Reverse Pyramid Training
It’s been popularized and glorified over the past few years. And for good reason.
RPT is utilized by thousands to reap anabolic, weightlifting benefits
with a fraction of the volume and time investment of some of the other programs out there.
Many people, however, have issues progressing while using RPT.
And before we get into optimizing the program, let’s first list a good number of items we can all agree with.
1. RPT is “top-down”.
When using RPT, it’s important to understand its philosophy. It thrives on the thought that it makes more sense to perform your maximum effort, most difficult, PR attempt lift FIRST. After this top set comes the lowered weight, at a smaller percentage of your 1RM.
2. RPT is minimalist.
8-10 exercises at most. Very low volume. Often times, accessory work is eliminated. This is by design to allow for optimal recovery and strength gain in between sessions. The concept is simple: Lift very intensely for a short amount of time, and get solid rest and nutrition.
3. RPT requires EXTREME focus.
With RPT, you have ONE SHOT each week at being stronger. That’s it. If you’re not “ready” for your max effort set, you won’t improve. Period. If you like to hit up the gym with your “bros” and discuss the club, RPT is NOT for you. Many RPT users don’t even like lifting with others since it throws them off their game. RPT works well, but for you to reap its benefits, you must be able to push yourself balls-to-the-freaking-wall.
4. RPT is NOT for beginners.
Because of its high intensity style, RPT is for seasoned lifters only. If you’ve never taken a lift to complete failure, stick to Starting Strength or something similar to start. You must be willing to continue to grind out reps until all momentum is lost. Beginners should go nowhere near failure.
5. RPT doesn’t vary much between cuts and bulks.
Since RPT is so minimalist, there’s no real reason to alter the workout between cuts and bulks. If you’re in a cut and your strength is slipping, take away a couple of the last exercises. But with a properly designed nutrition plan, it shouldn’t. True RPT has only one difference between bulking and cutting: The speed with which you can add weight on the bar.
6. RPT requires a solid warm-up.
If your idea of a warm-up is 10 reps of 135 on the bench, you won’t be ready for your max effort set. A proper RPT warm-up starts with a very light weight, often the bar, and tapers upwards in weight as the reps taper downwards. Your last warm-up set is one rep of roughly 80% of your max effort weight.
Here’s an example of a proper RPT warm-up to a max effort set of 245 on bench:
45 x 8
95 x 5
135 x 3
185 x 1
Rest 3-4 minutes
Max effort at 245
7. With RPT, the “Big 3” come first every time.
Deadlifts, bench press, and squats are the “Big 3”. They need to come first, every time. They are the main lifts you are interested in improving. The other exercises are always performed in the same order. They should be improving over time as well, but they are secondary to the Big 3.
8. With RPT, your first set MUST be taken to failure.
Every time. No questions asked. You must continue to rep out until it’s not possible. This means pulling until the bar can’t be locked out. Benching until the spotter (get a spotter) has to help you. Squatting until you’re POSITIVE you can do no more. In general, the rule is this: If you get a rep, you MUST attempt the next one. Be ready.
9. RPT is an excellent, high-ROI weightlifting program. If you can handle the intensity, it provides all that is needed for the natural weightlifter.
If you have gifted genetics, or are “assisted”, perhaps other ways can get you to where you want to be physically. But those individuals can grow on most any plan. Perhaps if you want to win a powerlifting competition or a body building show, you’d be missing out. Perhaps. But almost all of us lift for one of two reasons: Be healthy and look good naked. RPT will accomplish this and then some.
And that’s where the agreements end.
You good on the first 9 points? Sweet.
Now, let’s see where the most common mistakes are made.
Mistake #1: You’re using 3 sets per exercise.
Consistently, the recommendation for RPT is to use 3 sets for every exercise. The first set is max effort, taken to failure.
The second set is 90% of the first set with one extra rep and the third set is 80% with 2 extra reps.
This simply is not the best set up.
The whole point of RPT training is to tax your muscles to their fullest, and allow time to grow. Volume should be kept to a minimum.
The third set? It can place too much stress on the CNS which prohibits proper recovery.
Optimally, 2 sets per exercise are used with RPT.
