, I wouldn’t be using it. I’m not married to methods, only results. I live and die by results, that’s how I make money.  Don’t have a training book about RPT to sell and nothing in it for me by making these claims or writing this guide. Only appreciation once your experience reaffirms my own.

Below details specifics of RPT for beginners and intermediates. It provides tools for progressing well into the advanced stage and possibly past that (as I’ve done). It does not detail the full scope of RPT for muscle gain for advanced or highly advanced lifters for two reasons.1

  1. Advanced lifters represent  10% of my audience.
  2. Optimising RPT for Advanced/Highly Advanced is considerably more complex and involves several modalities that would require lengthy explanations and double the length of the article. Depending on reception, I may write about this in the future.

That said, I address the dos and don’ts of RPT for muscle gain and show a general setup.

Required reading: Fuckarounditis 2

Optional reading (RPT background/setup): Reverse Pyramid Revisited 3

Enjoy. And don’t forget to read all the footnotes. 4


Reverse Pyramid Training

RPT: Pros

There are two areas in which RPT excels. The first is time efficiency. Indeed, studies show RPT to be more time-efficient than 5 x 5 and suggests superior results 5. So yes, if  time is limited and you can’t be in the gym more than thrice a week,  you must make every set count.  RPT does. There’s no room for phoning in or half-assing. Every set is an AMRAP.6  If it isn’t, you’re not doing RPT.  Can’t handle it? Then stop reading, because RPT isn’t for you.

The second is dieting. RPT is hands down the most effective way to gain or retain muscle and strength while losing fat. While there aren’t comparative studies on weight training methods,  when cutting–proof is in the pudding. I’ve made a lot of pudding in my days and most of my clients come out stronger and leaner when I’m done with them. It’s also in my own self-best interest to put clients on the best program because again, it’s how I make money.  Their success is my own.  And why they’re on RPT.

Could add a third point and say RPT is the most fun way to train. But that would be too much on the subjective side of things. Personally though,  appreciate RPT for that reason as well.

RPT: Cons

Is RPT the Holy Grail of weight training? In some ways yes, but there are cases in which RPT isn’t ideal. Powerlifting for example, is about developing motor patterns and technical proficiency in the bench, squat and deadlift.

To become a competitive powerlifter, you can’t rely on 2-3 sets to failure once or twice a week. You’re going to need 5 to 10 times the weekly volume, 4-6 days in the gym, patience, preferably a coach, and a whole different attitude towards progression. 7

Training to failure and and relying on linear or double progression is not how the successful powerlifters I know train. And know quite a few, either directly or indirectly. But this can be said of any sport that does not solely rely on raw strength and muscle hypertrophy, including Olympic Weightlifting and Strongman.

RPT: Setup

Let’s get down to the nitty gritty. The pyramid in Reverse Pyramid Training references pyramiding reps, a training technique popular among bodybuilders. A typical pyramid starts with lower loads and higher reps, progressing into higher loads and lower reps, thus finishing with the heaviest set.

RPT — Explaination of both schemes.
Standard pyramid training vs reverse pyramid training

RPT is the reverse, starting heavy and finishing high, which makes a hell of a lot more sense. Why engage the heaviest loads, using compromised technique and underperforming because you’re fatigued from previous sets? Sounds like a recipe for injury and shitty results.

But if you flip that pyramid upside down, magic happens. Here’s how:

  • Warm-up: 2-5 sets at 40-67% of your first set x 3-6
  • Goal: 8
  • Breakdown: 10%
    • Set 1: 100 x 8
    • Set 2: 90 x 10
    • Set 3: 80 x 12

That’s how a typical RPT sequence looks. Now, let’s discuss warm-ups, Goals, progression and breakdowns.

Warming Up

Warming up is highly individual and not something I intend to flesh out in greater detail than this.

  1. An RPT session always starts with the deadlift, bench or squat. Depending on how the rest of your workout looks, you can be fully warmed-up for everything else if you just do a proper warm-up for the first exercise. That’s what I do, but your mileage may vary.
  2. Generally speaking, people in their twenties need less warming up than someone in their fifties, for example.
  3. It also follows that some movements require more warm-up before the first work set, a common example being squats.
  4. All this said, do as much warm-up as you need before feeling comfortable going into your first workset.
  5. …BUT, and this is key, keep your warm-ups separate from your work set. No half-assed sets that aren’t challenging enough to be a real set, but hard enough to cause fatigue. I see a lot of this shit in the gym, where you can’t really tell if the person is doing a limp-dicked set or just taking his warm-up too far.
  6. If you need rough guidelines, warm-up with 2-5 sets of 40-67% of your work set for deadlift, bench and squat. Personally, I use 2 sets for bench, the last being 2-3 x 67%. For deadlifts, I do 4-5, starting at 4-5 x 50% and ending at 2-3 x 67%. Same for squats.

Goals and Progression

There’s two main areas of interest when it comes to progression on RPT, Goal and Set 1.

