Reverse Pyramid Training is a popular way for intermediates to break through plateaus and continue gaining muscle size and strength. It also has the benefit of being a minimalist way of training, typically involving just three full-body workouts per week, with each of those workouts lasting less than an hour.
In this article, we’ll talk about the pros and cons of Reverse Pyramid Training, why you might want to train this way, how to do it, and then give a sample workout program. We’ll also talk about whether it’s a good way of stimulating muscle growth when compared against other training methods, such as traditional hypertrophy training.
- What is Reverse Pyramid Training?
- Reverse Pyramid Training Guidelines
- Sample Reverse Pyramid Training Workout Routine
- Is Reverse Pyramid Training Good for Building Muscle?
What is Reverse Pyramid Training?
Pyramid training, often called “crescent” training in the research, is when we combine both heavier and lighter sets for our main exercises. Traditional Hypertrophy Training, on the other hand, has us using the same amount of weight from set to set on any given exercise.
There are two types of pyramid training: ascending and descending.
- With ascending pyramid training, we add weight every set. For instance, we might do a set of 12 reps, add weight, rest, and do a set of 10 reps, add more weight, rest, and then do a set of 8 reps.
- With descending “reverse” pyramid training, we remove weight every set. For instance, we might do a set of 8 reps, remove weight, rest, and do a set of 10 reps, remove more weight, rest, and then do a set of 12 reps.
Reverse Pyramid Training is the more popular of the two approaches, and with good reason. We gain 1-rep strength more easily from doing heavy sets while fresh, whereas we gain muscle size just as easily when training with a bit of fatigue. As a result, it usually makes more sense to start heavy to get the strength gains, then shift lighter to stimulate more muscle growth (more on that here). Since this article isn’t about powerlifting, though, all of the rep ranges we’re talking about are technically “moderate.” Some sets are heavier than others, but all are light enough to be ideal for gaining muscle size.
Reverse pyramid training isn’t a specific workout routine, it’s simply the method of stripping weight off the bar between sets, allowing us to get extra repetitions with every extra set. This adds extra rep-range variety to our workouts. In that sense, it’s very similar to starting with heavy compound lifts and then doing lighter accessory lifts (traditional hypertrophy training), or doing a heavier and lighter workout each week (daily undulating periodization), or doing a few weeks of training heavier followed by a few weeks of training lighter (block periodization). It’s one of several ways of adding rep range variety to our training.
Some people find that they enjoy Reverse Pyramid Training for some lifts but not for others. For example, maybe someone wants to do Reverse Pyramid Training with their squats, saving them from having to do multiple high-rep or low-rep sets. That extra variety might make a difficult exercise more bearable. But then with the bench press, they might want to keep things simpler, sticking with the same rep range from set to set.
Sometimes people use Reverse Pyramid Training to break through specific plateaus. For instance, if you’re having trouble making progress on your overhead press, perhaps you try a phase of Reverse Pyramid Training to see if it gets your numbers moving upwards again.
Reverse Pyramid Training is when we strip weight off the bar between sets, allowing us to get extra repetitions with every set.
Reverse Pyramid Training Guidelines
Although Reverse Pyramid Training is just a way of adjusting reps between sets, when most people talk about Reverse Pyramid Training, they’re talking about building an entire workout routine around it. They’re talking about using it for all of their compound lifts. And there’s a specific minimalist, high-effort way of doing Reverse Pyramid Training.
The first person to truly popularize Reverse Pyramid Training was Martin Berkhan of LeanGains, with this guide (which is quite good). His style of training was then adopted by a number of other strength coaches, such as Greg O’Gallagher of Kinobody, and has become quite popular with intermediate lifters overall. These routines are usually built around a few common principles:
- Three full-body workouts per week, each done with a day of rest between them. For example, Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.
- Two main lifts each workout, such as the squat and chin-up, overhead press and deadlift, and bench press and row. These two exercises are the main part of each workout.
- Weight stripped off the bar from set to set. For instance stripping 10% of the weight each set, starting with 200 pounds for 8 repetitions, then 180 pounds for 10 repetitions, and then 160 pounds for 12 repetitions. Or, for a wider variety of rep ranges, strip 15% off the bar, doing 8, 12, and 15 reps.