I’ve seen it time and time again. An RPT user switches from 3 sets to 2, and the gains start coming at a much higher clip. It seems counterproductive, sure. But less is more. I have literally never seen someone switch to 2 sets (myself included) and not start making huge gains. Personally, I have put 50 pounds on my deadlifts in 7 months by making this switch. It’s a no-brainer.
Mistake #2: The “back off sets” progress independently of the max effort set.
You often hear the advice that if you hit a prescribed rep range in sets 2 and 3, they should tailor upwards accordingly.
This makes zero sense.
Think about it: Your back off sets are calculated by taking a percentage of your max effort set. Once you move that weight upwards, but your max effort set stays the same, the percentages are no longer valid.
I’ve used this progression scheme before. And after a few months, my back off sets were at times 5 pounds less than my max effort set.
Too taxing, not enough recovery.
Lift with 2 sets. First set, max effort. Second set is ALWAYS calculated as 90% of your max effort set. (Max effort weight x 0.9).
And you will ALWAYS do one more rep than you did in your first set – no matter what.
This allows you to be able to “get” all your reps in the second set – EVERY TIME. Will it be easy? No. Not at all. But it’s always doable.
Mistake #3: You are doing 2 exercises per session.
You often hear “Deadlifts and pull-ups”, “Bench press and push-ups”, and “Squats and lunges” or something similar for RPT.
But that advice is predicated on the “3 sets” set up.
For RPT to work its magic properly, you should be doing 3-4 exercises per session.
After deadlifts, choose from pull-ups, chin-ups, row variations, rack pulls, biceps, etc.
After bench press, choose from incline bench press, overhead press, decline bench press, weighted dips, triceps, etc.
After squats, choose from hip thrusts, RDLs/SLDLs, hamstring curls, leg extensions, hack squats, leg presses, calves, etc.
But all of your exercises should follow the “2 sets, second set at 90% and one more rep” format.
*If* your strength is slipping in a cut, it *can* be tapered down to just 2 exercises, but odds are you won’t need to.
Mistake #4: Rest periods should be timed.
You often hear the advice to rest for the exact same amount for every single exercise.
Which would make sense if every exercise taxed your body at the same rate.
But quite honestly, they all interact with our bodies differently.
Take all the rest you need.
Now, should you time your rest sets? Sure. But only to be sure you rest for the minimum amount possible.
I would highly recommend a minimum of 4 minutes in between max effort and your 90% set.
Longer between your back-off set and your next, max effort set.
Want to take 6 minutes? 7 minutes? 10 minutes? Go for it.
You need to be as fresh as possible in order to get stronger in your next lift.
With RPT, you have ONE GOAL each session: Push more weight. And adequate rest will ensure that happens.
Mistake #5: Doing “abs” is “fuckarounditis”.
Martin Berkhan’s famous “fuckarounditis” post has people getting his point twisted.
Martin’s point wasn’t that “Nobody should do abs”.
His point was that, until you’ve developed a base of strength, doing accessory work makes no sense.
We’ve all seen overweight bros or “toothpicks” doing abs until they’re blue in the face.
And THAT, my friends, is what makes no sense.
Your abs are a series of muscles. And when they’re strong, they perform significant work for your body.
Use the RPT format to make them stronger.
In order to do this, you must be able to load weight progressively.
Go for cable crunches, weighted sit-ups, or leg raises with weight. Anything you can load higher and higher.
Now, do you want to be able to SEE those abs?
Then lose the fat.
Mistake #6: You’re doing lots of “body weight” exercises.
Body weight exercises are fantastic.
And if your “max effort” is a few body weight pull-ups, chin-ups, or dips, then awesome. Have at it.
But any time you can do more than 12 of an exercise, you aren’t training for strength, you’re training for muscular endurance.
If you’re utilizing RPT, this is NOT your primary objective.
Buy a weight belt and add the load to those body weight exercises. Weigh yourself to properly track the entire weight lifted.
And progress using the RPT format.
Keep in mind, I’m completely aware that much of the advice I’ve given goes against the “accepted” RPT recommendations.
I’m guessing a number of people could take issue with the recommendations I’ve given.
I have a suggestion for you:
Give it 3 months. Use this format instead of the one you’ve been using.
If it doesn’t work for you, I’ll eat my words.
But time and time again, when these recommendations are followed, strength gains occur.
And I’m positive they will for you, too.