Hey there, I’m Mike Matthews. This is Muscle for Life. Thank you for joining me today for another episode, which is another installment in my Saysyou series where I address something that somebody disagrees with me on every couple of months I post on Instagram asking for people to share things that they disagree with me on.
And I go through all of the comments and I pick some of them and bring them over here to the podcast and address them. So today’s episode is about reverse pyramid training, and particularly the contention is that r p T is the best way to periodize training, at least for most every day gym goers, as opposed to the double progression periodization in my bigger, leaner strong.
And thinner, leaner, stronger programs and the linear progression in my beyond bigger, leaner, stronger program, which is meant for intermediate and advanced weightlifters, obviously skewed towards men, hence the beyond bigger. But all of the fundamental principles in that book apply to women, and I will get around to doing a female version.
That book, it is on my list. I just have to get through some other projects first. And so today I’m going to talk about some of the pros and cons of reverse pyramid training and explain why. I don’t think it is flat out the best way to periodize training for most every. Jim goers. I think it makes sense under certain circumstances.
Sometimes it’s just for something new. Sometimes it’s worth doing because you just like it. But objectively I would say that double progression and linear progression, as I talk about in my books that I just mentioned, is actually more appropriate for most. Quickly before we get started, I want to tell you about a special giveaway that I just launched in celebration of publishing 1000 episodes of this podcast, a thousand, and to commemorate that illustrious milestone I’m giving away over.
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So again, head over to Muscle for life.show/giveaway and enter now. Okay, so let’s start with a simple description of reverse pyramid training. What is it? Well, it is a style of training that involves warming up. So this is, uh, strength training in particular, warming up, and then using heavier weights and lower reps for your first set of an exercise, and then progressively lighter weights and higher reps in later sets.
So if you. Bench pressing. Let’s say an R P T workout might look like this. You warm up, and then in your first set, you are doing three reps of 2 25, and that’s pretty hard for you. That’s gonna be relatively close to failure. And then in your next set, you are dropping to 2 0 5 for five reps, and then in your third set, maybe 180 5 for eight reps.
And R P T is often touted as a great. To help beginners boost their strength intermediate weightlifters blast through muscle and strength gain plateaus and advanced weightlifters who want to ring out the last drops of their genetic potential for muscularity and strength. And there definitely is some truth to those claims.
R P T is an effective way to train. You certainly can gain muscle and strength with it. I think it is more effective, generally speaking, than traditional pyramid training, which is the opposite. So in a traditional pyramid, you would start with lighter weight and more reps, and then you would progress in each subsequent set to heavier weights and lower reps.
Let’s say you are doing three sets of the squat with a traditional pyramid. In your first set, you might do eight to 10 reps with, let’s say two 15, and then in the second set, maybe six to eight with two 40, and then in the third and final set, let’s say, four to six with 2 65. And while you can make progress training like that, it comes with a pretty significant downside, and that is the loss in performance.
The reduction in performance as you progress through those sets when you. With, let’s say eight to 10 reps on the squat and you end relatively close to failure. That’s pretty difficult. That’s pretty fatiguing. And then in that next set, six to eight reps. And that also is pretty difficult, pretty fatiguing.
And so by the time you get to your, in this case, third, this would be the final set, but it could be not the final set. Maybe you’re gonna do four or five sets this way, or maybe even six sets this way. A lot of times people will do that starting with very lightweights. Pre-ex exhausting their muscles to use a technical term where you are using lighter weights and you are fatiguing muscles in the hopes that when you add weight or when you move to a more difficult exercise, you can more fully recruit all of the muscle fibers in the target muscle group.
It doesn’t work like that. I don’t recommend pre-ex exhaustion. Generally, it’s not a very effective training T. But that’s what this traditional pyramid training often accomplishes in the earlier sets. If you are not pushing close to muscular failure, you are just accumulating fatigue without generating a powerful training stimulus.
And that fatigue then impairs your performance in your later sets when the weights get heavy, and maybe you are going to be pushing a bit closer to failure. Just because it naturally happens that way when you are doing sets of, let’s say, fours, fives, and sixes versus eights, nines and tens or beyond. And so by the time you get to those more important sets, with the heavier weights that are being pushed close to muscular failure, You can’t perform as well.
