This article tells you how to train when the time comes to split your training into a three-day split. The primary focus is reverse pyramid training, but I have also included advice for other set-rep patterns (5×5 for example) to be used with a three-day split, as this is what I find myself using more and more often with clients rather than RPT nowadays.
The Common Ways Athletes Split Their Training
There will come a point in your training career where you will need to split up the compound training movements in order to be able to recover in time for the next workout and keep progressing. (We talked about why this in more detail in the article on appropriate training program choice so we won’t dig into that here.)
Common training split examples:
- Push/pull – Splitting your training by categorizing the movements broadly as pull or push movements. (Example: chest, shoulders and squatting done on day 1, rows, deadlift variations and any hip hinge exercises on day 2.)
- Upper/lower – Splitting your training by categorizing movements based on whether they target the upper or lower body. (Most commonly done four days a week, as with the push/pull example.)
- Bodypart – Splitting your training by the main body part that is worked. (Example: chest on a Monday, back Tuesday, shoulders Wednesday, etc.)
- Compound movement – Separating your training days by the compound movement that you do. (Example: Monday as your squat day, Wednesday as your bench day, Friday as your Squat day.)
The three day split I introduce in this article is an example of the latter type of training. It can be used with any set-rep pattern, but the one I mainly talk about in this article is Reverse Pyramid Training.
Reverse Pyramid Training Explained
What is it?
RPT is a style of set-rep pattern where the trainee puts their heaviest set first, then ‘pyramids down’ to a lighter weight, usually with more reps for the latter sets. It is best suited to the main compound movements (the squat, deadlift, bench press, etc.).
It’s a very time-efficient training style, but it requires very high intensity. It was made popular by Martin Berkhan of Leangains.com who you can see picture above.
Who is it for?
Very high intensity is required to get the desired training effect from the, usually, abbreviated routines. It is not suited to novices who are at greater risk of their form breaking down when pushing close to failure. A straight-set routine (where the weight is kept consistent across all sets) like 5×5 will me much more suitable and effective for these people. If this is you, my suggested routine is The Big 3 Routine or one of it’s variants.
When can it be used?
It can be effective in either a cut or a bulk. The low volume makes it more suited to a cut. Under calorie deficit circumstances recovery capacity is lower, so training volume is best reduced to match the reduction in recovery capacity. This helps avoid the negative systemic stress effects of too high a workload, which prevents you from experiencing undue soreness and regressing in your training. (I’m talking about getting weaker and potentially losing muscle.)
In this routine accessory work is therefore not used/removed.
RPT How-To Guide
RPT in a Nutshell
- Do warm-up sets, gradually working up to around 80% of your ‘top set’ load.
- Put the heaviest working set (aka. the top set) first.
- Drop the weight, rest and do the second working set.
- Drop the weight, rest and do the third working set.
- Rest and move onto the next exercise.
- Push HARD. Do as many reps as you can without reaching failure.
‘Failure’ is defined as the point at which a rep can no longer be completed with good form. You never want to go to form failure with the compound movements because that is where injuries happen, though occasionally it may happen without your planning. – That is what the safety pins (or a spotter if you have one) are for when squatting and benching, or the bumper plates and padding on the floor for, when deadlifting.
What Does it Look Like?
RPT is a set-rep pattern, not any specific workout. However, RPT does have popular routine incarnations. One such incarnation is this three-day split.
|Example 3-day RPT Split
2. Weighted Chin-ups
2. Overhead Press
How To Progress With RPT
RPT uses a double progression system. So that means the target is to increase either the weight or reps, if you can, at each session. There are rules for doing so.
- For the first workout you likely need to guess at how heavy you should load the bar so that your maximum effort is within the target rep range.
- Let’s say that this week you get 7 reps with 100kg and your target rep range was 6-8 reps. The next week you’re going to stay with 100kg and try to hit 8 reps. If you do that then increase the weight slightly (102.5kg) and try to get 6 reps or more the following workout.
- If you fail to get the minimum required number or reps at any point in time, reduce the weight.
- For your second and third sets, your target rep rage will be a couple of reps higher. Because of this, and the cumulative fatigue of the previous set(s) you will need to reduce the weight on the bar. 10-15% is a ballpark figure for this.
|Example RPT Progression
Target rep ranges 6-8, 8-10, 10-12:
Note that some weeks the weight went up for the back-off sets but not in the “top-set” and vice versa. This is normal.
Adjust all sets independently of each other. The ~10-15% reduction that I’ve suggested is just a guide for your first workout. (If you need to reduce it more or less that doesn’t mean there is anything wrong!) From that point onward you want to adjust your subsequent sets independently as you would for that top set.
Keep the other training circumstances the same, particularly time, and keep rest intervals strict.
