When you’re a beginner, straight work sets work great to stimulate massive gains in strength, performance, and muscle.
Problem is, 5×5 at 85% 1-RM gets increasingly difficult the more time you spend under the bar.
No longer is your max 185bs on the deadlift. It’s now 365lbs, a massively significant training stress on your joints, muscles, nervous system, and psyche.
Soon, you’re no longer smashing your work sets with two minutes or rest in-between. Far from it. Now, you’re heaving and hawing like American Pharaoh after the Preakness, and missing reps on weights you should crush.
By the fifth set, you’re cashed, pissed at your ineptitude, and questioning “whether this program even works.”
Straight set programs like Bill Starr’s 5×5 are classics that work great with beginners, but as your abilities in gym improve your methods need to adapt to the greater demands of hard training.
In other words, you need to lift smarter.
This is done with ascending loading or ramping. Instead of straight sets, ramping gradually activates the nervous system with progressively heavier weights, leading up to your heaviest work sets at the end the exercise.
This way, you’ll lift heavy enough and with enough volume to stimulate progress, yet preserve the body from bombing out and missing reps, and frying your nervous system.
Ascending Loading Science
I already know what you’re thinking:
“Won’t ramping result in lifting less weight overall? I mean, if I’m using lighter loads early on won’t my total work load be less, and minimal my maximum swollage and training gains?”
Think of your set-rem scheme as a multi-lap race. If you blow through your fuel source from the get-go, you’ll fizzle out and get smoked in the last few laps.
In ramping, you’ll grease the groove, reinforce your technique, and get dialed in for victory. Rather than blowing through the gas tank in lap one, you’re making calculated moves to get into position and take home the gold on your final lap.
The Power of Submaximal Training
Now, before you run away and “tweet” that Eric Bach says only lift tiny weights, let me re-iterate:
By using a gradual ramp, you’ll activate your nervous system gradually, preserving it for top end sets.
With ramping sets, you’ll gradually ramp up from 40-60% of your max towards 80% -1 RM or higher for pure strength work.
Plus, there’s a huge benefit to sub-maximal ramping sets:
increased strength-speed and explosive power.
This means you’ll get stronger and more athletic by lifting lighter loads faster.
By moving weights as fast and as hard as possible, you’ll recruit a greater number of muscle fibers for more muscle growth, stimulate the nervous system, all while allowing you to use pristine technique with lighter payloads.
By using lighter weights, we hone in on the technical quality and explosive intent on every rep, rather than just trying to survive.
Submaximal ramping sets help you minimize fatigue during early work sets. This lets you reinforce wicked awesome technique and incredible bar speed for more power. You’ll preserve the nervous system for your heaviest sets.
CNS Potentiation Science:
Stay with me, as this gets a little deep. Keep your eyes on the bolded text if you want the cliff notes on how this will help your gains.
The driving force behind ascending loading schemes is potentiating the nervous system and muscles for greater levels of performance while intelligently managing fatigue associated with lifting big weights.
To better understand this, a few things happen as the nervous system becomes excited after a heavy resistance exercise:
- According to Hamada et. el (2000), there is an increased phosphorylation of myosin regulatory light chains during a maximum voluntary contraction (MVC).
This allows the actin and myosin binding (for muscle contraction) to react to the increased calcium release. This reaction triggers a cascade of events leading to enhanced force muscle production at the structural level of muscle (Horwath & Kravitz ).
Thus, increased muscle activation yields a greater duration of calcium ions in the muscle cell environment, yielding a greater phosphorylation of the myosin light chain protein (Rixon et al. 2007).
In other words, by moving the bar as fast as possible and/or against a heavy load, you improve force production at the muscular level.
The second theory is based on the H-reflex, an excitation of a spinal reflex elicited by afferent muscle nerves. It is theorized that the PAP intervention enhances the H-reflex, thus increasing the efficiency and rate of the nerve impulses to the muscle (Robbins, 2005).
Basically, your nervous system gets all jacked up and is prepared for increasingly heavier loads when you maximally contract the muscles through heavy weight or maximal bar speed.
When fatigue is managed in conjunction with increased nervous system function you have the recipe to generate more force and in this case, lift heavier weights.
Here’s a sample progression on how you can implement ramping sets into your training.
Squat Training Max: 405 lbs
Set and Rep Scheme: 5×2
Heaviest Workload for the Day: 95% 1-RM= 385lbs
Warm-Up: 135×5; 185×5
This way, you’re total volume will be lower. But rep quality should be much improved with explosive power to boot.
Straight sets are fine when you’re starting out, but as your experience improves your methods must adapt to your new levels of performance. That means smarter progression and loading schemes, like ascending loading to take your gains to the next level.
That’s Not All:
Building a body that’s strong, shredded, and explosive isn’t easy. If it was, more of us would be playing competitive sports past our High School days.
But just because your competitive days are over, doesn’t mean you won’t benefit from training like an athlete.
Let’s Face it
Most lifters plateau in the gym but stay mediocre because they continue doing what they’ve always done.
They lift only heavy or only with volume.
They focus on the weight or muscle instead of explosive rep quality.
Make no mistake about it: lifting heavy with sufficient volume is important. But nothing trumps quality explosive reps for improving neuromuscular performance.
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Hamada T, Sale DG, MacDougall JD, Tarnopolsky MA. Postactivation potentiation, fiber type, and twitch contraction time in human knee extensor muscles. J Appl Physiol. 2000 Jun;88(6):2131-7.
Horwath, R., & Kravitz , L. (n.d.). postactivation potentiation: A brief review. Informally published manuscript, Exercise Science , Retrieved from http://www.unm.edu/~lkravitz/Article folder/postactivationUNM.html
Rixon KP, Lamont HS, Bemben M. Influence of type of muscle contraction, gender, and lifting experience on postactivation potentiation performance. J Strength Cond Res. 2007; 21: 500–505.
Robbins, D.W. Postactivation potentiation and its practical applicability: a brief review. J Strength Cond Res. 2005, 19(2): 453-458.
Siff, M., & Verkhoshansky, Y. (1999). Supertraining: Special strength training for sporting excellence : A textbook on the biomechanics and physiology of strength conditioning for all sport (4th ed., p. 164). Denver: Supertraining International