Reverse pyramid training is an effective way to get more out of your weightlifting workouts. Here’s why and how.
After years of studying, training, and working with thousands of people, I’ve learned a simple lesson:
Building muscle and strength just isn’t that complicated. You follow a handful of rules and your body responds by getting bigger and stronger.
- You don’t need to constantly change up your routine to “confuse” your muscles.
- You don’t need to focus on “fancy” rep schemes like supersets, drop sets, giant sets, etc.
- You don’t need to spend hours in the gym every day crushing yourself with 20+ sets per workout.
If that’s all you knew and followed, you’d be better informed and get better results than 95% of gymgoers. Depending on your ultimate goals, it might be all you need.
That said, if your goal is reaching the peak of your genetic potential for size and strength, there’s a bit more you should know.
One of the things you’ll want to learn about is training periodization and the method of reverse pyramid training in particular.
In this article we’ll talk about both: what training periodization and reverse pyramid training are, how they work, who they’re for, and how to put them into use.
Let’s get to it.
“Periodization” is a a fancy word that refers to methodical variations in training, such as changes in workout volume (number of sets performed), intensity (percentage of one-rep max, or 1RM, lifted), exercises performed, rest times, etc.
There are three distinct periodization models:
- Linear periodization
- Nonlinear periodization
- Concurrent periodization
Linear periodization is probably the most common, and it’s very simple.
It starts a with period of high volume of low-intensity exercise and works gradually toward a low volume of high-intensity exercise, or vice versa.
Over the course of several months, a simple linear periodization program might have you move from training in the 12 to 15 rep range to 10 to 12 reps, to 8 to 10 reps, to 6 to 8 reps, and so on, all the way down to focusing on doubles and singles.
Another common linear periodization model found in bodybuilding is an 8-week cycle that begins with 2 weeks of submaximal effort, followed by 6 weeks of maximum-intensity training.
Now, the problem with many mainstream linear periodization programs is this: when you train in just one rep range for too long, you’re building up one biomechanical capacity (muscle endurance with higher reps, pure strength with lower reps, etc.) but detraining (losing performance) in others.
For example, if someone did pure strength training (1 to 3 reps) for 2 to 3 months, he would find his strength has increased but muscle endurance has decreased in that time. Then, after 2 to 3 months of 10 to 12 rep training, his muscle endurance would be much better, but he would find his strength has decreased.
Similarly, if someone did a power bodybuilding program like Bigger Leaner Stronger (built around the 4 to 6 rep range) for several months, it’s very likely that he would lose muscle size if he then did pure strength training for a few months.
One way to overcome this limitation is to use shorter periods (2 to 3 weeks, for instance) or to use nonlinear periodization.
Nonlinear periodization has training variables change less sequentially and over shorter periods of time.
For example, one type of nonlinear periodization entails 2 to 3 weeks of focusing on training in a certain rep range while training the others at a maintenance level:
- 2 to 3 weeks of focusing on 10 to 12 reps, with maintenance work for 1 to 3 and 4 to 6 rep ranges
- 2 to 3 weeks of focusing on 4 to 6 reps, with maintenance work for 1 to 3 and 10 to 12 rep ranges
- 2 to 3 weeks of focusing on 1 to 3 reps, with maintenance work for 4 to 6 and 10 to 12 rep ranges
And so forth.
Concurrent (or conjugate) periodization is a type of nonlinear periodization that has you train each biomechanical capacity (rep range) in each workout.
This method was developed in Russia and is touted by many strength and bodybuilding experts (such as Louie Simmons of Westside Barbell fame) as the optimal way to periodize your training. Here’s how such a workout might look:
- Sets 1 to 3: 1 to 3 rep range
- Sets 4 to 7: 4 to 6 rep range
- Sets 8 to 10: 10 to 12 rep range
- Sets 11 and 12: 20 to 30 rep range
This concurrent model of periodization is also known as reverse pyramid training.
It’s called this because it’s the opposite of the traditional pyramid method that has you start your workout with lighter weights and more reps and gradually add weight as you progress.
Out of all the types of periodization I’ve tried, concurrent periodization is my favorite. It’s extremely effective for both building strength and muscle size, it’s relatively easy to program, and the workouts are challenging but enjoyable.
Now, before we get to how to use reverse pyramid training, let’s first talk about why training periodization works and who should be using it.
- Progressive tension overload
- Muscle damage
- Cellular fatigue
Progressive tension is, in my opinion (and the opinion of quite a few experts much smarter than me), the most important of the three.