You have to use less weight, for example, on those heavier sets than you would use if you had started with them. Or you can’t get as many reps. So in the case of let’s say squatting with 265 pounds, maybe you can only get four. Reps if it is your third set in a traditional pyramid. But if you started with that, maybe you would get six or even eight reps, in which case if you wanted to do fours, fives, or sixes, you’d actually be able to add some weight to the bar.
You’d be squatting now 2 75 or 2 85, and that of course, would result in more mechanical tension being generated in your muscles, which. The primary physical, like non-hormonal driver of muscle growth. We are trying to generate ever larger amounts of mechanical tension acutely and chronically in our muscles to make them bigger and stronger.
Now, if you take the traditional. Pyramid training style, and you do push close to muscular failure in each set. So you start with a set of eight to 10 reps on the squat, let’s say again with 215 pounds, and you have maybe one or two good reps left. So that is a good, proper hard set that is an effective training stimulus.
However, it is still true that in your subsequent sets, you are not going to perform as well with those heavier weights as you would if you had started with them. So in this case, the quality of each set has gone up in terms of generating an effective training stimulus. But the loads are going to be smaller in those subsequent sets.
With traditional pyramid training, because you are accumulating quite a bit of fatigue when you start with, let’s say, a, a heavy set of tens on the squat, and so by the time you get to your fours, you are not going to be able to use as much weight as you’d be able to use if you started with fours or were only doing four.
and again, that matters for two primary reasons. One, heavier weights are better for gaining strength. The number of studies have shown that. And so when you are doing fours, the more weight you can use, the faster you are going to get stronger, and as you move into your intermediate and beyond phase of.
Weightlifting. The most effective way to continue gaining size is to continue gaining strength. Strength gain becomes very important, whereas in your first year or so, it is not as important. You are going to gain strength of course, but you can gain a fair amount of size in your first year without gaining that much strength relative to size.
However, after your first year, max two years of weightlifting, If you are not consistently gaining strength, even if it’s just small amounts of strength in all of your major muscle groups, you are not going to see much of a change in their size. So gaining strength is very important. Lifting heavy weights is the best way to gain strength and lifting maximally heavy weights.
Is the best way to gain strength. So if your training is impairing your ability to lift maximally heavy weights, when you are doing strength or doing, let’s say, reps that are more skewed toward the strength side of the spectrum. So anything, let’s say six reps or. Under, then you are not going to gain as much strength from that training as you would if you were to set up your training in a way that allowed you to lift heavier weights when you are doing your threes, fours, fives, and sixes.
So that’s one reason. And the second reason why you want to be able to use the heaviest weights that you safely and effectively can, especially with your, let’s say, six reps and under sets, That generates the most mechanical tension in your muscles, which tells them to grow. So with reverse pyramid training, then we have the first benefit that I wanna share with you, which is it allows you to prioritize your heavy sets.
You do your heaviest sets when you are feeling freshest, and that is going to boost your performance. You are going to do better in that set of fours if it is set one versus set three. A lot of people also say that they like the psychological component of reverse pyramid training, where you have just one really heavy, hard set to do, followed by sets with lighter weights, and that is just easier to stomach than let’s say, three or four heavy hard sets.
My counter-argument to that is if you are training correctly, and this applies to all forms of training, you are taking most or all of your sets close to muscular failure. You don’t have to go to failure often or ever really if you don’t want to, and I would not recommend doing that on a squat or a deadlift.
I would not recommend squat. To absolute failure or deadlifting to absolute failure because the risk of injury goes way up and it is not going to help you gain more muscle and strength than ending sets close to muscular failure. So if we apply that to reverse pyramid training, again, let’s say we’re squatting, we start with some fours, and then we move to some eights, and then we move to some tens, the eights and tens for.
Are more difficult than the fours. Like a set of 10 on the squat with maybe one or two good reps left is extremely hard on the deadlift. That’s the most difficult thing I do in the gym period. Sets of 10 with maybe one or two good reps left on the deadlift by rep seven or eight. It’s. Cardio. I mean, I can feel my heart beating out of my chest.
