Starting with a light weight for high reps and progressing to heavier weights, for low reps is the standard pyramid training rep scheme. Now the training gods have told us we’ve had it all backward and can gain significantly more strength and size by reversing it.
People have been doing traditional pyramid training since — hold on, let us check again — yep, since the beginning of time. Going up in weight while reducing reps from set to set has long been used as a way to build strength and mass. The ol’ 10-8-6 scheme probably appeared at least once in the last year of your training journal, and guys returning from a long break love to use this method as their default “get beasty” approach. This type of training certainly has merit but how does it hold up to scrutiny when compared to its mirror image: reverse pyramid training? We’re about to find out.
Reverse pyramid training, for the record, requires lifters to perform their heaviest sets with low reps early before lowering the weight each successive set and completing more reps.
“I don’t want to say traditional pyramiding is flawed, but it requires you to make sure you save enough energy for heavier sets,” says Josh Bryant, MFS, CSCS, PES, owner of JoshStrength.com and co-author of the eBook Metroflex Gym Powerbu.ild.ing Basics. “If you’re very advanced and have a good strength base, traditional pyramiding would be more effective than if you’re just starting out, or are looking to increase overall strength and mass.”
Sounds like it’s time to unlock the secrets of the pyramids.
“Traditional pyramiding (sometimes called ascending pyramids) involves high reps at the beginning of the workout, i.e. the base of pyramid, and as you work your way up the pyramid you decrease reps and increase weight,” Bryant says. A sample would be doing bench presses for one set of 185 pounds for 12 reps, then 205 for 10 reps, then 225 for eight reps, then 245 pounds for six reps. “Reverse pyramiding is the opposite — the base is the heavy weight and you increase reps and decrease weight as you work your way up the pyramid.” That is, after very light warm-up sets, you jump right into your heavy weight for low reps, then take plates off each succeeding set for higher reps.
Unfortunately, the protocols for traditional pyramiding can end up being breached by lifters who fail to grasp the most obvious benefit of this type of training. To make the most of your heavy sets, you need to be warm but not fatigued. Too many lifters take their early sets to muscle failure and have nary the fuel to produce a max effort on the later sets (again, same exercise), resulting in sub-par technique, missed lifts and increased risk of injury Taken together, this may not only hinder gains but it may also leave lifters incredibly discouraged.
“If you’re burning yourself out on light weights and not giving yourself a chance to make strength gains, you’re short-changing yourself,” Bryant says.
Done properly, lifters leave some in reserve for that last strength-and-hypertrophy inducing max-load set by training short of failure on the first few sets — stopping at 10 reps when you could’ve done 12-15, for example. This also leaves something to be desired because it makes those sets little more than de facto warm-ups, and high-volume, submaximal lifting ain’t exactly the stuff of Arnold, Dorian and Ronnie.
“Many college strength coaches purposely assign lighter sets that aren’t fatiguing prior to the heavy sets because they know that athletes won’t properly warm-up,” says Bryant.
Assuming that you’re a big boy, and that you can (and will) pay proper attention to warming up already (because nobody just jumps right into their heaviest sets), let’s dive into the benefits of training the pyramid in reverse.
Pyramids in Reverse
Reverse pyramids (also called descending pyramids) aren’t new but for some reason they’ve managed to avoid the spotlight, which for so long has been shone brightly on their more stout-based cousins. This confounds and frustrates guys like Bryant who see strength as the cornerstone of any athlete’s existence.
“Too many lifters take their early sets to muscle failure and have nary the fuel to produce a max effort on the later sets.”
“Your limit strength is the amount of muscular force you can generate in one all-out effort, regardless of time,” he says. “In other words, it’s your one-rep max in a core lift. This is your athletic base, regardless of the sport. If you’re a sprinter, it means how hard you can push off the ground to propel yourself forward. If you’re a football player, to make the cut you must have the strength to change directions rapidly planting and pushing off one leg. If you’re a powerlifter, it’s your life. And if you’re a bodybuilder, it’s much more important than you think.”
That’s why, according to Bryant, reversing the pyramid makes much more sense for those looking to gain strength. If your 5RM on the bench is 250 pounds, would you rather tackle that set up front when you’re fresh and your preworkout beverage is doing it’s thing, or later on after 25 other reps performed to near failure?
“Reverse pyramiding will allow you to build strength very effectively because the most important strength-building set is the first set,” says Bryant. “Training this way, the athlete is 100% fresh for his heaviest sets.”