For the chin-ups, always keep a full range, keep it slow and smooth. Chin-ups may be very tough at first, that’s fine. Band-assisted chin-ups are a good option until you have built up the strength to do full reps, as is jumping up and holding yourself in the top position and fighting gravity until it takes you down for as long as you can. – This way you will train both ends of the rep range. Eventually you’ll want to add weight. See my Full Guide To Progressing Your Chin-ups.
The Pros and Cons of RPT Training
What I Like About RPT
- Quick & effective.
- Satisfies the need for intensity without allowing certain personality types from hammering themselves too hard.
- Cuts through the crap & focuses on the exercises that will give the trainee the most bang for their buck.
The Drawbacks of RPT
- It is not sustainable and will eventually cease to provide enough training stress to drive progression. Training close to failure at very high intensity is bad for recovery. This means that the workouts can only be performed with a low frequency. Volume is also low, as it’s not possible to train to failure for a high amount of volume. As volume is one of the key drivers of progress, eventually RPT will cease being effective.
- Not suited to the beginner. Training too close to failure is bad for proper motor learning. Form needs to be very good to avoid injury when pushing close to technical failure for rep maxes.
- Your ‘maximum‘ is highly influenced your gym atmosphere/surroundings. One of my best squat workouts ever was with six-time Mr. Olympia Dorian Yates sitting on the leg press machine six feet behind me, staring at me, waiting for his rack to become available. ‘Maximum’ is relative and variable, and it’s too easy for people to pussy out before they truly can’t do any more reps. Think about it this way – if I put a gun to your loved one’s head, you could probably do a couple more, right?
- Mentally the workouts are very tough, and knowing you need to push to a max for every set, especially on squat day for example, can lead to people dreading their workouts. This extra mental drain can lead to unnecessary stress and sub-optimal performance. Fixed set-rep patterns (5 sets of 5 for example) without the requirement for failure can work better. And I find myself recommending these more and more, regardless of the level of trainee.
A Better Way To Do A 3-Day Split?
Due to the drawbacks mentioned above, I most often find myself using a fixed set-rep pattern without the use of failure instead of RPT with clients. As the cumulative fatigue will be lower, additional exercises can be added to each day and have been in the example below.
|Example 3-day Split Using 5×5 and 3×8 Set-rep patterns
2. Weighted Chin-ups
3. Additional compound movement (Example: Front squats 3×8)
3. Additional compound movement (Example: Seated Cable Rows 3×8)
2. Overhead Press
3. Additional compound movement (Example: Romanian Deadlifts 3×8)
See here for a progression example for 5×5→
Do I have to stick to those exercises above?
No, that is just an example. Front Squats, Rack Pulls, Pull-ups, Row variations. Basically, multi-joint/compound exercises that lend themselves well to incremental loading are all fine.
Can I add in more exercises?
If it helps you progress quicker. If you’ve come to this page from a google search or forum recommendation, I’d highly recommend that you read my article, The Core Principles of Effective Training, so that you have the background knowledge to know when adjustments are appropriate.
What is a good warm-up?
You want to do the minimum that you can to get warm and ready for the top set, without tiring yourself for your main work sets. I’ve covered this in detail in the FAQ in the section, WARM-UP: What should I do?
Can I do pull-downs instead of chin-ups?
You can, but they are not as effective. Do not use them if you have a chin-up bar available. In my experience people work a lot harder when then have to do chin-ups rather than pull-downs, probably because their efforts (or lack of) are more public.
Is the omission of dips from Martin Berkhan’s original template purposeful?
Yes. Dips are a great chest and triceps developer, and it feels awesome to have a couple of plates clanging between your legs as you knock out a few sets of 8, but the risk-reward ratio is skewed in the wrong direction I feel. What I mean is, it’s very easy to cause yourself an injury with this exercise, especially as you start adding a lot of weight. (It puts the humeral head in a position far past neutral).
When there are safer alternatives that are equally effective (pushups, the close-grip bench press), I see no point in taking the risk with dips. I no longer do them myself, and I no longer recommend them to clients.
Got any lifting videos/resources?
Yes, recommendations are covered made in my article, The Core Principles of Effective Training.
Why does this conflict with the advice of [coach X]?
You will find conflicting advice all over the internet because there are many different ways to reach the same end with training. Every routine has its pros and cons, suitability depends on context. RPT and the routine above is just one way of doing things. It’s not suitable for all people, at all times. Though different coaches have their own preferences and reasoning, the principles of effective training routines remain the same.
How do I know when I should use a full split routine like the one in the example above?
Great question, this is covered in the article, Which Routine Is For Me?
Got it, now how do I put together a nutrition plan to go with this?
That’s what I specialize in and do professionally, and you’ll find everything you need to do this on this site. This includes, How to Calculate Your Calories, Macros, Optimal Meal Timing, Calorie & Carb Cycling, Supplements (which I’m not a fan of), and How to Track your Progress. The Complete Guide To Setting Up Your Diet →
Thanks for reading. Questions welcomed in the comments as always. – Andy.