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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
‘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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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3. Email course on the 5 biggest set-up mistakes people make.
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