Every once in a while, something occurs that turns your perspective upside down and makes you question everything that you know about training. Today, that something is reverse pyramid training. A training method that sounds insane at first, but after some thought makes complete sense and may change how you approach strength training forever.
In this article we are going to look at what reverse pyramid training is, how to perform it, and the benefits (plus any negatives) of performing it.
What is Reverse Pyramid Training?
How do you normally perform the bench press? A warmup set or two followed by three to five sets? Each set increasing the weight and lowering the reps? That is a traditional pyramid set, the weight increases, and volume decreases as the sets continue, allowing you to warm up and build intensity as the workout continues until you peak at the final set.
Of course, there is a downside, by the time you are completing your final set (the most important one) fatigue will have hit. Fatigue will affect your power output, your endurance, and it will prevent you from lifting as much as you could have done.
Reverse pyramid training solves this problem by reversing the order in which you lift. With reverse pyramid training your heaviest set is your first set (after a few warmup sets of course). This means that you are fresh and can activate all of your muscle fibers, allowing you to lift heavier than you would with traditional strength training.
How to Perform Reverse Pyramid Training
The first thing to mention is that you don’t need to (nor should you) apply reverse pyramid training to every single exercise. It is designed for building strength in the big three exercises; deadlifts, squats, and bench press. All other exercises would be classed as accessory exercises and would therefore be performed normally. So, don’t start using reverse pyramid training for bicep curls or abdominal crunches.
Let’s take a look at utilizing reverse pyramid training for the bench press. We’ll compare it to a regular pyramid set so that you can get a sense of how it works.
Regular Pyramid Set for Bench Press
You would start with a light weight to use for warm up sets, around 50-60% of your one rep max using higher rep sets. Then you would perform a set of 8-12 reps using a medium difficulty weight, after a rest you would increase the weight and lower the reps, and again increase the weight and lower the reps for the final set. The final set would be very low in reps (usually around 4-6 but can be as low as 1-2) using a weight that was close to your 1rm.
- Warm Up 2-3 x 12-15 reps @ 60% of 1rm
- Set #1 8-12 reps @ 70% of 1rm
- Set #2 6-8 reps @ 75% of 1rm
- Set #3 4-6 reps @ 80% of 1rm
- Optional 4th set 1-4 reps @ 85% of 1rm
Reverse Pyramid Set for Bench Press
A reverse pyramid set will also start with a few warmup sets, these should be high rep and low weight, around 60% of your 1rm. Then you will start off using the highest weight that you planned on lifting, let’s say 90% of 1rm for between 1 and 4 reps. After a rest you would lower the weight and increase the reps to around 80-85% of 1rm for 4-6 reps.
You would lower the weights again as the reps increase for set three, and again for set four. Notice how the weight used is slightly higher for the first two sets than the traditional pyramid and then slightly lower for the last two sets. This because fatigue will be affecting you towards the end of the reverse pyramid in the same way that it affects your later lifts in a traditional pyramid.
- Warm Up 2-3 x 12-15 reps @ 60% of 1rm
- Set #1 1-4 reps @ 90% of 1rm
- Set #2 4-6 reps @ 85% of 1rm
- Set #3 6-8 reps @ 70% of 1rm
- Set #4 8-12 reps @ 65% of 1rm
The Pros and Cons of Reverse Pyramid Training
Here is a quick list of the pros and cons associated with reverse pyramid training:
- You can lift heavier weights which would result in greater strength and mass gains over time
- You can train to fatigue in the latter sets, which is great for hypertrophy and increased endurance.
- Reverse Pyramid Training suits bodybuilding staples such as drop sets and back off sets.
- Increased chance of injury, while lifting heavy weights your technique needs to be almost perfect. If you start off with the heaviest weight possible you won’t have had much practice on the day.
- Difficult to determine how heavy to go. If you lift a lighter weight in your first set you can use that information to inform how you are feeling and then pick the weight for your second set. This is not really possible if you are starting with the heaviest weight possible.
- Needs a warmup so not a true pyramid – If you are performing two sets using a light weight then it isn’t really a reverse pyramid set then is it?
The Bottom Line
There are some pros and cons to reverse pyramid training, just like there are pros and cons to any form of training. If you are looking for a higher volume strength training program (for instance if you are a powerlifter) then reverse pyramid training may not be for you. But if you are looking for some serious strength and size gains then it’s a really good option.
Reverse pyramid training is a clever approach to strength training, it identified a well-known drawback and attempts to fix it. Whether it does or not is up for debate, but it is definitely worth trying if you’ve never given it a go before.