It refers to progressively increasing tension levels in the muscle fibers over time. That is, lifting progressively heavier and heavier weights.
Muscle damage refers to just that—actual damage caused to the muscle fibers by high levels of tension. This damage necessitates repair, and if the body is provided with proper nutrition and rest, it will grow the fibers to better deal with future stimuli.
Cellular fatigue refers to pushing muscle fibers to their metabolic limits through the repetition of actions to muscular failure.
You can think of these three factors as separate growth “pathways.” That is, each can be targeted in training, with the resulting stimulation of varying degrees of hypertrophy.
It may have already occurred to you, but this is why natural weightlifters that focus on high-rep lifting, with little-to-no heavy lifting that gets progressively get heavier and heavier over time, fail to make any noticeable gains.
They are inducing a lot of cellular fatigue, especially if they do supersets, dropsets, and other fancy rep schemes, with some resulting muscle damage, but in the absence of progressive tension overload, muscle growth is very slow.
These “pump trainers” often also focus on isolation exercises, further reducing the effectiveness of their workouts (the sheer amount of muscle fibers you activate in a workout greatly affects overall growth).
Now, how does this relate back to training periodization?
Well, a proper periodization routine has you hitting all three pathways of hypertrophy:
- Progressive tension (overload)
- Muscle damage
- Metabolic stress/fatigue
As you’ve probably guessed, this is accomplished by working in different rep ranges. For example, my Beyond Bigger Leaner Stronger program utilizes periodization and has you performing sets in the 1 to 3, 4 to 6, and 8 to 10 rep ranges.
By emphasizing heavy lifting, you’re emphasizing progressive tension and muscle damage, and by including higher-rep work, you’re adding metabolic stress and fatigue. And the result is maximum stimulation for both strength and hypertrophy.
Now, as great as training periodization is, it’s not for everyone. Here’s why…
There’s no question that intermediate and advanced weightlifters looking to maximize size, strength, and performance should be periodizing their training.
I don’t recommend periodization for beginners, though. (And I would define a beginner as someone with less than 1 to 1.5 years of consistent, proper weightlifting under their belt; or a guy that has gained less than 20 to 25 pounds of muscle since starting weightlifting or girl that has gained less than 10 to 12 pounds of muscle.)
One of the reasons why I don’t recommend it for beginners is it’s just an unnecessary layer of complexity.
If you’re a guy, you’re looking to gain about 15 to 20 pounds of muscle in your first year of weightlifting. (And if you’re a girl, about half of that.)
No matter what you do with your training and diet, you’re just not going to gain more than that without drugs or extraordinary genetics.
Another reason is it can increase the risk of injury.
A well-designed, periodized training program is going to have you moving some really heavy weights on exercises like the squat, deadlift, and bench and military press. And as a newbie, this is just asking for injury.
You want to ensure you’re very comfortable with each exercise and can maintain proper form as loads increase before you start trying for singles, doubles, and triples. This means building a foundation of strength, which is best accomplished without periodization, and which just takes time.
Yet another reason is people new to weightlifting can’t make good use of higher rep ranges.
As you know, as you decrease loads and increase reps, you begin to emphasize the metabolic stress “pathway” of muscle growth.
The problem here is this pathway is the weakest driver of hypertrophy. If you can’t also progressively overload and damage your muscles, high-rep training just isn’t going to do much for you.
And how do you overload and damage your muscles with high-rep work? Well, you have to be able to lift moderately heavy weights for higher amounts of reps. And when you begin weightlifting, you’re just too weak to be able to do this. Plain and simple.
As you get bigger and stronger, though, you find that your muscle endurance improves as well. Eventually you’re able to put up some respectable amounts of weight for higher reps. And that’s when it’s profitable to start doing it. Until then, you’re better off focusing on getting to that point through heavy weightlifting.
Alright, then, with all that laid out, let’s now look at how reverse pyramid training works and how to utilize it in our training.
A reverse pyramid looks like this:
- You warm up to prepare your muscles for heavy loads.
- You start with your heaviest lifts.
- You progress to higher rep ranges.
For example, here’s a workout from my Beyond Bigger Leaner Stronger program:
Warm up as discussed in book (several sets that prepare the muscle group for what’s to come without fatiguing it)
2 x Bench Press @ 2 to 3 rep range (about 90% of 1RM)
3 x Incline Bench Press @ 4 to 6 rep range (about 85% of 1RM)
3 x Incline Dumbbell Press @ 4 to 6 rep range
2 x Dips @ 8 to 10 rep range (weighted to about 75% of 1RM)
If that workout looks too short and simple to you, trust me, it’s a lot harder and more effective than you think.