- Only 2–4 hard sets per lift, such as the 3-set example described above. This is a minimalist approach to training, and it can be quite effective when done cleverly.
- AMRAP—0 reps in reserve, not necessarily lifting all the way to absolute muscular failure, but going to the point where we wouldn’t be able to complete another full rep. (We’ll discuss whether this is ideal in a later section.)
- Double progression, where we’re working within a narrow repetition range and adding weight when we get to the top of it. For example, prescribing 6–8 repetitions, starting with a weight we can do 6 reps with, and increasing the weight when we can do all 8 reps. Each set is progressed individually, giving you multiple opportunities for progress each week. When you can complete the prescribed reps for a given set, increase the load next week. For instance, if you’re able to get 8 reps during your first set of the bench press, add another 5 pounds to that set next week. Otherwise, try to fight for extra reps next week.
- 2–5 minutes of rest between sets to allow our muscles to recover properly between sets. This is what differentiates Reverse Pyramid Training from drop sets. Another way to use rest times is to simply wait until your breathing has returned to normal between sets.
- A couple of accessory lifts after the big lifts. These accessory lifts are usually traditional hypertrophy training, such as biceps curls and triceps extensions for 2–3 sets of 10 repetitions.
When most people talk about Reverse Pyramid Training, they’re talking about a minimalist, high-effort, full-body training program built around the big compound lifts and designed for maximal efficiency.
Sample Reverse Pyramid Training Workout Routine
Any workout routine can use Reverse Pyramid Training, but the most popular way of doing Reverse Pyramid Training is to use a 3-day full-body training split with each workout built around two big compound lifts. These workouts are usually designed to be short, intense, and efficient, allowing people to build muscle at nearly full speed without needing to spend much time training.
Here’s a sample Reverse Pyramid Training routine built around the Big Five Hypertrophy Lifts. As most Reverse Pyramid Training programs are, it’s loosely based on Martin Berkhan’s approach, but we’ve adjusted it a little bit for the goal of gaining muscle size. The volume is slightly higher, the lifts are slightly different, and we don’t recommend using 0 reps in reserve on every set (as we’ll discuss below).
Workout One (Monday)
- Bench Press: 3 sets, starting with 6–8 repetitions, stripping 10% off the barbell, then doing 8–10 repetitions, stripping off another 10%, and then 10–12 repetitions (3×8,10,12)
- Barbell Row*: 3 sets of 8, 10, then 12 repetitions (3×8,10,12)
- Skullcrusher: 2 sets of 10 repetitions (2×10)
- Barbell Curl: 2 sets of 10 repetitions (2×10)
*The barbell row is chosen because it makes a good accessory lift for the deadlift, giving our spinal erectors and hips some extra work along with our upper-back muscles. This means we’re training our entire posterior chains twice per week. It’s okay to swap these out for other row variations, such as dumbbell rows or seal rows, but we’d lose that accessory work for the deadlift. That’s why the barbell row is the default. You can, however, choose whichever variation of barbell row you prefer. I prefer the “bodybuilder” variation done from a hip hinge, as shown above.
Workout Two (Wednesday)
- Front Squat*: 3 x 6, 8 then 10 repetitions (3×6,8,10)
- Chin-Up**: 3 sets of 6, 8 then 10 repetitions (3×6,8,10)
- Hanging Leg Raise: 2 sets of 10 repetitions (2×10)
- Barbell Curl: 2 sets of 10 repetitions (2×10)
*The front squat is chosen over the back squat because it works the knees through the deepest range of motion, it’s safer and easier to recover from than back squats, and it works our spinal erectors, giving it good carryover to our deadlifts and rows.
*The chin-up (underhand) is chosen over the pull-up (overhand) because it uses a larger range of motion and engages the biceps, making it a much bigger compound lift.
Workout Three (Friday)
- Conventional Deadlift*: 2 sets of 6 then 8 repetitions (2×6,8)
- Overhead Press: 3 sets of 6, 8 then 10 repetitions (3×6,8,10)
- Lateral Raise: 2 sets of 10 repetitions (2×10)
- Overhead Extension: 2 sets of 10 repetitions (2×10)
*The conventional deadlift is chosen over the sumo and Romanian deadlift because it works through a larger range of motion, engages the quads decently well, and builds up the spinal erectors along with the hips, making it a much bigger compound lift.