So as far as just overall difficulty, I would say actually that doing three sets of four to six reps per set close to muscular failure on the squat is less exhausting, is less difficult than doing three sets of let. Eight to 10 reps. And so what happens with at least some people using reverse pyramid training is they do push close to failure In that first set that let’s say four to six reps set, it’s heavy, it’s hard, and okay, it’s done.
Now they’re supposed to do a set of six to eight reps and they do it, but they use an amount of weight that would allow them to get, let’s say, 12 reps if they really had to. So they stop at eight. They really could have done 12 if they had to. And then in their final set of let’s say eight to 10 reps, they do 10, but they could have done 14 or 15, let’s say the problem.
Well, those last two sets were not difficult enough to generate a powerful training stimulus. The first set was that four to six set. Let’s say they did five reps. They could have done one or two more, so that fifth. Was not a grinder, but it was hard. The bar slowed down. They had to work through it. That is an effective set.
In the next two sets though, they had four, let’s say five good reps still in the tank. So those were pretty easy sets. The bar never even slowed down. And the problem is research shows that again, we don’t have to go too muscular failure. You don’t even have to go right up to, let’s say, one rep shy of muscular failure.
So zero good reps. If you tried another rep, your form is gonna fall apart. You might not even be able to finish the rep. You don’t have to train that close to failure regularly. But you do need to be anywhere from, let’s say, one to probably three reps, shy. Of failure. So one rep shy of failure means zero.
Good reps left. Your next rep is failure. Two reps. Shy of failure is one good rep left so you feel like you could get one more good rep and then you might fail. Three reps. Shy of failure is two good reps left so. The final rep is gonna be pretty hard. And if you ask yourself, how many more reps do I think I can do?
And you instinctively think, Hmm, probably two, I could probably get two more good reps. That second is gonna be tough, might be a bit of a grinder, but I will get through it. My form is not gonna fall apart. And then I. Probably can’t do another good rep then that is a two reps in reserve. You might have heard of that term, r i r Set.
And again, studies show that two to probably three. I’ll amend what I said earlier, two to three reps in. Reserve is a sweet spot for stimulating muscle growth, for stimulating strength gain without having to unnecessarily increase the risk of injury, unnecessarily increase the amount of fatigue that you generate and muscle soreness that comes with training.
Two failure or right up to the brink of failure, like zero good reps left. But if we are ending sets with four good reps left, so we are five reps. Shy of failure, or five good reps left six reps shy of muscular failure. Our body, our muscles are not going to respond nearly. Anemically to those sets as to the harder sets, the sets that are taken closer to muscular failure.
And so all that is to say that when R P T is executed correctly, it is a difficult way to train. It is not. Easy. It is harder, I think. Let’s take the squad again to do a set of four to six, close to muscular failure, followed by a set of six to eight. Of course, with a little bit less weight, normally you have to reduce your weight about 10%.
In most R P T programs, it’s a 10% drop, so reduce the weight. Now do a set of six to eight reps, close to muscular failure, followed by a set of eight to 10 reps, close to muscular failure with a bit less weight, obviously, than the second set that. I think is more difficult than just doing three straight sets of four to six reps close to muscular failure.
But I suppose there’s a subjective element there, because I like training with heavier weights. I more enjoy doing a set of fours, fives, or sixes on the squat, close to muscular failure than a set of, let’s say eights or nines. Tens, even though the heavier sets might feel a little bit more intimidating and put more stress on the joints.
I just like that style of training more than doing higher up training. Anyway, so the first benefit of R P T is, again, that it does prioritize your heavy sets. Another benefit is that it has you work in. Rep ranges and research shows that that is ideal, particularly in intermediate and advanced weightlifters, and particularly for gaining strength and as gaining strength is the primary way that intermediate and advanced weightlifters gain size.
I think it’s fair to assume that training in multiple rep ranges is also best for intermediate and advanced weightlifters who are primarily focused on hypertrophy who. Don’t really care how much they can squat, bench, and deadlift, but really care about their measurements. And the final benefit of R P T I wanna mention before I talk drawbacks is it’s time efficient because most R P T programs are three, some, or even two, but usually three full body workouts per week.
