Reverse Pyramid Training

Reverse pyramid training is also known as the Oxford method.  This method involves performing multiple sets for a muscle group, usually multiple sets of a single exercise, starting with the highest load on the first set and reducing the load on subsequent sets.  One might also call this a drop set method.

Conventional pyramid training involves multiple sets of a given number of repetitions, increasing the load on each subsequent set.  Compared to the conventional pyramid method, also known as the DeLorme method, reverse pyramid training (the Oxford method) is a more logical way to load over multiple sets for a single exercise.

The DeLorme method involves starting with a set of 10 repetitions with 50% of the 10RM, then doing a second set of 10 with 75% of the 10RM, and finally finishing with a set of 10 with the 10 RM. 

Reverse pyramid training was developed by Zinovieff after he attempted to implement the DeLorme technique in practice.  Zinovieff found that with the conventional pyramid method most trainees could not complete the last set of predetermined 10RM due to fatigue accumulated in the first two "warm up" sets.  He developed the reverse pyramid training technique to overcome this limitation.  Zinovieff prescribed starting the training session with the predetermined 10RM, then decreasing the load to 75% of 10RM on the second set, and 50% of 10RM on the third set. Zinovieff suggested that this method best aligned with the natural process of progressive fatigue, and also believed that this method adheres to the progressive overload principle because each set would continue to impose demands taxing the muscle group's momentary muscular capacity [1].

Table 1 Source:  [1]

I am aware of only one published study of the effectiveness of the Oxford method.  In this study, the Oxford method was compared to the DeLorme method. This study reported finding no significant difference in strength development between the two training methods [1, Table 1 above].

Why?  Because in either method, you end up performing only one effective set.

Only One Effective Set

In the DeLorme method (conventional pyramid) you only do one effective set, despite doing three sets.  Here’s why.

Let’s say you are able to use 225 pounds for 10-12 repetitions in the back squat.  If you use the DeLorme method your routine would look something like this:

 115 x 12
 160 x 12
 225 x 10

The first two sets are not work sets since they involve loads 50% and 25% below what is possible for a set of ~12 repetitions.  Since they are not hard sets, they do not present a challenge to the physiology and will not stimulate strength or mass gains.  Moreover, they reduce your capacity on the actual work set.  After doing 115 and 160 for 12 repetitions each, it is unlikely you would get more than 10 repetitions on the final set. 

Therefore, only the last set actually provides overload.  Using load x repetitions as a crude measure of the load placed on your hips and thighs by the last set, we get 2250 repetition pounds.  Assuming that 225 is 75% of your 1 RM, you reduced your starting strength by 25%, so this method produced an inroad of 25%.

If you use reverse pyramid training, your routine would look something like this:

Optional warm up:  115 x 4 (~50% of the top set load x one-third the top set repetitions) plus 160 x 2
Work set 1:  225 x AMRAP  (let’s say it was 12)
Work set 2:  200 x 12 or AMRAP  (load reduced by 10%)


Warm-ups do not stimulate any gains in strength or mass because they don’t challenge your strength.  If they do challenge your strength then they aren’t warm-ups.  Thus, if you do reverse pyramid training, you should use a very light weight and do less than half the target repetitions of the top set.

Since you haven’t depleted your energy reserves with two submaximal sets in a conventional pyramid, you can achieve 225 x 12 on the first work set. After a rest and removing 10% from the load, you achieve 200 x 12.  

If again we assume that 225 is 75% of your 1 RM, your 1 RM is 300.  Therefore, at the completion of the second set, when you are unable to complete a repetition with 200 pounds, you have reduced your strength by 33%, so this method produced a greater inroad than the DeLorme method.

Reverse Pyramid Training Wastes Time

Now, before you conclude that you should do reverse pyramid training with multiple sets, let’s ask ourselves, which of the two hard sets stimulates growth:  225 x 12, or 200 x 12?

You might think both are effective because both are hard work, but you’d be wrong.  In fact, contrary to what Zinovieff claimed, the second set violates the basic strength training principle of progressive overload, because it involves less loading than the first set.  Reducing load over multiple sets is the exact opposite of progressive loading!

Muscles develop in strength and size when they are made to contract against a resistance high enough to require a maximal or near maximal effort which produces muscular fatigue.  A muscle's strength and size is proportional to the level of resistance the muscle can overcome.

In the conventional pyramid training method (DeLorme method) only the final set involves the muscles contracting against a resistance high enough to require a maximal or near maximal effort, and that set alone provides the highest level of resistance the muscle can overcome.  Therefore, only the last set in a conventional pyramid training session is an effective set. 

