Reverse Pyramid Training: Looking Awesome & Feeling Great

A few months ago I wrote about one of the most effective strategies that I know for strength gain under any circumstance: reverse pyramid training. Today, I want to give you a few tips to ensure that your continue to progress for months and years to come.

The one draw back of RPT, or rather how people implement it, is that it’s fairly easy to burn out if you aren’t careful, which leads us to our first lesson: AVOID TRAINING BEYOND FAILURE LIKE YOU’D AVOID EATING MEAT LEFT OUT IN THE BLAZING SUMMER SUN FOR 148 HOURS.

When I type in all caps, you know I mean business.

If you could only take away one delicious nugget of information, this would be it.

Think of your body as a car. Ideally, you’d be driving down the street at a normal speed and slowly braking at all traffic lights. Sure, there would be occasions when you’d have to stomp on the brakes to avoid a collision, but these moments are few and far between.

Now picture you’re another car, but this time you’re gunning the gas pedal every chance that you get, and when it comes stopping at a light you only know one way to do it: drop kicking the brakes at the very last moment.

Which one of these cars is more likely to fall apart faster?

Approach your training sessions with a sense of long term vision if you’re interested in long term progress. If you’re grinding out reps each every time you pick up a weight,  you better put on your chef hat because you’re creating a recipe for burnout, both physically & mentally.

Rep range first, weight increase second.

For reverse pyramid training, you first want to set up a rep range and let that guide your sessions. For a nice blend of strength and size gains gains I recommend a 2-5 rep spread using compound movements (think bench press, squat, overhead press, dips, rows & deadlifts). From here, and this is where the beautiful simplicity of this system comes into play, you stay at that weight until the you get to the top of the rep range.

Example:

Session 1: 225 x 2
Session 2: 225 x 3
Session 3: 225 x 3
Session 4: 225 x 4
Session 5: 225 x 5

Only after the last session where you hit 5 reps would you increase the weight by 5-10lbs (even smaller increases work as well) in order to bring yourself back down towards the bottom of the rep range, starting the process all over again – milk this for all it’s worth.

One note about the above: there’s nothing wrong with taking your time to hit the top number. In fact it’s much better to do that then grinding your way to the top just so that you can increase the weight, only to end up stalling soon after.

If you get to the top range and feel like you could’ve done one more rep, that’s a good sign that you’re ready to increase the weight. If you barely got that last rep, stay there for a week or two (or however long it takes) until that last rep doesn’t feel like you’re going to pop a brain vessel. Although it may seem like it sometimes, you’re not in any rush. Success takes time.

What you don’t want to do is this:

Session 1: 225 x 2
Session 2: 225 x 4 (grinded out 2 more reps with questionable form)
Session 3: 225 x 5 (grinded out 1 more rep – super difficult but upped the weight anyway)
Session 4: 235 x 1 (epicly hard)
Session 5: 235 x 1
Session 6: 235 x 1
Session 7: 235 x 1
Session 8-9: Skipped, didn’t feel like training.
Session 10: 230 x 1

By letting the rep range dictate when you increase your weight, you take yourself and your emotions out of the equation while also keeping yourself from training to failure.

The best thing about weights is that they’re completely objective. They don’t care what kind of day you had at work, nor do they care how heavy you think they are or how many reps you want to get – 300lbs will always be 300lbs. When your body is ready and capable of lifting a certain amount of weight a certain number of times, it will happen because you have trained for it, and not a moment sooner.

Have you incorporated reverse pyramid training into your workouts? If so how freakin’ awesome have your results been? If you have any questions, or just want to share how well it has worked for you, please do so in the comment section below!

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Comments

  1. Andrew says

    We have had this conversation before and I am glad you decided to right about it. RPT is a great method, one of my favorites in fact, however, I constantly have to fight the urge to grind out that last rep so that I can add more weight at the next session.

    I have found that using something like an RPE scale (rating of perceived exertion) works well to keep me from moving ahead when I should really stay with the current weight.

  2. Matt says

    Hey Rog,
    You are right on the money here bro!
    When I first started training RPT 8 months ago, I saw consistant strength gains every week. It got to the point where I was dissapointed if I did not gain strength every week. So, what did I do? I forced ‘questionable’ reps just to hit the top rep range. However, this only resulted in me eventually going BACKWARDS in strength!
    These days I do as you recommend in this post, I stay at that weight for as many weeks as possible until every rep is 100% ‘comfortable and clean’ and when I know, hand on heart, that I could bash put another rep.
    Awesome post as always brother, keep up the good work! Matt

  3. joey says

    After 9 months of 5×5 and 3×5 protocols (which worked just fine if not great up to the intermediate levels) I switched to RPT.

    8 weeks into it, I can tell that this is the way I will be training for years to come.

    Fighting my ego when it comes to weight lifted and reps is a fun game to play, full of stupid shit and lessons.

      • joey says

        Also, I forgot to mention how well PRT goes with dieting.

        I remember when I tried to get to 8% bodyfat while going to the gym every single day and doing tons of high intensity cardio.

        RPT helps you preserve your sanity while losing fat.

  4. says

    I honestly think this is the way newbies train. Or at least how I am doing it. Since I’ve only been at it for a few weeks, I’m feeling out how much my body can take – but I am doing it slowly and with caution. It’s almost like we need to be more scared of hurting ourselves and taking things slowly then being more scared of losing strength.

