Reverse Pyramid Training
About 150 miles due west of San Antonio sits the hardscrabble border town of Del Rio, Texas. Not exactly a tourist hub but a hub of excellence in pugilism! Boxers are born and bred learning the traditional Mexican Style.
Adam benShea and I decided to head south to the border and check out the fights.
About high noon we pulled into town to a skid row looking chow hall, selling live goats out the back and serving the best menudo north of Old Mexico.
In the midst of the excitement, we met one of the best boxing trainers on either side of the border, “El Jefe”, an early adopter to the Mexican Style. As the jukebox played “Waltz Across Texas” by Ernest Tubb, we learned the previous year, for El Jefe’s fighters, had been a Waltz across Texas.
In all of El Jefe’s gold mine of wisdom, the take away point was to do first things first. He explained sparring must be done first, when fresh. El Jefe kept reiterating workouts must be ordered in importance.
From business to weight training, this advice is valuable.
Reverse pyramid training, today, is as popular at your local commercial gym purgatory as the idea of embracing Timothy Leary’s teaching methodology at Bob Jones University.
While there may be a few outliers in either scenario, they are the last of a dying breed.
For nearly three quarters of a century, pyramid training has been popularized by Weider Publications and advocated by many pillars of the iron game.
Pyramiding involves performing sets consisting of high reps at the beginning of the workout (base of pyramid), and working toward the top of the pyramid by decreasing reps and increasing weight.
Because you start with lighter weights, it gives your muscles and connective tissues a chance to warm up for the heavier weight later in the workout. As you increase weight, you overload your muscle fibers, and that induces muscle hypertrophy.
Part of the reason pyramid training works so well is the simple application of progressive overload. Simply, pyramid training has numerous variables that can be used for intensification; this overload is the gateway to the strength of Samson and the streets of hypertrophy heaven.
Let’s look at this example of a pyramid bench press workout.
Set 1: 205 x 11, rest interval 3 minutes
Set 2: 215 x 9, rest interval 3 minutes
Set 3: 230 x 7, rest interval 3 minutes
Set 4: 240 x 5, rest interval 3 minutes
Set 5: 255 x 3
With all of these different sets for a different number of repetitions, there are countless variables that can be used to increase intensity.
Let’s look at some examples.
If we reduce the rest interval by just 15 seconds, we have increased intensity.
If we add just one repetition to one of the sets, we have increased intensity.
By adding an extra set (without increasing workout duration), we have increased density, a highly effective, under-utilized overload method. In the tradition of my late mentor, Steve Holl, we could just pile more pig iron on the bar.
Pyramids make it easy to track intensity and continually overload training. Failing to do this is failing to train; head back to the “workout camp”, Billy Blanks has room.
Reverse Pyramid Training
To reiterate, traditional pyramiding is high reps at the beginning of the workout (base of pyramid) and, as you build your way up the pyramid, you decrease reps and increase weight.
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.
If you’re burning yourself out on light weights and not giving yourself a chance to makestrength gains, you’re shortchanging yourself. Remember the words of El Jefe from El Rio, “First things first.”
I thank the pioneers for discovering pyramid training! Through their original innovation, further micro evolution has taken place.
One reason some people have such effective results with traditional pyramid training is that their lighter sets are essentially warm-up sets. They are not burning themselves out; they are simply warming up.
Ironically, many HIT advocates claim to do only one set per body part, but they complete a pyramid-style warm-up of 4-5 sets beforehand. This may cause Arthur Jones to roll over in his grave, but indeed, his disciples are pyramid training.
When I was a high school strength and conditioning coach, I would purposely assign lighter sets that are not fatiguing prior to the heavy sets because I knew the athletes would not properly warm-up.
With reverse pyramid training, a proper warm-up is essential. Warming up is an art, not a science; it will ultimately come down to your personal preference.
Here is a generic warm-up that would work well for reverse pyramid training if your top set is 315 in the squat.
General warm-up: 5–8 minutes of walking on the treadmill or on the bike, just to get some blood flow; then do 5–8 minutes of dynamic stretching, followed by squats.
Set 1: bar x 6
Set 2:135 x 6
Set 3: 185 x 3
Set 4: 225 x 2
Set 5: 255 x 1
Set 6:285 x 1
Reverse pyramiding will allow you to build strength very effectively because the most important strength-building set is the first set. Therefore, the athlete is 100 percent fresh.
As we learned from Joe, Post Activation Potentiation (PAP) refers to the enhancement of muscle function following a high force activity.
Legendary old-time Soviet Sports Scientist, Yuri Verhoshansky, explained PAP in layman’s terms, “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.” The weight feels lighter and moves faster.
Most studies on PAP are generally done on things like heavy squats followed by an explosive activity, like a vertical jump. The same holds true when performing a heavy weight on a core lift followed by a subsequent, lighter set— it moves faster.
Many studies show the effectiveness of PAP, but the same holds true when moving from a maximal weight to a submaximal weight. In lieu of traditional beliefs, science has now shown a PAP effect can be derived from maximal isometric contractions.
Before Jeremy Hoornstra recently set a new world record in the bench press, he performed a maximal isometric contraction in the warm-up room.
Jeremy Hoornstra Isometric Bench Press
Jeremy kept telling me he felt more powerful after performing maximal isometrics in his training sessions, science agrees. So, in the words of the great, former gubernatorial candidate, a.k.a., the “Asshole from El Paso,” Kinky Freedom, why the hell not?
It worked and in spite of some circumstances that would have sidelined most mortals, the great champion, Jeremy Hoornstra, came through.
This is not traditional BUT all we care about is results.
I have used this strategy with people performing a bench press for maximum reps at a football combine. If the weight is 225 for maximum reps, they will do a single with a weight in the 275–315 range. They can always do more reps this way, as opposed to warming up and making 225 the heaviest set.
Depending on the athlete’s strength level, a good rule of thumb is start with 20 percent more weight for a single repetition than the proceeding maximum repetition weight.
The more advanced and skilled an athlete is, the better PAP works; for the cream of the crop, this number can be much higher.
I do not have studies to back this up, but anecdotally, I have found you can always do more on a rep max if you lift heavier weight first. Of course, this is assuming you don’t overdo it. Simply put, 225 pounds feels lighter if you have just lifted 300 pounds.
Reverse pyramiding can be used year round. However, it would not be a good idea to do heavy singles, doubles and triples year round.
There will need to be some variation in the intensity, sets, and reps schemes. However, the concept can be used as long as the variables that dictate intensity are properly manipulated.
An example would be if you are training sets of eight in the squat with 315, do a single with 350 first. 315 is non-fatiguing, submaximal, and after 350, it will feel like a rocket was planted in your rectum with newly derived power.
Frequently, when I design programs, the heaviest set is the first work set. I am often asked, “Why?” In a nutshell, there it is.
Keep in mind, exercise sequence is just as important as exercise selection. To maximize results, you must prioritize; heavy weight is the most important aspect of astrength or muscle-building regimen. The most important aspect needs to be done first in the workout.
Remember the wise words of El Jefe.
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