Each workout is usually three or four exercises, so that’s three or four hours per week in the gym, which is a lot less. Many other body building programs in part. Hey there. Just a quick reminder. Don’t forget to enter my podcast giveaway. I am giving away over $1,000 in prizes to commemorate my 1000th episode of Muscle For Life.
And to enter to win, you just have to head over to Muscle for life.show/giveaway and you are gonna get some. Bonus goodies for entering, so you will get a chance to win over $1,000 in prizes. Plus you’ll get instant access to some pretty cool stuff that I think you’re gonna like, including workouts and meal plans, and a special coupon code, a special discount for my sports nutrition company Legion.
Okay, so now let’s talk downsides and specifically why I don’t think that R P T is simply the best way to train, the best way to periodize your training, which means training in different rep ranges. Well, the first downside is not inherent in R P T per se, but it is present in many, if not most, R P T programs, and that is they don’t provide enough volume for many intermediates and.
Weightlifters. And what do I mean by that? Well, I mean specifically hard sets. So sets taken close to muscular failure per major muscle group per week. So research shows that when you’re new to weightlifting you can do 8, 9, 10 hard sets per major muscle group per week and gain plenty of muscle and strength.
That works quite well for. Probably the first year in some people, maybe even two years, maybe they need to move up to like 12 hard sets per week. But for the first couple of years, you just don’t have to work that hard in the gym to gain a lot of muscle and strength. However, after your newbie gains are fully exhausted, you have to work a lot harder.
To gain a lot less, at least on a, let’s say month by month or year by year basis, muscle and strength. Specifically what studies show is that many people have to do as many as 14, 15, 16 hard sets per major muscle group per week to consistently. Keep gaining muscle and strength and as many R P T programs are sold as time efficient ways to train.
You only have to do two workouts per week or three workouts per week. The weekly volume is often in that nine to 12 hard sets per major muscle group. Range because it takes more time. You can’t do just two or even three workouts per week and rack up 15 hard sets for even half of the major muscle groups that you want to grow.
You have to do more workouts or you have to do longer workouts. And that has limitations as well though, because you can only. Probably around 10 hard sets for an individual major muscle group in one workout before further sets. Don’t stimulate any additional muscle and strength gain to speak of, or at least you are at the point of diminishing returns.
If you need to do 15 hard sets for your. Chest, let’s say, to continue getting bigger and continue getting stronger. If you do all 15 of those sets in one workout, that is going to be far less effective than, let’s say, 10 in one workout and five in another. Or maybe you are splitting it into three workouts per week where you just do five sets in each of those workouts.
And so anyway, you can work around this volume limitation. Just training more frequently, but you have to now know a bit about programming to take an R P T program that’s laid out in a certain way and turn it from, let’s say, a two day per week or a three day per week into a four day per week or five day per week program.
Another downside to many R P T programs is they explicitly tell you to train two muscular failure. That is often part of the pitch as to why you can quote, unquote, get away with only training, let’s say two days per week or three days per week. Because you are training so intensely, especially in your first sets.
Sometimes they’ll say, First heavy sets are the most important ones, and you have to push right up to failure on those sets. And if you are willing to do that, then you don’t have to do those additional workouts that everybody else is doing. And I’ve already spoken about this, so I won’t go through the whole spiel again, but multiple studies have shown that training to failure, even if we’re just talking about technical failure, the point where your form is falling apart, you cannot complete another good rep.
The only way. Completing that rep is by doing some weird things with your form that you probably shouldn’t be doing. It’s not necessary. You don’t need to train up until that point. You don’t have to train that intensely, and it can even be counterproductive again, it increases the risk of injury. It greatly increases the amount of fatigue that you cause in your body and the amount of muscle soreness that results from the training.
So it’s just much harder to recover from, and so you’re paying. Costs for very little, if any, benefits in the way of additional muscle and strength gain. And so that’s another limitation that you can work around. You can know that, all right, you don’t have to go right up to the point of failure or two absolute failure.
