Bodyweight Reverse Pyramid Training

Rough Strength Back Lever on RingsSo I have not been releasing new articles for quite some time. You may think: “Ah… He just gets drunk every night and is so hungover that cannot even type”. There is no fucking way for this to be true. I was busy with some useful things, which I will reveal at the end.

And now I would like to kick some ass with an article about the training approach that I consider the one of the most effective out there. Enter the Reverse Pyramid Training.

What Is Reverse Pyramid Training [RPT]?

It all started in my early training days. I experimented a bit with an approach  that everybody called “Reverse Pyramid Training”. There was no information on it, and I had no access to the internet at that time. It was a pure assumption that if you can ramp the weight up every set, you should be able to do it other way around. Due to the lack of expertise and  the moronic race to increase the working weight every session I was not able to get any meaningful results. As a consequence, I dropped the approach and considered it ineffective for some time.

Several years ago I was introduced to a reasonable version of Reverse Pyramid Training by this article. Martin Berkhan claimed it to be “the most successful” for him and his clients. The photos and videos proved his words. After that, I have seen lots of people all over the internet who used this approach with success.

So what is this Reverse Pyramid Training? It is a low-volume high-intensity training approach that calls for decreasing working weight every set. Basically, you pick an exercise, warm up, perform one set to positive muscle failure, rest for 3-5 minutes, subtract 10% from the working weight, repeat the effort, again rest for 3-5 minutes, subtract another 10%, and repeat the effort. That is it for the given exercise. In addition, you can perform only two sets instead of three in some exercises. To visualize it better, let me give you an example assuming our exercise is Barbell Military Press and 80 kg is a 5RM:

1. You perform 5 reps with 80 kg;

2. Rest for 3-5 minutes;

3. You perform 6 reps with 72.5 kg;

4. Rest for 3-5 minutes;

5. You perform 6 reps with 65 kg.

Of course, this situation is hypothetical, but you should get the idea of how Reverse Pyramid Training works.

In addition, Martin suggests to use the principle of double progression, which fits here perfectly. You can check out my article about it here. For lazy bastards, here is the summary:

  • Set up a rep range, which you prefer to improve in. For example, 6 to 8 reps.
  • Pick a working weight that allows you to finish the lowest amount of reps in that range.
  • Stay with this weight until you can perform the highest amount in the range.
  • Increase the weight and start over.

This system is perfect for Reverse Pyramid Training because it allows more gradual intensity increase, which a must for HIT-style programs. Additionally, you can use a wider rep range, not only 6-8 or 10-12. For example, it can be 6-12. In this case, you can make bigger intensity jumps once you hit your upper range. However, you will be working with the same weight longer. It is all a matter of experimentation.

Regarding training frequency, the prescription is once per week. It makes sense because we are working to failure.

Finally, you should progress independently in all the sets. If you hit the upper amount of repetitions in any of the sets, you should increase the working weight in it the next time, even if you have not reached your goal in other sets.

What is the difference comparing to Mike Mentzer’s High-Intensity Training? Obviously, RPT has much more volume, which can be greater for muscle gains; and it is much more reasonable approach to strength training than vague HIT regarding sets, reps and progression.

If you want to read the in-depth guide to RPT, I encourage you to check out this page.

My Experience with Reverse Pyramid Training

I used Reverse Pyramid Training with a lot of success in times when I trained with a barbell. It worked like a clock. After I started training exclusively with the Rough Strength Method, I used RPT with my clients who had access to a barbell, and it never failed me.

So what is the problem? Reverse Pyramid Training approach relies on exact percentages, therefore it requires a training implement that is as gradual as possible in terms of intensity. While a barbell can deliver you that with its 2.5 kg increments, pure calisthenics fail miserably. “There is no chance for you to shave off precisely 10% in advanced calisthenics exercises” – that is what I thought until recent time…

How to Make It Work with Calisthenics?

