THERE’S A REASON why “3 sets of 10” has been a strength training mainstay since at least the 1950s: The rep scheme works. Decades of research and reams of real-world evidence prove that hefting a load that challenges you to complete 10 reps in each of three sets can help kickstart both muscle growth and strength building—but only up to a point. As with everything else in strength training, you’ll eventually need to incorporate greater variety into your program to fully optimize your results.
That’s why seasoned lifters keep a handful of set and rep schemes in their back pocket. Drop sets, monster sets, super sets, tri-sets—each of these lifting strategies has a place in a periodized program and every one of them can help amplify your long-term gains. So can a pyramid set structure, which entail working your way up from 12 or more reps of a light weight to just a few reps of a heavy one in successive sets.
But if you want to maximize your progress, you’ll take a page from the training manuals of some of the world’s top bodybuilders by flipping that pyramid scheme on its head.
What Is Reverse Pyramid Training?
Just as its name implies, a reverse pyramid rep scheme is the inverse of a regular pyramid structure. In practice, that means instead of starting with, say, 12 to 15 reps of a relatively light weight, you begin with a weight that challenges you to perform no more than four to eight reps of a given exercise.
In each successive set, you’ll reduce the weight by 10 percent while increasing the rep count by two, ultimately maxing out at around 12 reps. If done correctly, you’ll struggle to complete the last two reps in each set with perfect form.
What Are the Advantages of Reverse Pyramid Training?
Regardless of whether you’re doing a classic pyramid or a reverse one, the goal is the same: introduce a novel structure for your training, and maximize the engagement of both type I (endurance-oriented) and type II (strength and power-focused) muscle fibers. Although the latter fiber type has more growth potential, research shows that you need to hit both to optimize muscle building—and that’s where a reverse pyramid has an edge.
If you start out with low weight and high reps (as you would with a classic pyramid), you’ll hit your type I fibers first. Consequently, your type II fibers will be nearing exhaustion by the time you hit nail directly at the top of the pyramid, and as a result, you won’t be able to engage them as optimally as you would if they were fresh.
Not so with a reverse pyramid, which pounds your type II fibers at the beginning when they’re strongest and engages your type I fibers increasingly in later sets, thus allowing their true value (endurance) to shine through. Best of all, since both fiber types have growth potential, you’ll optimize your gains across the board.
How to Use Reverse Pyramid Training in Your Workout Program
Reverse pyramid training can be extremely taxing, so you don’t want to make it your sole set/rep scheme for any workout—let alone your weekly routine. Instead, employ it two to three times a week across two to three workouts, targeting key muscle groups—the bigger, the better—each time.
Here’s an example of how you might use it to upshift muscle growth in your pecs in a specific training session with the barbell bench press:
- Set 1: 12 to 15 reps
- Set 2: 8 to 12 reps
- Set 3: 6 to 8 reps
- Set 4: 4 to 6 reps
Repeat that sequence up to three times with 30 to 60 seconds of rest between efforts. Your muscles should be begging for mercy by the end of the third set, but that deep burn just speaks to the hypertrophic results to come. Embrace it. And if you have the time, stack on any of our recovery routines to bounce back fast and keep performing at your peak.
Trevor Thieme is a Los Angeles-based writer and strength coach, and a former fitness editor at Men’s Health. When not helping others get in shape, he splits his time between surfing, skiing, hiking, mountain biking, and trying to keep up with his seven year-old daughter.