Customizing the Workout Routine
This workout routine is just an example. It isn’t set in stone. Feel free to swap out the main lifts for similar variations, such as swapping front squats for high-bar back squats. With the accessory lifts, you have even more freedom. For example, you could swap out biceps curls and triceps extensions for neck curls and extensions to emphasize neck growth, or swap them for leg curls and extensions to emphasis leg growth.
And, as always, listen to your body and adapt accordingly. If your spinal erectors are struggling from all the big lifts, feel free to swap out deadlifts for Romanian deadlifts or barbell rows for dumbbell rows. If your elbows are getting beat up, try doing chin-ups with a neutral grip or barbell curls with dumbbells or a curl-bar (aka EZ-Bar).
Reverse Pyramid Training is typical done right to the cusp of failure, with zero reps left in reserve—AMRAP. However, as we’ll discuss in the next section, that doesn’t seem to be quite ideal for most intermediate lifters, given that it can cause quite a large performance drop between sets. It doesn’t seem to hurt, either, though, especially since this is a fairly low-volume routine where overall recovery shouldn’t be an issue. For optimal results, though, I’d recommend leaving 1–2 reps in reserve on the earlier sets of each exercise, doing as many reps as possible on just the final set of each exercise.
If the workouts feel too short and easy after the first three weeks, add extra sets to your main lifts or add an extra accessory lift. If the workouts feel too hard, feel free to remove an accessory lift. But they shouldn’t feel too hard. This is a fairly low-volume routine. If you choose exercises that suit you well, you should be able to handle it okay.
Is Reverse Pyramid Training Good for Building Muscle?
The Research on Reverse Pyramid Training
We have a few studies looking into reverse pyramid training for stimulating muscle growth. The first study found that pyramid training stimulated the same amount of muscle growth as traditional hypertrophy training. The traditional hypertrophy training group gained 0.1% more muscle which, as you can imagine, wasn’t even close to being statistically significant.
A second study on pyramid training had similar findings. Again, the traditional hypertrophy training group gained more muscle size (this time quite a bit more), but the results weren’t statistically significant. So again, the research is showing that there’s no advantage (and probably no disadvantage either) to pyramid training.
Why is there no difference between traditional and pyramid training? Every set between 6–20 reps, and perhaps even between 4–40 reps, stimulates a similar amount of muscle growth. If we combine sets of 8, 10, and 12 repetitions, then, we can expect the same results as doing 3 sets of 10 repetitions. So Reverse Pyramid Training isn’t better or worse than traditional hypertrophy training, it’s just one of several different effective ways to stimulate muscle growth.
Now, the next thing to consider is what rep ranges we should use when doing Reverse Pyramid Training. For that, we have a third study that found that using a tight rep range (of 12, 10, and 8 repetitions) stimulated the same amount of muscle growth as using a wider range (of 15, 10, and 5 repetitions). Again, this shows that if we’re lifting within the hypertrophy rep range, it doesn’t matter exactly how many reps we do per set, it just matters that we get close enough to failure.
Now, a big caveat with these studies is that they’re looking at pyramid training, not reverse pyramid training. Strength training is best done when fairly fresh, whereas hypertrophy training works fairly well even while fatigued. So, thinking about this logically, if we’re combining lower rep ranges with higher rep ranges, it should be better to put the lower rep ranges first, using them to gain strength, and then have the higher rep ranges afterwards, using them to add the volume we need for hypertrophy. So it’s possible that reverse pyramid training would have yielded better maximal strength gains than pyramid training. For hypertrophy, though, I don’t think it really matters. The important thing when training for muscle size is picking a reasonable rep range, doing enough sets, and bringing those sets close enough to failure.
Based on the limited evidence we have, it seems like Reverse Pyramid stimulates the same amount of muscle growth as traditional hypertrophy training when training volume is matched. Doing sets of 8, 10, and 12 repetitions likely stimulates the same amount of muscle growth as doing 3 sets of 10 repetitions. So it’s a totally viable and effective way to train, just not any more effective (or efficient) than a more traditional approach.
Is There a Benefit to AMRAP Sets?