A simple and powerful idea came to my mind. What if you look at that 10% subtraction from the other side? Let me explain what I mean. If you perform, for example, 6 reps with 100 kg in the first set, you should be able to perform 5-7 reps with 90 kg (100 kg – 10%) in the second. Therefore, we can be guided not with the working weight (which we cannot estimate with bodyweight exercises), but with the proper amount of reps instead. Our goal can be not to subtract 10% from the working weight, but to find an exercise variation that will allow the same amount of reps after the first set. For example, these three exercises work well for me in the Planche Push-Up progression:

Set 1 – Straddle Planche Push-Ups

Set 2 – Tuck to Straddle Planche Push-Ups (tuck at the top, straddle at the bottom)

Set 3 – Tuck Planche Push-Ups

If I work to positive muscle failure, this chain of exercises represents that 10% subtraction. “But it isn’t that smooth every time!” – you may object. And you are true. However, here are two articles that will help you to make calisthenics much more gradual:

These two pieces should answer all your questions. With their help, you should be able to pick the exact -10% variation. Also, adding weight to bodyweight exercises will be essential for a more gradual progression.

The final question is how the hell you are supposed to know what variation to choose? You can determine it only through the experimentation. It will take a couple of sessions to accomplish this task, but in the end, I think it is worth the effort.

A Note on Training to Failure

You should probably know by this time that usually I do not advise training to failure. I will explain why. When people hear the word “failure”, they seem to get crazy. They believe their duty is to destroy their muscles in lots of sets that are taken to negative failure (it is when you cannot even resist the weight on its way down) until the blood is running from all their holes. After each set, they are not able to hold a pen to write down the amount of reps in their training log. Of course, this approach to training will bring you nothing except CNS burnout and frustration.

On the other hand, a smart approach like RPT that requires training to positive failure in a limited amount of sets, with intensity management and only once per week is totally viable.

Strength, Not Skills

Let us get back to calisthenics. Now get this straight. Reverse Pyramid Training works only for strength development, not for skills. It would be a mistake to hold a Handstand once a week to failure. Skill work requires frequent practice and avoiding failure. You are not playing the piano until your fingers refuse to move, right? The same is true for any other skill.

Some advanced bodyweight moves require decent skill in addition to strength. For example, Planche Push-Ups. However, in my experience, once you moved past the initial learning stage, you can easily train them once a week and get results.

Mix and Match

I would like you to know that you are not doomed to use RPT with every exercise in your program. You are free to mix and match. Experiment to find out what is the best for you. For example, you can use RPT for basic exercises and conventional set/rep scheme for assistance work. Or you can use RPT only for one exercise in your program. Options are endless.

Example Bodyweight Reverse Pyramid Program

Now we need to apply the knowledge. Let’s take the example program from the Fitocracy Guide to RPT that I linked to above. Here it is:

Back Day (Monday)

Barbell Deadlift –
Set 1: 4-6 reps
Set 2: Backoff Set

Military Press –
One set of 6-8 reps

Chin-up (weighted) –
Set 1: 4-6 reps
Set 2: Backoff Set

Pendlay Rows –
2 sets x 5 reps

Chest and Arms (Wednesday)

Barbell Bench Press –
Set 1: 6-10 reps
Set 2: Backoff Set
Set 3: Backoff Set

Barbell Incline Bench Press –
Set 1: 8-12 reps
Set 2: Backoff Set

Barbell Bicep Curls (Cambered Bar) –
One set of 8-12 reps

Legs (Friday)

Barbell Squats –
Set 1: 6-8 reps
Set 2: Backoff Set
Set 3: Backoff Set

Leg Curls –
Set 1: 8-12 reps
Set 2: Backoff Set

Weighted Ab Cable Crunches

One set of 10-20 reps

We will just substitute the exercises in the program for their bodyweight analogues:

Back Day (Monday)

One-Arm Chin-Up –
Set 1: 4-6 reps
Set 2: Backoff Set

Handstand Push-Up –
One set of 6-8 reps

Front Lever Pull-Ups –
Set 1: 4-6 reps
Set 2: Backoff Set

Bridges –
One set of 10-20 reps

Chest and Arms (Wednesday)

Planche Push-Ups –
Set 1: 6-10 reps
Set 2: Backoff Set
Set 3: Backoff Set

Perfect One-Arm Push-Up –
Set 1: 8-12 reps
Set 2: Backoff Set

Ring Bicep Curls –
One set of 8-12 reps

Legs (Friday)

Weighted Pistols –
Set 1: 6-8 reps
Set 2: Backoff Set
Set 3: Backoff Set

Glute-Ham Raise Negatives –
Set 1: 6-8 reps
Set 2: Backoff Set

Hanging Leg Raises –

One set of 10-20 reps

NOTE: To use this routine, you should scale the intensity to your current strength levels.

