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 (RPT), 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.
Reverse Pyramid Training is a style of training 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 big compound training movements that work a lot of the body’s musculature, like a squat, deadlift, bench press, and chin-up.
Routines are usually abbreviated (meaning a low relative training volume) but they require a very high intensity.
A few months of RPT training can be a solid cure for trainees who have been stagnant at the gym because they have not been pushing themselves hard enough. This is because when many people try RPT training for the first time, they find out that they are capable of far more than they thought. This is because it is the first time they have to consistently push close to failure.
However, this makes RPT unsuitable for rank novices who are new to the lifts and at greater risk of their form breaking down when pushing close to failure. If this is you I’d recommend a straight-set routine like The Big 3 Routine, or our Novice Bodybuilding Program or Novice Powerlifting Program instead.
It also makes it less suitable for more experienced trainees, who may find themselves stagnating because of the low overall training volume. That said, I think RPT is great and I encourage you to give it a try at least once.
‘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, 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.
Click these to see some additional comments on exercises and rep ranges→1.
|Sample 3-day RPT Split|
|Exercise||Top Set||Set 22||Set 33|
|Deadlift||4-6 Reps||6-8 Reps||8-10 Reps|
|Weighted Chin-ups||6-8 Reps||8-10 Reps||10-12 Reps|
|Exercise||Top Set||Set 24||Set 35|
|Bench Press||6-8 Reps||8-10 Reps||10-12 Reps|
|Push-ups6||8-12 Reps||8-12 Reps||NA|
|Exercise||Top Set||Set 27||Set 38|
|Squat||6-8 Reps||8-10 Reps||10-12 Reps|
|Overhead Press||6-8 Reps||8-10 Reps||10-12 Reps|
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.
Sample RPT Progression Scheme
|Session Number||Lifting Record||Load Change Next Session?|
|1||150×6, 135×9, 120×12||Increase 3rd set|
|2||150×8, 135×10, 125×10||Increase 1st and 2nd sets|
|3||155×6, 140×8, 125×11||Same|
|4||155×6, 140×10, 125×11||Increase 2nd set|
|5||155×8, 145×8, 125×12||Increase 1st and 3rd sets|
|6||160×6, 145×9, 130×10||Same|
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|
|Additional Compound Movement9||3||8||24|
|Additional Compound Movement10||3||8||24|
|Additional Compound Movement11||3||8||24|
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 they 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.
Is this routine for a cut or a bulk?
It can be effective in either a cut or a bulk, it all depends on how much training stimulus you personally can recover from. Just note that under caloric deficit circumstances our recovery capacity is lower, so training volume is best reduced to match the reduction in recovery capacity.
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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