Here’s an example of how I would periodize a lower body workout for a woman:
2 x Squat @ 4 to 6 rep range
3 x Front Squat @ 8 to 10 rep range
3 x Romanian Deadlift @ 8 to 10 rep range
2 x Bulgarian Split Squats @ 13 to 15 rep range
2 x Hip Thrust @ 13 to 15 rep range
In case you’re wondering why the woman’s sets are in higher rep ranges than men’s, it’s because (unsurprisingly) women don’t respond as well as men to regular bouts of very intense (heavy) weightlifting.
Simply put, us guys can punish our muscles harder and more frequently than girls can without falling behind in muscle recovery.
I would include some very heavy training in a periodized workout program for women, but it would be once every 4 to 6 weeks (I will be releasing a book for advanced female weightlifters later this year and will go into this further in the book.)
Now, after tinkering with quite a few different concurrent periodization models, I’ve settled on a few programming principles.
You should emphasize moderately heavy lifting and “bookend” it with very heavy and lighter work.
As you can see above, you start your workout with 2 sets of very heavy lifting, then move to 6 sets of moderately heavy, and finish with 2 sets of lighter weights.
This works well.
You don’t do so much very heavy work that you overtrain or run out of juice in the middle of your workout, and you do enough lighter work to give a hypertrophy “boost” without dwelling on it longer than necessary, chasing the pump.
Your heaviest lifting should always be done with compound lifts.
This is key.
With the exception of training your arms, you should always start your workouts, whether periodized or not, with your big, compound lifts. That is, your deadlift, squat, bench and military press. (There is no equivalent of these exercises for arms, really.)
You want to do these exercises first because they give you the most total-body development and they require the most energy. You also don’t want to be attempting dumbbell flyes or side lateral raises with 90% of your 1RM–your shoulders will likely explode.
As a general rule, once you start moving beyond 80% of 1RM, you should be limiting your exercise choices to compound movements.
Thus, your periodized workouts should always begin with heavy, compound weightlifting.
You should use higher rep ranges to perform “assistance” and isolation exercises.
Workout programs that focus on isolation exercises are becoming less and less popular these days, and on the whole, this is a good thing.
That said, like high-rep training, isolation exercises do have a place in a well-designed workout program.
Specifically, they’re great for aiding in the development of smaller, stubborn muscles like the shoulders, biceps and triceps, and calves.
The truth is it’s hard to balance the proportions of your physique with compound exercises alone. You’re unlikely to develop shoulders, arms, and calves that really pop, and this noticeably detracts from your body’s overall visual appeal.
You should deload every 4 to 6 weeks.
Deloading is an intentional reduction in training intensity to give your muscles and central nervous system a break from the heavy pounding.
It’s not necessary if your workouts consist mainly of lightweight isolation exercises, but it’s very necessary if you do a lot of heavy, compound lifting. If you neglect it, you will overtrain.
My preferred method of deloading is simple. Here’s an example:
3 x Military Press @ 8 to 10 reps with 50% of 1RM
3 x Incline Bench Press @ same
3 x Close-Grip Bench Press @ same
2 x Dips with bodyweight to failure
3 x Deadlift @ 8 to 10 reps with 50% of 1RM
3 x Barbell Row @ same
3 x One-Arm Dumbbell Row @ same
2 x Pullups with bodyweight to failure
3 x Squat @ 8 to 10 reps with 50% of 1RM
3 x Front Squat @ same
3 x Leg Press @ same
2 x Pistol Squat with bodyweight to failure
These workouts aren’t hard and they’re not supposed to be. You should leave the gym with a pump and feeling energized.
Unlike many workout gimmicks and schemes, reverse pyramid training is a time-proven training methodology that works extremely well with intermediate and advanced weightlifters.
If you have a couple of years of proper weightlifting under your belt and feel stuck or want to squeeze as much muscle and strength out of your genetics as possible, reverse pyramid training can help.
Follow the guidelines in this article and you’ll avoid the pitfalls of this style of weightlifting and have no trouble laying out enjoyable, effective workout routines.
And if you’d like a me to lay out the routine for you, check out my book for advanced weightlifters: Beyond Bigger Leaner Stronger.