As you can see, we can easily make any program exclusively bodyweight. Of course, you should not expect the same results from the second program as from the first because despite the similarity, exercises that are used are still different. In addition, you must have noticed that I rearranged the first day. There is no other way around because there is no bodyweight substitution for the Deadlift.

After the bodyweight program is ready, you should experiment to determine the proper exercises for the backoff sets. Just use the repetition principle I explained in the “How to Make It Work” section.

How to Cope with Plateaus?

Even with such a simple program you still can hit a plateau. Refer to this article for help, Basically, you need to change something. Introduce some variety. Change the width of the grip, or the angle of the body. Even a minor change can lead to results.

What about Sandbags?

With sandbags everything should be simple because it is the most progressive tool out there. You are the one who decides the weight of the increment. It should not be a problem to subtract 10% of weight from the sandbag. However, your bag should be adjustable. To learn how to make one, read this article.

What about Kettlebells?

Kettlebells will be harder to adjust. Reverse Pyramid Training is far from optimal for the kettlebell strength training, but it is still possible. My advice would be to have at least a pair of 16 kg, 24 kg and 32 kg. Additionally, you will need small plates and dumbbells weighing in the 1-8 kg range. To learn more, I suggest to read this article.

Closing Thoughts

The brilliance of Reverse Pyramid Training is in its “rate on investment”. With this approach, time investment is low and training effect is high. RPT is not for you if you have lots of time and absolutely love spending several hours per day in the gym. RPT is for people who squeeze training sessions here and there to make it all work. Anyway, I encourage you to try this approach and decide from there. Now you have all you need to make it work with anything you have. As always thanks for reading.

P.S. Why It Took So Long?

Rough Strength Files BookSo what is the deal with that more than a half-month silence? I needed this time to finish the book “Rough Strength Files” (it is still a working title; if you can come up with a better one, write it in comments to this article, and if I like it, you will be featured in the book). Check out the cover on the left.

It took a lot of work and time to bring it to the current level of quality. There is still some polishing work needs to be done, but the release will be really soon.

In addition, this week I collaborated with my good friend and photo/video badass Vadym Sapatrylo to shoot a trailer for the book. It should be epic. You can check out the works of Vadym here. And if you know Russian, then check out his website.

That is it for now. Stay tuned for more!

Play rough!

Alex

Every time you don’t like and share this article, you upset a kitten somewhere.

Do you have any thoughts? Do you think that RPT is a waste of time? Or do you want to buy me a beer for such an awesome article? Let’s chat in comments.

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6 thoughts on “Bodyweight Reverse Pyramid Training

  1. Valentin

    I want to buy you a beer for that awesome article… ;-)
    and by the way RPT works! :-)
    ps.: my suggestion for the title of your book is “the play rough bible”

    Reply
  2. Dan Show

    Hey Alex, I’ve been incorporating RPT training into my own body weight exercises for the past few months, and it’s been a success. I always bend the rules, especially with all of the convict conditioning folks. I did initially start at step 1 on all the steps to “put it in the bank” but with handstand pushups for instance, (step 5) I could only get around 5-6 full slow repetitions. So, with that in mind, I would start at Step 5, grab my 5 strong slow reps and then lower the angle with my body on the wall and grab 6 reps on second set and then eventually 7 reps on the third set. I still follow the Leangains diet with my eating and I enjoy it very much. Leangains and bodyweight training work great together as RPT really allows for deep volume exercises.

    Reply
  3. Patrick Burke

    Glad your back Alex another great piece can’t wait till your book is available !! “Rough Strength files by Alexander the Great” a little narcissistic …. but you can pull it off !! lol !! Stay Rough my friend !!!

    Reply
    1. Alex Zinchenko Post author

      Thanks, Patrick. It is not Alexander, it is Alexey. And I never called myself “…the Great” (and never will). It is all your imagination, man. “Rough Strength Files” is just a simple book on how to be reasonable with strength training and nutrition from a guy with average genetics. Nothing more, nothing less. Stay tuned for updates!

      – Alex

      Reply

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