Week 1
  • Goal: 8
    • Set 1: 100 x 8
    • Set 2: 90 x 10
    • Set 3: 80 x 12

Quick primer on linear and double progression. Linear progression is when you’re upping the load every workout, doing 100 first week, 102.5 next week, 105 third week, and so forth.

Problem with linear progression is your reps can’t keep up, because there’s no way you’re going to keep adding 2.5 kg or 5 lbs to the bar every week. Sooner or later, you’re killing your limbs and shortchanging progress with 3-rep grinders. Don’t get me wrong, linear progression has its place, but not in this context.

RPT uses double progression. Double progression is when you’re progressing in reps and upping the load once a certain number of reps can be completed. This certain number is the Goal. In the sequence above, we have “Goal: 8” and “Set 1: 100 x 8.” If the Goal is 8 and the number of reps >8 in Set 1, this set is eligible for an increase next session. Let’s simulate this session.

Week 2
  • Goal: 8
    • Set 1: 102.5 x 8
    • Set 2: 92.5 x 10
    • Set 3: 82.5 x 12

Those are some solid gains, +2.5 across the board! Congratulations, you’ve gained muscle, gotten stronger, and taken one step towards the physique of your dreams. Let’s see how next week goes.

Week 3
  • Goal: 8
    • Set 1: 105 x 7
    • Set 2: 95 x 9
    • Set 3: 85 x 12

Looks like we didn’t quite hit the Goal this session, but look at set 3. You’re up +2.5 from last week’s set 3. You’ve gotten stronger, but the increase is not sufficient enough to register a +2.5 increase across all 3 sets. Prepare to encounter this situation most training sessions if you’re intermediate.

You’re not going to see linear increases of 2.5 week to week, that’s just not possible. But you can and will see increases in set 2 and 3 if you’re doing it right. Using the aforementioned example, once you’re at 10+ in set 2 and 12+ in set 3, it’s only a matter of time before you get 105 x 8 and can up the weight to 107.5.

But wait a second! Some you are thinking this very moment. In Reverse Pyramid Revisited I detailed a system where each set progresses independently, so that set 2 and 3 would eligible for an increase in Week 3, where as set 1 wouldn’t. Well, based on my experience since, I’ve now scrapped that system in favour of this.

Table Compare
Old RPT (independent) vs new RPT (dependent). ‘Dependent’ because loads depend on first set and do not progress independently as in previous system.

Why? Because it’s more effective, simple as that. And if you’re a client reading this, then yes, switch from the independent system to the dependent system (this).8


Breakdowns

A key component of RPT, breakdown denotes how much the load is reduced each set following the first. This is expressed in percentage and varies depending on movement.

  • Deadlift, squat, weighted chin-up and row: 10%
  • Bench press, overhead press and seal row: 5%
  • Assistance/accessory movements: 10%

Using these figures will typically result in an increase of 0-2 reps per set, occasionally more. Feel free to experiment and adjust as long as the sequence resembles a reverse pyramid, i.e. starting lower and finishing higher.

AMRAP vs Maximal Effort vs Training to Failure

I’ve always had a problem telling people they should “train to failure” on RPT, because that’s not really the goal. Personally, I can’t recall the last time I actually failed to complete a repetition. There was that one embarrassing moment where I got stuck with a barbell on my chest 15 years ago, but that’s honestly the only time I’ve ever “trained to failure.”

So instead of training to failure, I told clients to exert maximal effort each set. This, I explained, meant they should do as many reps as possible – using good form – and terminate the set when they doubted their ability to complete another repetition.

The above is also what I mean when I say every set is an AMRAP – an abbreviation most lifters are familiar, which is why I more often use that expression instead of maximal effort.

Hope this clears things up. Some people interpreted Reverse Pyramid Revisited to mean one should complete (Previous set rep number + 1) in sets following the first, which is not the case. Every set is AMRAP, whether you’re doing as many reps as the previous set or 2-3 more reps doesn’t matter. It’s the effort that counts.

Lastly, don’t use spotters unless they can follow instructions to never touch the bar. The spotter is only there to help you rack the bar if you fail to complete a repetition. They’re not there to help you eek out extra repetitions when you can’t on your own. So don’t use them for that purpose.

RPT Sample Week

Alright, so let’s have a look at a basic setup, using Monday, Wednesday and Friday. If you don’t like those days, use Tuesday-Thursday-Saturday or Wednesday-Friday-Sunday.

