Reverse Pyramid Training VS Traditional Pyramid Weight Training
Pyramid training is probably one of the most common types of weight training yet many might not even realize that they are doing it. Have you ever started out your bench press with 135 lbs for the first set, upped it to 185 lbs the next then 205 lbs the third? Guess what, that’s basically pyramid training in it’s most simple form.
The reverse pyramid has been made popular, largely by Martin Berkhan … and he knows a thing or two about lifting.
The concept of pyramid training is to simply add weight as you go while simultaneously decreasing the number of reps you do. For many, this is the go-to method for building muscle. But is Pyramid weight training really the “best” method for building muscle? Is it even a good method?
Well, the term “best” gets thrown around way too much and in reality what works better for one person might not work for another. However, it’s safe to say that if you’re looking to build stronger muscle, traditional pyramid training is probably not the answer.
Instead, you might want to consider reverse pyramid training. What’s that? Since it’s the opposite of the traditional pyramids, you start with the heaviest weight and decrease the weight from set to set while increasing the number of reps.
The amount of reps can vary depending upon what your main focus is. Here is an example of what the two different pyramids could look like for a common lift like the bench press.
Pyramid Weight Training:
- 10 reps – 155 lbs
- 8 reps – 165 lbs
- 6 reps – 185 lbs
This is considered a 6-10 rep pyramid.
Reverse Pyramid Training:
- 6 reps – 205 lbs
- 8 reps – 195 lbs
- 10 reps – 185 lbs
This is considered a 6-10 rep, reverse pyramid.
What’s Wrong With Traditional Pyramid Weight Training?
Although the pyramid is most likely the “go-to” workout routine for many gym goers, it really is not the smartest approach for building strong muscle. In fact, I would assume that the main reason it is so popular is simply due to the fact that many gym goers don’t have a real plan of attack.
They show up to the gym and start with a fairly light weight. They continue to increase the weight as they go “because they are getting warmed up” and they don’t want to pull a muscle. By the time they reach a fairly heavy weight … they’re now worn out, or at least have a significantly decreased amount of strength.
While I do completely agree, you should definitely warm up prior to lifting, this is certainly not an efficient way to train.
Instead of getting under the bar with your best foot forward, you are now “warmed up” (fatigued) to a significant enough degree that you cannot lift to your real potential. You are never going to be able to handle much heavier weights because you are training your muscles to be tired once the weight gets challenging.
In the end, traditional pyramid training causes you to lift the lightest weights when you are the strongest, and the heaviest weights when you are the weakest … doesn’t make too much sense.
Note: There are some occasions when doing a more traditional pyramid is actually a good thing. If you are focusing your efforts on trying to fatigue the muscle and are shooting for sarcoplasmic hypertrophy then these actually do work really well.
They are also great for beginners since they teach proper form while continually increasing weight at a manageable pace.
How To Do Reverse Pyramid Training
Instead of going to the gym on your next workout with the idea of winging it by doing 3 sets of 10 reps only to find that you actually end up doing:
- 1 set of 10 reps @ 135 lbs (warmup)
- 1 set of 10 reps @ 185 lbs
- 1 set of 8 reps @ 205 lbs (oops, too heavy)
- 1 set of 7 reps @ 185 lbs (too tired now)
how about planning to do a reverse pyramid.
Now, I’m not saying that I’ve never been guilty doing a set/rep scheme similar to the one above. I am, however happy to say that I’ve learned and seen first hand that this is not the most efficient or effective way to train … and I’ve moved on.
Setting up your reverse pyramid workout
Now that you’re planning on a (good) set/rep scheme, it’s time to pick the rep range you want to work in. A nice benefit to doing reverse pyramids is that you can choose different rep ranges depending on what your goals are.
As a general rule, here are what the different rep ranges work:
- 1-3 reps – Pure strength & definition
- 4-6 reps – Mostly strength & definition with little gains in size
- 7-10 reps – Mostly size with little gains in strength & density
- 11-15 reps – Pure size
For a more detailed write-up you can check out this article for more on how many reps you should do.
It should also be noted that you can do a tighter reverse pyramid such as only doing a rep range of 8-10 or even a wider range like 8-12 reps.
Here’s what your workout could look like with a 4-7 rep range for bench press.
- 3 reps @ 145 lbs
- 3 reps @ 145 lbs
- 4 reps @ 235 lbs
- 5 reps @ 220 lbs
- 6 reps @ 205 lbs
- 7 reps @ 190 lbs
Note: Working like this is very taxing. Make sure to get sufficient rest between each set; at least 2 minutes between each set and maybe even 3.
Also, these rep ranges are just for an example. I actually feel that traditional pyramids are probably best for muscle size (higher reps), whereas reverse pyramids are probably best for strength gains (lower reps).
You should pick a weight that you can do for the given amount of reps. Your first set should be pretty darn close to failure. You do want to be able to complete 4 reps but if you can do 5 you’ll need to increase the weight on your next visit to the gym.
