How to use Reverse Pyramid Training


Reverse Pyramid Training (RPT) is quite an efficient training style to use every once in a while in my opinion. I became familiair with it through Martin Berkhan’s Leangains when starting Intermittent Fasting mid-2011. Since then, I’ve often implemented the method in my strength training routines and have progressed well in terms of strength – even when working on fatloss, something that hadn’t happened before.

In this article I will explain this training style so you can put it to practise. Here below is a demonstration video on how I train deadlifts and chin-ups using the RPT method (shot on monday June 11th, 2012):


RPT Explained

Reverse Pyramid Training is much like Pyramid-style Training, but then in reverse! Instead of warming up, doing your worksets and gradually building up to your heaviest workset before calling it quits – you actually start out with your heaviest workset (after a proper warm-up!). From there, you decrease the total load, while trying to do a few more repetitions with the following “lighter” worksets.

This allows for a great progression model, if used correctly. That first RPT workset is often called the “topset”, and it’s the one set you want to improve every week.

Go at it like this:

  • A solid warm-up for the exercise you’re about to do is crucial. Do as many sets as feels right. Reps don’t matter so much, just get “grooved” for the lift while avoiding massive pre-fatigue – then you’re not doing a warm-up anymore!
    For deadlifts and squats I like to do 4-5 warmup sets doing 1-8 reps (reps decrease as weight goes up). For bench press 2-3 warmup sets suffice. Warm-up gradually, building up to approx 80% of your 1RM. Do a single with that. For chins/dips I use 2 warm-up sets; usually explosive bodyweight reps.
  • Make sure to get plenty of rest (during the warmup; 2-4 minutes, during the worksets; 3-5 minutes); especially before your topset. You need to be fresh!
  • Start out with your first workset if all feels awesome; this is your topset! Go to failure and attempt to break your personal record (I will explain how soon).
  • For the 2nd workset, you drop the weight by 10% and try to get 1-2 reps more than the previous set. You need not go to total failure on these.
  • Repeat the same thing for the 3rd (and if you want; 4th) workset; drop the weight by 10% and try to get 1-2 reps more than the previous set.

Practical Example

Here’s a practicle example of a warm

up & work sets using back squats. Imagine a person that can squat 140 kg for 5 reps

  • Warmup set #1: Bodyweight for 5-10 reps / hip circles / loosen the quads etc.
  • Warmup set #2: Just the bar (usually 20kg, but check for yourself!) x 5-10 reps
  • Warmup set #3: 60kg x 5-8 reps
  • Warmup set #4: 100kg x 3-5 reps
  • Warmup set #5: 120 kg x 1-3 reps
  • Workset 1 (topset): 140 kg x 6 reps. New record!
  • Workset 2: Decrease weight by ~10%. That’s 126 kg. Round up to 125 kg and attempt to get 1-2 reps more than your topset. So; 125×7, or 125×8!
  • Workset 3: Decrease weight by ~10%. That’s 112.5 kg. Round up to 110 kg (or use 1.25 kg plates) and attempt to get 1-2 more reps than your 2nd workset.
  • Done with squats! Move on to the next exercise.

I will cover progressing with RPT further in the article.

For whom is RPT suited, and for whom not so?

Seeing as it’s a potential “dangerous” method (starting out with your heaviest, even though you’re warmed up) – RPT might not be great for strength training beginners/novices. They’re better off sticking to more traditional training styles, like pyramid training, in the beginning. Another thing to keep in mind, is that beginners tend not to have great form on exercises like deadlifts/squats – so they should invest time in working on their technique before training to failure with heavy weights.

RPT is suited for intermediate and advanced lifters who know how to warm-up properly and fully understand the exercise they are about to perform.

How to progress using RPT

Before setting up your training program, you will determine the rep-zone you wish to train in per exercise you want to train RPT-style. I personally use the following repzones for the following exercises (mostly after mr. Berkhan’s advice and some experimentation):

  • Deadlift: 3-6 reps
  • Back Squat: 5-8 reps
  • Front Squat: 5-8 reps
  • Bench Press: 6-10 reps
  • Weighted Chin-Ups: 4-8 reps
  • Weighted Dips: 8-12 reps

For your topset, you will stay within these rep-zones. What you want to do for progress, is doing 1 more rep each week – until you reach the “end” of the rep-zone you set. Then you add 2.5% more weight, and try to reach the end of the rep-zone with that new weight. An example using deadlift topsets:

  • Week 1: You manage to lift 200 kg for 5 reps
  • Week 2: You manage to lift 200 kg for 6 reps. You’ve reached the end of your-rep zone, congrats! Time to increase weight by 2.5% the next week.
  • Week 3: Time to try and lift 205 kg for at least 3 reps! You manage.
  • Week 4: 205 kg x 4 is the goal. And so on, until you reach 6 reps again – then you up the weight by 2.5% yet again, and the cycle repeats.

How to adjust RPT for cut/bulk

The following part is very generalised and could require a huge piece of text to properly explain why, but I’ll keep it simple:

For a fatloss phase (cut), you generally want to do less work in the gym. Reduce volume. Why? Because we’re on a caloric deficit, and our body has a harder time with recovery. Do less exercises in general (4-5 will do) and lift heavy for 2-3 worksets on the compound lifts. I recommend just having 2 worksets for deadlifts while on a cut – because it’s taxing.

For a muscle gaining phase, in general you can do more worksets/reps/volume to stimulate growth. The body will repair itself better while on a caloric surplus, so it makes sense to add “more work” to stimulate growth. Don’t go overboard with volume though, that’s often contra-productive.

Additional notes & tips on training with RPT

  • Don’t use RPT for each exercise in your training program! It’s simply too taxing. Just pick 1-2 compound exercises to train RPT-style, and do something else for your other (accessoiry) exercises.
  • I’d recommend putting your RPT-exercises first in your trainings. Example; start with deadlift RPT, then weighted chin RPT, then do some seated cable rows, additional lat pulldowns and/or weighted hyperextensions and/or bicep isolation work using different methods (like 5×5, 3×5, pyramid 15-12-10 or 12-10-8, etc.)
  • Seriously; make sure to get plenty of rest between your set, and especially before the topset. It’s important!
  • For weighted chin-ups and dips; do not forget to add your bodyweight to the total load! Use the complete numbers. So if you have 30 kg hanging from your belt and you weight 75 kg, that’s a total load of 105 kg. If you decrease the weight by 10%, you substract it from the 105 kg, and not just the 30 kg hanging from your belt!

My Experience with RPT / Conclusion

I like using the RPT method in my programming because of it’s simple but logical progression model. In my opinion it’s great for strength maintenance/gains especially during a fatloss phase. RPT simply doesn’t pre-fatigue you as much, so you’re able to lift fresh and heavy on that first set. My progress has been quite good using it, so I recommend you try to implement RPT in your training routine as well!

- Tats, July 2012