Monday
  • Deadlift – 2 x 6
  • Row or Overhead Press – 3 x 8
  • Accessory: Calves, biceps or triceps – 2 x 10
Wednesday
  • Bench press – 3 x 8
  • Row or Overhead Press – 3 x 8
  • Accessory: Calves, biceps or triceps – 2 x 10
Friday
  • Squat – 3 x 10
  • Weighted Chin-Up – 3 x 8 9
  • Accessory: Calves, biceps or triceps – 2 x 10

Notes on Routine

  • 2 x 6 means 2 sets with the Goal of 6. 3 x 8 means 3 sets with the Goal of 8. Etc.
  • Starting out, select a load you can manage no less than Goal -1 in the first set. >7 reps in the bench press is fine, <6 is not.
  • Each workout has two compound movements and one accessory movement. Always start big (squats) and finish small (calves, biceps/triceps, etc).
  • In the example above, you can choose whether you want rows on Monday, Overhead Press on Wednesday, or vice versa. With regards to accessory movements, you can choose whether you like one each workout or two; to save time, for example, you can do biceps and triceps back to back, e.g. alternate curls and pushdowns with 60-90 sec rest in between movements. 10
  • Rest at least 3 minutes between sets, preferably more between sets of deadlift and squat. 11
  • Use sample routine as is if you’re dieting, preferably eating more on training days, less on rest days, e.g. as outlined in The Leangains Guide. Done right, this will result in strength and muscle gain up to and including the intermediate stage.
  • If you’re maintaining, which is a practice and word I detest, you can experiment with more sets, even if I personally think that’s pointless.
  • No deload if you’re dieting. No need.

RPT for Muscle Gain

The sample routine can and should be used as outlined if you’re dieting. Increasing volume or other changes are more likely to be counterproductive than effective, so do it at your own peril. Muscle gain is another story. If you’re maintaining a weekly caloric surplus of at least 2000 kcal 12, increasing volume by 1-3 sets per movement yields better results.

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There are different ways to do this. Here’s a few examples, including some primers on RPT for muscle gain.

  • Add a 4th day on Saturday. This workout would then look similar to Wednesday in structure, but slightly different in execution. If you intend to use the same movements, increase Goal by 2, and reduce loads 5%. If you want to change movements, you’ll find suitable replacements in the Weighted Dip or Paused Bench Press, T-bar Row or another variation of the Wednesday row, and whatever BS you can come up with for calves, biceps or triceps. 13
  • Add more volume for legs on Monday. To make this work with squats, you need to place squats before deads; however, I don’t recommend RPT for this squat session (you’ll die). Instead, squat for volume at an RPE of 7-8. Another alternative is to add a few isolation movements like leg curls or leg extensions to the end of the workout.
  • As a general rule of thumb, train each lift twice a week for muscle gain. 14 Exceptions:
    • A) The deadlift should never be done more than once a week.
    • B) Train either the row or the chin-up twice a week; doing both twice a week is overkill in my experience.
  • Allow 72 hours of rest between lifts and variations thereof.
  • Deloads are necessary sooner or later, but due to the complexity of this subject, I’ll say that I’m no fan of deload weeks. Do deload days instead. If your joints hurt and everything feels heavy, reduce the load by 15% for all movements and go for a good pump. Yes, I’m serious.

Whew! Alright, that’s all folks. Hope you enjoyed the read and find the teachings useful. I’ll probably check back in during the weekend and add/change/clarify whatever’s needed. Let me know if something’s crazy or confusing, OK?

Oh, and please share and help me cure humanity of fuckarounditis. Make the World a better place.


P.S. My first book is delayed ’till February. Don’t worry, it’ll come. Everything just takes longer than expected. When it finally does arrive, don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

P.S.S. Q&A #4 comes out tomorrow and will most likely involve RPT. If you haven’t subscribed, do it and now and join 35k+ recipients of the only no-BS newsletter in the fitness industry. Actual content, not scams and money grabs.

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Article Footnotes

  1. Strength standards for intermediate, advanced and high advanced are discussed in Fuckarounditis
  2. If you don’t understand the fundamentals and aren’t willing to learn, you’re wasting your time on The Reverse Pyramid Training Guide.
  3. RPT progression and certain specifics have been revised for The Reverse Pyramid Training Guide. However, if you’re completely new to Reverse Pyramid Training, reading Reverse Pyramid Revisited first might make parts more understandable at first glance.
  4. This is a footnote.
  5. Fisher, J. P., Blossom, D., & Steele, J. (2016). A comparison of volume-equated knee extensions to failure, or not to failure, upon rating of perceived exertion and strength adaptations. Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism, 41(2), 168–174. 
  6. AMRAP: As Many Reps As Possible
  7. I know one competitive powerlifter who trains thrice a week. Each session takes 3 1/2 hours.
  8. Comparison of grouped client data using the dependent or independent RPT system slightly favours former. Despite matched set volume, higher total volume may explain favourable results in dependent group (p = 0.011)
  9. If you’re not strong enough for weighted chin-ups, do body weight chin-ups; when you’re strong enough to do 10, you’re good for weighted chin-ups starting at body weight +5 kg/10 lbs. If you can’t do 6 body weight chin-ups, do pulldowns or band-assisted chin-ups instead.
  10. Alternating protagonist and antagonist muscle groups in this fashion results in no performance loss.
  11. An exception to the 3-minute rule is described in the previous footnote.
  12. As discussed in Q&A #1 and #1.5 of the newsletter.
  13. Personally, I don’t include biceps in my programs, but that’s another story. To write this guide, I have to simplify a few things.
  14. Variation of lift included, i.e. the Weighted Dip can be your bench variation.