You can end all of your sets with anywhere from one to probably three good reps left and still. Gain all of the muscle and strength that you can possibly gain from that training. However, and this comes back to the volume point, many R P T programs are purposefully low in volume or lower in volume because they are so high in intensity.
Again, that’s usually part of the. Sales pitch, shorter workouts, fewer workouts, but super high intensity. So if you only reduce the intensity without increasing the volume and probably increasing the amount of workouts you do per week, you are not addressing the underlying problem that could prevent you from making progress on the program.
Another downside to reverse pyramid training is it’s not beginner friendly. It’s not something I. Ever recommend to someone who is new to strength training, particularly someone who is female and new to strength training because it’s unnecessarily complex. If you are not a newbie. Maybe you can remember when you were a newbie.
I certainly remember this, and you’re learning all of these new things about energy, balance, and macronutrient balance and micronutrient balance and meal planning, and. Intensity and volume and frequency and compound exercises versus isolation exercises and on and on and on. It’s a lot to take in. And so generally we want to simplify things with people who are new as much as possible, not complexify them.
And reverse pyramid training is more complex than, let’s say, straight sets. Just doing sets of fours or fives or sixes or eights or tens or whatever. You have to work in different rep ranges. You have to change the load. The bar, which means you have to learn how that works. And that takes some experience to understand what close to failure is with different weights and with different rep ranges, and also the fatigue that you experience from set to set is quite high.
When you are new, and as you become more experienced and more conditioned, you experience less fatigue set to set. But in the beginning, it can be particularly frustrating if you are trying to do reverse pyramid training, because let’s say you start with a set of four or five or six, you push close to muscular failure.
The program says take 10% off the weight off the bar, and then do a set of six to eight. Okay? You take 10% off the bar, you rest and you get. Okay, fine. You take another 10% off the bar. You think that’s enough for at least six? Nope. Now you get four , and now you’re supposed to be done with that exercise.
You’re only supposed to do three sets. You’re supposed to do your four to six, six to eight, eight to 10. It didn’t work out. You’ve done three sets now and you really have only successfully done that four to six, and you’re still trying to figure out how to even do your six to eight and eight to. Now, I mentioned that I would not recommend R P T to female beginners in particular, and that’s because in my experience, many women who are new to strength training are very intimidated by heavy weightlifting, heavy squats, heavy deadlifts, heavy bench presses, heavy overhead presses.
I’m talking about floors, five sixes, taking close to muscular failure. Remember that women start with a lot less muscle and strength on average than men, and that means that it is harder to maintain proper form when the loads are heavy, and it can be a little bit scary to start with that as opposed to starting with lighter weights, doing sets of, let’s say eight to 10 reps to learn the exercise.
Get good form, gain a little bit of muscle, gain a little bit of strength, gain some confidence, and then work into heavier weightlifting. That approach I’ve found has worked better for women. And there are also practical considerations. Like if you tell a woman to go do a barbell bench press for let’s say four or five or six reps, she might not even be able.
Do that with the bar. Certainly if you tell her to do 8, 9, 10 reps, she probably won’t be able to use the bar. She’ll probably have to start with dumbbells. All right. The final downside to reverse pyramid training is a number of studies on R P T have shown that it is no more effective for building muscle and gaining strength.
Then straight set training, which again is doing the same number of reps per. In a workout. So instead of doing four to six on the squat, followed by six to eight, followed by eight to 10, you’re doing just four to six for all three or maybe six to eight for all three or eight to 10 for all three. Now, there are only a few studies that have looked at this, so I wouldn’t say that there is conclusive evidence that R P T offers no advantages over straight set training, but if there were some large advantage to R P T.
I think we would’ve seen at least indications of that in these studies, and there are no such indications. Now, I mentioned earlier in this podcast that working in different rep ranges is ideal for intermediate and advanced weightlifters who are trying to gain strength as quickly as possible, which they should be doing if they’re trying to gain muscle as quickly as possible.
And so R P T accomplishes that, and I would say that is an advantage. Straight set training. If straight set Training means that rep ranges never change, but of course that’s not the case. Straight set training just means that rep ranges don’t change in an individual workout. So if you are squatting, you are squatting in one rep range, or maybe it’s a rep target in each set for that workout.