    • says

      Hey Heidi,

      I like the way you’re thinking and that’s a good way of putting it. A lot of people (myself included at one time) are so scared of losing strength that they’ll risk injury just so that they can claim they aren’t, never mind the fact that getting injured is the fastest way to lose strength.

      Approach/discover your limits and work at them until they’re no longer your limits.

      Rinse and repeat – awesomeness will ensue =)

  5. Travis says

    Great article Rog. Gotta love the RPT.
    The only thing I struggle with using RPT is how often to train a muscle. I usually do 2x week but I’m not sure with RPT. Do you have a resource for a solid full week of RPT? An example routine of some sort? I have a hard time figuring out the programming with accessory lifts, frequency, etc.

  6. Nancy C. says

    I’m using this just with deadlifts right now and I have to admit it feels awfully weird. I have to agree with the other commenters that I have to check my ego at the door and NOT do the # of reps I might have planned for each set if I’m not feeling ready. I guess I just have to get used to seeing progress in ways other than reps and weight.

  7. Brad says

    Great article Rog. I just started RPT myself but i’ve been Leangains follower for about a year now. I knew if Martin’s training was as good as his diet I would be in good hands.

    Let me know if I’m understanding this incorrectly but it seems like Martin trains to failure on his first RPT set.

    “The first set is what I call the “top set” and the one you should strive to increase on a regular basis. This is a max effort set, which means you stop when you’re sure you don’t have another rep in you.” [1]

    I would also enjoy seeing a full weekly program you’ve used designed following RPT style. Do you have comments on how to design a programs as Martin pretty much gives the basics (mon: deads/chins/pendlay rows, wed: bench/?, fri: squat/?) Thanks, I appreciate your advice.

    [1] http://www.leangains.com/2008/12/reverse-pyramid-revisited.html

    • says

      Hey Brad,

      Did you just leave references in the comment section? That’s a first =)

      Yeah, I definitely agree with Martin on that note. My own personal take, mainly for beginners but some intermediate trainees as well, is to avoid going beyond failure (partial reps, crappy form, failing mid rep, etc). Something I should’ve made more clean in the post, so thanks for bringing that up.

      Those trainees I mentioned above sometimes have no frame of reference as to if they can get the rep or not, so they go for it at their own peril, which can definitely be problematic, especially on exercises like the bench press & the squat.

      Thanks for the idea about a sample RPT workout. I’ll see what I can cook up for you in a future post.

      - Rog

      • Brad Barber says

        Gotta keep my comments legit so I tossed in the reference!

        Your reply makes sense so thanks for clearing that up. I look forward to reading the future post outlining an RPT workout/program design.

  8. Vince F says

    Enjoyed reading about how to do RPT. Makes sense just like RPT does to me. Was never much of a lifter, but did everything physical, hard. so guess I got workouts that way. Injured 25 yrs ago from inhaling chem fumes that wrecked me mentally and physically. 4-5 yrs ago I got the urge to workout and lift after taking MSM and Ester-C. Couldn’t stop myself. Bought a 2nd set of weights, to have 200lbs, my body weight, and wanted to be able to lift it, but my drive, desire, and energy only lasted about a mo. Recently picked up some Twin Labs BCAA after reading they are studying it for post concussion memory loss, and started lifting again. Didn’t hasve concussion as such, but pressure in my spine and head and short term memory problems. The BCAA has been great for no post workout pain but makes my ears hiss, which I had for a few yrs after my injury. A whole pill makes them Real loud, so take pieces. Picked up some ON brand BCAA and trying a little now to see if it makes my ears hiss. Started lifting about 2 weeks ago, and started out really light. I’m 68, 6’1-200lbs, and loosing muscle mass, and want to get it back, and hope my strength and stamina come back also. I believe in the RPT, since it makes sense… Picked up some L-glutamine, and have taken it, and just got in L- creatine, and want to see what that does.

  9. says

    Wow, this really hit home! Definitely linking this post to my blog as a cautionary tale for other RPT’ers. My new philosophy is going to be to ‘leave a rep in the bag’. Thanks!

Trackbacks

  1. [...] 1) Training to Failure I used to train every.single.set. to failure.  Now I do it sometimes, but only if I’ve managed to misjudge the amount of weight I think I can do – not on purpose.  Since I’ve stopped doing this, I feel & move better, I’m less sore, I have more energy…. and I’m still getting stronger. (See Rog Lawson’s explanation regarding training to failure in his piece on Reverse Pyramid Training.) [...]

  2. [...] Leave a rep in the bag: anecdotally, reverse pyramid training (lift the heaviest weight first!) is tremendous for long-term strength gains, but it contributes to burnout if you go to failure on every set. Last winter, I saw rapid strength gains for a month on the protocol, but got stuck at the same weight on *every* lift from weeks 5-8, and thus, I bailed. Thankfully, this isn’t just a problem for me. Read this informative post on the pro’s and con’s of RPT: http://www.roglawfitness.com/rpt-for-the-win/ [...]

  3. [...] Strength Training – I didn’t start lifting until after losing weight for a year.  I really wish I had started at the beginning.  The first program I did is called Starting Strength.  I did that for about 6 months (kind of) and then hired an online coach (Roger Lawson FTW) who put me on a style of training called Reverse Pyramid Training.  This type of training is great for maintaining muscle while pursuing fat loss.  More details here. [...]

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