But greater strength isn’t the only benefit for reverse pyramiders. After your initial first heavy set or two, you’ll “back off,” lowering the weight to complete more reps of the same exercise. Those subsequent sets of 10,12,15 or more will flood your already-taxed muscle bellies with more pump- and growth-inducing blood and nutrients and recruit additional muscle fibers.
There are really two key principles at play: post-activation potentiation (PAP) and compensatory acceleration training.
“Post-activation potentiation refers to the enhancement of muscle function following a high-force activity,” says Bryant. “The late Yuri Verkhoshansky, legendary Russian sports scientist, explained PAP in layman’s terms by saying, ‘When you perform a 3-5-rep max followed by a light explosive set… to your nervous system it’s like lifting a half can of water when you think it’s full.’ In other words, the weight feels lighter and moves faster.”
Numerous studies on PAP have shown improved sprint and jump power output following heavy squats. Research out of East Stroudsburg University (Pennsylvania) found that athletes ran faster in a 40-meter sprint four minutes after three reps of the squat with 90% of their 1RM than those who ran without squatting first. Post-activation potentiation “awakens” your nervous system, helpingyou to recruit more force-producing motor units than you normally would. So even though you’re reducing the weight on your later sets, you’re still able to lift cumulatively more weight than you might throughout the course of a “normal” pyramid set, which means more growth in the long run.
“The same that holds true with sprinting or jumping would apply when going from a maximal to a submaximal lift,” says Bryant. “I’ve used this strategy with people performing a bench press for maximum reps at a combine. If the weight is 225 for maximum reps, they’ll do a single with a weight in the 275-315 range. They can always do more reps this way than they can by warming up and making 225 the heaviest set.”
But even when lifting with those submax weight loads, Bryant says, it’s important to “power” through each rep.
“Compensatory Acceleration Training (CAT) means to lift submaximal weights with maximum force,” he says. “In other words, lift light weights as explosively as possible. Generally, these sets are in the 50-80% range of your 1RM. This is a great tool for anyone trying to gain
“Reverse pyramiding will allow you to build strength very effectively because the most important strength-building set is the first set.”
strength or size because it teaches the muscles to be explosive.”
So to summarize: Reverse pyramid training allows you to lift heavier weight than with traditional pyramids, not only in the beginning of the set, but throughout the remainder of sets for a particular exercise. Memorize that line and see if your conscience doesn’t come into play the next time you attempt going the 10-8-6 route.
“Growth, calorie burn and blood flow will all be improved because you’re able to perform more effectively after handling a heavier weight,” says Bryant. “Everything can be done more effectively after lifting a heavy weight first.”
How to Reverse It
“There is no ideal number of sets and reps for reverse pyramid training,” says Bryant, adding that the important part is going heavy with low reps first, then moving to lighter-weight, higher-rep sets. But the basic rules of strength and hypertrophy still apply: sets of 3-6 reps are ideal for strength, 8-12 reps per set is ideal for muscle gains and 15-20 reps is best for muscular endurance. A good reverse pyramid scheme will give you a bit of each, but you may want to alter your set protocol to suit your main objective.
For example, if your primary focus is strength and you’re doing five sets, you may want to go 3,3,8,12 and 15, decreasing the weight load each time. The two sets of three at the outset allow you to train heavy with your best effort, while the sets that follow recruit additional fibers and tax your muscles in different ways.
Those more focused on adding mass can adjust accordingly, starting out with the heaviest weight they can move for eight reps before backing off. That may look something like this: 8, 8, 10, 12 and 20. The early sets allow you to move heavier weight for eight reps than you could with traditional pyramiding, which puts your heaviest work last.
And this type of training isn’t reserved for large, multijoint movements. Isolation movements can be used, as well, although with certain caveats.
“When doing an exercise such as a Scott curl for your biceps, there’s no reason to do a IRM,” says Bryant. “However, if your heaviest set is eight reps and your lightest one is 20 reps, you can do your heaviest set first, and then progressively decrease the weight. This will make for agreat workout and d irectly applies the reverse pyramid concept.”
Pyramids: No Mystery
Bodybuilders grow bigger and then lean out using a variety of training methods over the course of a year. But the extent of that progress can be greatly enhanced by going outside the box or, turning a popular training technique completely upside down. By performing your heaviest sets first, you’ll lift more total weight with cleaner technique. And by splashing your high-er-rep sets in afterward, you’ll be breaking down target muscles to the very last fiber. The bottom line is that reverse pyramids help to construct muscle that’s measurably stronger and visibly more mature, and will work their magic even more effectively if you’ve been following traditional pyramids for too long.