Now you might squat again. Let’s say a couple of days later and work in a different rep ranger. Have a different rep target, so you might start with fours, and then in your second squat session you might do sixes or eights, and then you might have another squat session in the week if you are really working on your squat in your lower body, where you do eights or tens.
And so that would be one way to periodize your training with straight sets, a very effective way, another effective way. Probably my favorite way is to change. Rep targets or change your rep ranges every week, at least on the big compound exercises, not necessarily on the smaller isolation. So with that, you might start a training block and do sets of 10 on the squat, on the deadlift, on the bench, on the overhead press, and then the next week you’re doing eights, and then the next week you’re doing sixes, and then maybe you deload.
This is how my beyond, bigger or stronger program is laid out by the way. Deload, and now you’re doing a week of eights, followed by a week of sixes, followed by a week of fours, deload, week of sixes, fours, and then twos. So the weights are getting progressively heavier and the reps are getting progressively lower as you move through this.
Training blog. And if you want to learn more about training periodization, just head over to legion athletics.com, search for periodize, and you’ll find an article I wrote called Should You Periodize Your Workouts, the Definitive Answer According To 26 Studies. And if you like that article, read my book Beyond Biggly or Stronger because it has more information and it also shows you how to turn that information into effective workout.
The article has a bit of that, but the book has even more. And of course the book comes with a year’s worth of workouts that I created. So you don’t even have to take the theory and program with it. You can understand the theory and just follow my programming if it makes sense to you. And so then my current position on reverse pyramid training is it can be an effective way to train.
It is not clearly ineffective, like super slow. Training is, for example, a number of studies have shown that intentionally slowing down your reps does not result in more muscle or strengthening, and in fact will produce worse results than. Your normal, faster type of weightlifting sets. So R P T is not a complete clunker, but it also probably isn’t any better than more traditional strength training and the periodization that it offers is a good thing.
For intermediate and advanced weightlifters is unnecessary for newbies. That’s why I don’t recommend that newbies follow my beyond bigger, leaner, stronger program. Why make things more complicated than they need to be? Newbies do not need to use fancy periodization schemes to maximize muscle and strength gain.
They just need to get in the gym. And lift heavy weights and add weight to the bar every week, two weeks, three weeks, four weeks, and that’s about it. Make sure they’re eating enough food. So let’s keep things as simple as possible for as long as we can. And then for intermediate and advanced weightlifters, I think that there are at least slightly more effective ways to periodize training than the R P T intra workout.
Method. That said, as I mentioned earlier in this podcast, if you like reverse pyramid training, you just enjoy that style of training more than the other styles I’ve talked about in this podcast, and you look forward to those workouts the most. You enjoy those workouts the most. That is a good reason to do it because that is going to improve your consistency.
You’re gonna get in more workouts on average over time simply because you are liking what you are doing. And you might get better results from that training because you are liking what you are doing. You are not just going through the motions in those workouts. You are not bored. Your mind isn’t wander.
You are engaged, you are working hard, you’re really achieving that mind muscle connection. Those things matter. But on the other hand, if you don’t really like reverse pyramid training, then there’s no good reason to do it. And if you are indifferent to R P t, if you don’t like it any more or any less than the other styles of training, particularly the periodized styles of training that I’ve mentioned, then I would recommend sticking with one of those other styles.
For example, straight sets and changing your rep ranges or rep targets every week because it’s probably going to produce better results over time. Well, my friend, that is it for today’s episode. I hope you liked it. Thank you for listening, and don’t forget to enter my podcast giveaway in case you missed it because you skipped the.
I understand I normally skip intros two. I am giving away over $1,000 in prizes to commemorate my 1000th episode of Muscle For Life. And to enter to win, you just have to head over to Muscle for life.show/giveaway muscle for life.show/giveaway. And it takes just a couple of minutes to enter and you are gonna get some free bonus goodies for entering.
So you. Get a chance to win over $1,000 in prizes. Plus you’ll get instant access to some pretty cool stuff that I think you’re gonna like, including workouts and meal plans, and a special coupon code, a special discount for my sports attrition company Legion.