Speaking of bringing our sets close enough to failure, the other aspect of reverse pyramid training is that there are no reps left in reserve on any set. There’s some research showing that when doing fewer sets per exercise, it’s better to push them closer to failure—that it can be a more efficient way to train. However, as Greg Nuckols discovered, that benefit only seems to apply to novice lifters doing isolation lifts (study, study, study, study). When we look at intermediate lifters doing compound lifts, there appears to be no difference between going all the way to failure and leaving 1–3 reps in reserve (study, study, study, study). So, since reverse pyramid training is typically used by intermediate lifters on compound lifts, it might be best to leave 1–3 reps in reserve on most sets.
However, we have some top researchers, including Brad Schoenfeld, PhD, who speculate that training to failure can help with muscle growth. There isn’t much research to support that recommendation (yet), but in practice, it can work quite well. His recommendation is to leave a couple of reps in reserve during most sets, but to take some of our final sets to failure, especially with smaller isolation lifts. That might mean leaving 2 reps in reserve on our first set of squats, 1 rep in reserve on our second set, and 0 reps in reserve on our final set. Then, with our biceps curls, leaving 0 reps in reserve in our first set, then going all the way to total muscular failure in our second set. Hell, if you have any juice left, you might want to strip off 30% of the weight and toss in a quick drop set.
Occasionally going to failure also has the benefit of making sure that we aren’t accidentally leaving more than 2–3 reps in reserve, which can severely reduce muscle growth. When an intermediate lifter hits a plateau, spending some time practicing lifting to failure (at least on some sets) can ensure that we’re lifting hard enough to actually stimulate a robust amount of muscle growth with every set that we’re doing.
Reverse Pyramid Training is typically done with each set being brought right to the cusp of failure—as many reps as possible (AMRAP). With our big compound lifts, it might be wiser to leave a couple of reps in reserve on earlier sets, saving AMRAP for our final sets of each exercise. Then, on the accessory lifts, going all the way to total failure on the final set might be even better than stopping just shy of failure.
We have one study showing that doing 1–2 heavy reps with 90% of 1RM before doing lighter sets increases performance. That’s not quite how reverse pyramid training works, though, and so I don’t think we can list this as a benefit. Rather, this is a reason for putting heavier sets before lighter ones when training in multiple rep ranges. This is a reason why reverse pyramid training is smarter than pyramid training, not why it’s better than traditional hypertrophy training.
We have another study that did more fatiguing heavy sets before the lighter ones, as is done with RPT, and there was no performance benefit. The conclusion was that unless the post-activation potentiation sets are far away from failure, they generate fatigue and thus don’t give a performance benefit to subsequent sets. Since Reverse Pyramid Training has us lifting hard every set, taking them quite close to failure, we can’t expect to see performance benefits from set to set. Rather, we’d expect to see performance losses between sets. Mind you, those first heavy sets do stimulate muscle growth, so no problem. We still get good working sets.
It makes sense to do our heavy sets before lighter ones, and lifting heavy might make those lighter sets feel lighter in our hands, but we probably don’t get the benefit of post-activation potentiation from Reverse Pyramid Training.
Overall, Reverse Pyramid Training is an effective and efficient way to gain muscle size and strength. It’s not better than traditional hypertrophy training, but it’s not any worse, either, at least on a set-by-set basis. For instance, doing a set of 8, 10, then 12 repetitions stimulates the same amount of muscle growth as doing 3 sets of 10 repetitions. After all, all of those sets are well within the hypertrophy rep range, and thus they all stimulate the same amount of muscle growth.
Since Reverse Pyramid Training and traditional hypertrophy training are similarly effective per set, the muscle-building advantage, then, goes to the workout routine that adds a fourth set or additional accessory lift. Mind you, that extra training volume increases time and energy spent working out, and the law of diminishing returns starts to kick in as volume climbs higher. By adding a fourth set, we may only get 10% more growth from doing 33% more work. If we add a fifth set, we may only get 5% more growth from doing 25% more work. So by doing just 2–3 sets for 4 lifts, we get great bang for our bulk. Therein lies the the value of these short but intense routines.
If you want a customizable workout program (and full guide) that builds these principles in, check out our Outlift Intermediate Bulking Program. You get to pick between four different workout programs, all of them designed to be both effective and efficient, but with the different routines ranging from lower to higher training volumes. Or, if you’re still skinny or skinny-fat, try our Bony to Beastly (men’s) program or Bony to Bombshell (women’s) program.