In reverse pyramid training (the Oxford technique), only the first set provides the highest level of resistance the muscle can overcome, and since that set involves the muscles contracting against a resistance high enough to require a maximal or near maximal effort, only the first set in a reverse pyramid training session is an effective set. The other sets, sometimes called back-off sets, are not effective at increasing strength or size because they use loads that are 10-20% less than what you have already handled in the first set.

Although the completion of three sets in reverse pyramid training fashion produces a greater inroad than completion of only one set, this only means you have depleted your starting strength to a greater degree.  Very likely you will need more time to recover from a 33% inroad than from a 25% inroad.  This could actually delay your progress.  You may be forced to train less frequently to provide adequate recovery.

Thus, the reason Fish et al found that the DeLorme and Oxford methods produce similar results is this: in either protocol, only the set done with the heaviest load strongly stimulates the body.  The rest of the sets just drain energy reserves and make your training session longer.  You are wasting your time doing sets that do not provide overload and therefore can't produce improvements in strength or size.

Reverse Pyramid Training Without Rest Periods

Drop sets involve performing a set of AMRAP with a given resistance, then immediately reducing the load and again performing AMRAP.  Essentially, this is reverse pyramid training with little or no rest between sets.  This makes reverse pyramid training more time-efficient.

As with multi-set reverse pyramid training, drop sets produce a deeper inroad into starting strength, but in a much shorter period of time.

If you rest 3 minutes between sets doing 3 sets in a reverse pyramid, and each set takes 1 minute to complete, the training session will take 9 minutes from start of the first set to end of the last set.  

You can produce that same level of inroad in less than 2 minutes by doing a drop set.  Simply, do a set to failure at about 1 minute of time under load, immediately reduce the load by 25% and do AMRAP, which will take perhaps 20-30s, then reduce the load again to 50% of the original load, and do AMRAP again, which will likely take only 15-20s, but let's say it takes another 30s.  Now you have reduced your starting strength (relative to 1RM) by about 33% in 2 minutes rather than 9 minutes.  This is much more demanding than the regular reverse pyramid.

However, when Fisher et al compared the results produced by conventional training with a single set to momentary muscular fatigue (AMRAP to failure) to those produced by single drop (breakdown) sets, they found no statistically significant difference [2]. 

In another study, Giessing et al compared the results of training with single sets to momentary muscular failure plus two drop sets to training with multiple (3) sets carried out to a self-determined repetition maximum (voluntary "failure") [3].  Although the drop-set group completed less training volume, with the 3-set system taking 2 to 3 times as long to complete, the high intensity training (HIT) group experienced greater gains in both performance and muscle mass.  These results suggested that although the drop sets increased both inroad and training volume for the HIT group, it was not volume but intensity – i.e. training to momentary muscular failure – that produced the improved results.

Thus, we have no evidence to support the hypothesis that reverse pyramid training or drop sets produce any better results than performing any other method, including just performing just one set of AMRAP to failure.

Summary

In short, there is a lack of logical reason or evidence to support the use of a reverse pyramid training method, either as multiple sets or through drop sets.  It is sufficient to train to momentary muscular failure (or at least very near to that i.e. AMRAP without failure, which is one repetition short of actual failure) on a single set of any exercise.  Neither additional sets nor advanced techniques (most of which simply increase volume) provide additional benefits. 

This is likely due to Henneman's size principle, which states that as a set proceeds from the first repetition to momentary muscular failure, motor units and muscle fibers are sequentially recruited.  At the start of a set, low threshold fatigue-resistant fibers are recruited and sequentially exhausted.  As these are fatigued, units and fibers with higher thresholds for activation are progressively recruited.  When you reach near muscular failure, the very high threshold fast-twitch fibers which have a high force production capacity but low endurance capacity are recruited to continue the movement.  Hence, one set of sufficient duration matched to the fatigue characteristics of the muscle group and performed to momentary muscular failure will recruit and fatigue enough fibers to stimulate the maximum possible increases in strength and size.

Notes

1. Fish DE, Krabak BJ, Johnson-Green D, deLateur BJ.  Optimal resistance training: Comparison of DeLorme with Oxford techniques.  Am J Phys Med Rehabil 2003;82:903-909.

2. Fisher JP, Carlson L, Steele J.  The effects of breakdown set resistance training on muscular performance and body composition in young men and women.  J Strength and Conditioning Research 2016 May;30(5):1425.

3. Giessing J, Eichmann B, Steele J, Fisher J. A comparison of low volume “high-intensity-training” and high volume traditional resistance training methods on muscular performance, body composition, and subjective assessments of training. Biology of Sport. 2016;33(3):241-249. doi:10.5604/20831862.1201813.

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