The following reps should be done 1 rep short of failure. So if you can do 7 reps for the second set you should increase the weight the next visit. If you can do 6, you’re good to go.
Increasing the weight and continually improving is the idea so if you feel you can complete a full 7 reps for the second set then lift to your potential and up the weight. You do want make sure that you are able to lift more rep(s) than the previous sets.
June 12, 2012 @ 11:15 am
Great article. I have been doing reverse pyramids for awhile now and love the strength gains. Quick question regarding the rep range you outlined above. Depending on your goal (size vs strength), do you pick a category based on your first set or your last set? For example, if pure size was my goal, would my first set be in the 11-15 range or would I want to adjust so my last set was in the 11-15 range? Currently I do 4-6-8 on most lifts and have gotten really strong but now I am looking to add some size along with my strength gains.
August 2, 2012 @ 8:01 am
If you’re wanting to continue to gain strength and add size as well I would try 6-8-10. See how your body responds and if you need you could bump it up to 8-10-12.
I hope that helps!
June 13, 2012 @ 1:28 am
Good article! I’ve used the system from time to time, and I like it but I like to change.
Some questions, if you don’t mind:
1) Would you keep 2-3 min rest even if going for pure size, or less than that in such a case?
2) Would you do 3 sets or more than that?
3) Do you recommend a tighter range such as 8-9-10 or wider, such as 6-8-10?
Thanks a bunch!
george super bootcamps
September 17, 2012 @ 3:23 am
I’ll take a pop at answering your questions, having just come to this post by Kevin.
1: 2-3 mins rest will allow you to balance rest and muscle fatigue. If you opt for shorter rest periods you’ll get greater occlusion (which will lead to greater sarcoplasmic hypertrophy – showy muscle gains), and if you go for longer periods you’ll be able to lift greater weights, which will promote myofibrillar hypertrophy – hard muscle gains. As with the next two questions, the key is balance. It’s another variable to play around with. Have you done 2-3min rests for a while? Change it around and drop it to 45-60 secs for a bit, then change again to take it up to 4 mins and give your body a chance to adapt to both. Neither is wrong, per se, but each can be more appropriate.
2: I’d opt for a second exercise rather than more sets. Train a different movement pattern and a slightly different set of muscle fibres.
3: I’d go for whatever the weight drops give you; I prefer to think in rep ranges rather than specific numbers, after all, your body doens’t know about numbers, it just knows the tension and fatigue you’re putting it through. So if you follow Martin Berkhans method and drop 10% or so each set, you determine your rep range by your starting rep and your ability to recover (which is where the variable in q1 comes in; if you take shorter rests you’ll end up either keeping the reps the same over the sets or only increasing by 1 rep or so, whereas if you have bigger rest periods you’ll be able to crank out higher rep numbers each set).
I hope this helps, feel free to ask any more questions you might have.
Greg - Kinobody Fitness
June 14, 2012 @ 11:57 am
Very well written article Kev!
Reverse pyramid training is my favourite way to lift! Strength gains have been incredible. Your method of reverse pyramid training seems more geared towards hypertrophy. Would definitely be ideal during a maintenance or muscle gaining phase.
Since I’m dieting I like to keep the volume/work a little bit lower for reverse pyramid training. My first work set is always max effort and then I will do 2 more sets reducing the weight by 10% each time and only adding 1-2 more reps.
When I’m off my dieting stint I will definitely look into trying it your way with smaller reductions in weight and more volume.
October 12, 2012 @ 5:48 pm
Thanks Greg! Yep, RPT is the way to go.
November 17, 2012 @ 8:27 pm
Hi in every work out I ll do from heavy weight to lower weight 4 sets is it good and tell me good work outs for back muscles
April 2, 2013 @ 10:32 pm
Nice article Kevin,
I followed a 3days full body routine over 3 motnhs and i can say than worked perfect on me. I almost double my total workload. Due to work reasons i had an abscence of 2 months from the gym and now i start over again and i am tochange to 4days routine, 2 times uper body and 2 times legs + arms per week. My question based on the sets while going from one excersice to the other.
For eaxmple, i press on bench 2sets of 6,8 reps then go to incline bench and do 6,8 reps and then do dumbbell flyes 6,8 reps or should 6,8 > 8,10 > 10,12 and make one pyramid of 3 exercises ?
November 7, 2015 @ 4:27 am
Although some of what is stated in this article is true, through self experimentation, reading studies and discussing it with other long time fitness experts I’ve come to the conclusion that it depends on you’re own personal abilities. For example I find building strength really easy (maybe its genetic) but I find I really struggle when I get to my 8 to 12 reps (the muscle building reps as some people would put it) and the 12 to 15 reps (my own muscular endurance exercise). When I chose to do endurance first on gym sesscion I had much better results because I need a lot more energy to do my endurance and muscle building sets heavier when it came to my strength sets I still made the progress I was expecting to make when doing my reverse pyramid set! For me building strength is easy so I can put it last! But if you find increasing strength the hardest thing to do then do that first!