It began with a series of emails between the editor-in-chief of a certain bodybuilding magazine and his dedicated, hardworking assistant.
“Everyone on the forums seems to be talking about Thibaudeau’s ramping method,” the editor said. “The thing is, these guys all seem to be doing it differently. And to top it off, none of our coaches seem to follow it, either.”
“Why do some coaches recommend 4 sets of x, using the same weight, where others ramp up reps and weights starting with sets of 15, 12, and 8 and finish with one set of 2, 4, 6, or whatever?”
“I mean, other than as a warm-up, what’s the exact point of ramping up? Why not warm up and just hit the heavy weights and low reps right away?”
“I’ll tell you what, I’d be interested in hearing from Thibaudeau why he feels ramping is so effective as opposed to more traditional methods,” the editor said. “But don’t just talk to him. Talk to other guys like Contreras, Cosgrove and Waterbury.”
“Either way, I don’t want a Ramping Fan Boy piece. Get me the real story.”
And with that, I had my next assignment.
TM: After spending some time reviewing Coach Thibs’ ramping articles and videos from the Testosterone archives, I quickly realized that there must be something more to this that I’m not picking up on.
It just seemed so, well, simple. “Ramping” as far as I could tell, was simply a way to wake-up the nervous system by doing a series of progressively heavier sets of 3 before one all-out “max-effort set.”
In short, patiently work your way up to the big iron, get your nervous system on board, and blast off to PR land, right?
“Wrong,” said Thibaudeau in a tersely worded email. “That’s a very simplistic, quick sound-bite kind of definition. Do you write for Wikipedia or something?”
“Unfortunately, your definition seems to be consistent with what everyone online thinks ramping is, but it’s really much more than that,” continued Thibaudeau.
“Call me tomorrow at noon and I’ll explain to you what ramping really is…”
TM: So Coach, it sounds like a whole lot of us aren’t fully understanding exactly what you mean by ramping. Can you explain it again for the readers?
Ramping can actually mean one of two things: One is a desired physiological effect, while the other is an actual loading approach.
The first definition of ramping is less popular, but it’s also the meaning of “ramping” that I prefer. In this context, ramping refers to the progressive activation of the nervous system.
Every rep and set you do has two specific effects on performance:
- Fatigue: which decreases performance potential
- Activation/potentiation: which increases performance potential
The greater the difference between fatigue and activation, the better your performance is. You following so far?
TM: So far, yes.
To me, ramping means ramping up (or activating/potentiating) the nervous system while trying to minimize fatigue. This leads to an optimal lifting performance.
So any training method that potentiates the nervous system can be used to “ramp” yourself up. The more you need to generate force, the greater the CNS involvement and thus the more you can activate it.
Here are just a few examples:
- Jumps and throws
- Loaded jumps (jump squats or jump lunges with 20-30% of max)
- High-speed movements against elastic band resistance
- Olympic lifts with 70-80% of max
- Traditional lifts (e.g. squats, bench) at 45-65%, trying to accelerate as much as possible (using bands and chains is even better for advanced lifters)
- Heavy partials (careful not to overdo it and create too much fatigue)
So “ramping up the weight” is really a way to “ramp up the nervous system,” especially when you always try to lift the weight as fast as possible.
TM: Makes sense. Although as you said, when you say “ramping” most folks would assume you’re talking about the loading protocol from the article series.
Sure. This is a strength training and bodybuilding site, right? Ramping the load is like a practical application of activating/potentiating the nervous system.
In that context, ramping is a loading approach where you work up in weight until you hit your max weight for the prescribed number of reps.
In other words:
- Start with a weight that is roughly 50-60% of your 1RM.
- Perform many sets of the prescribed rep amount, each one being progressively heavier, until you hit the maximum weight you will use.
- You don’t have to only use sets of 3 reps, it can be done with any number of reps, although it works best when the rep number is 8 or less.
- Once you hit the max weight (the weight where you can just barely crank out three reps), you have 3 choices:
- You can stop the exercise.
- You could do one or two more sets with the top weight.
- You could go back down a bit and perform 3-4 sets with roughly 10-20lbs less than your top weight. This last approach is essentially how the Bulgarian Olympic lifters train.
TM: Fine, I’m cool with all that coach, but the last time I checked most of our readers aren’t Olympic lifters and fewer still are from Bulgaria. So why not just warm-up faster and get to the heavy iron?
Because that just doesn’t work if you’re strong, or are trying to get strong. The ramp-loading approach is based on how strength athletes who can move huge weights train.
Let’s say that we have a powerlifter that can bench press 500 lbs. Do you think that the traditional approach of starting with your top weight right after you’re done with your warm-up is a smart thing?
TM: I guess the answer to be no.
Smart guess. Think about it; our powerlifter might have to do sets of 3 reps with 90% of his max, which is 450 lbs. By the traditional method of right to the weights after warm up, he might do a set of 10-12 reps with 135, maybe 8-10 with 225 then 6-8 with 315, then he might jump to 450.
After that kind of progression, how do you think that weight will feel?
TM: I would imagine awful damn heavy. So the problem with the traditional method is the jumps are too big?
Yes, amongst other things. In the traditional setup, the contrast between the feeling of the last warm-up set and the first work set is just too big, and could actually serve as a shock that knocks the lifter out of the zone.
This is a key point that bears repeating. The readers absolutely must have to understand this. The last warm-up set is really not a warm-up at all; it’s a gateway set that ushers in the first work set. It should feel, in terms of load and execution, very much like another work-set.
TM: But can’t we just extend the traditional warm-up by more sets and skip this ramping business entirely?
Man, you’re stubborn. You can try it but it doesn’t work that well. People try to do that with a pyramid approach, which for our hypothetical powerlifter would look something like this:
135 x 15
225 x 12
315 x 10
365 x 8
405 x 6
Then the first work set.
TM: That looks reasonable.
It’s better, sure, because the contrast between the last warm-up set and the first work set is reduced, but that kind of high-volume warm-up will only serve to compromise energy levels.
TM: How so?
With all those reps (15, 12, 10), you’ll expend so much energy getting ready for that first set that your performance will actually suffer. That’s why a ramping approach is better; it’s like a pyramid, but without doing all those added reps.
TM: I understand stuff a lot better when I have an example.
Sure. Here’s an example of the correct way to ramp using the same hypothetical powerlifter.
135 x several reps, just to warm-up the muscles and lubricate the joints.
225 x 3, which is called a “feeler set” and essentially burns no energy (45% of max).
Then start the ramp, going up roughly 20-30lbs per set.
300lbs x 3
325lbs x 3
350lbs x 3
375lbs x 3
400lbs x 3
425lbs x 3
450lbs x 3
Using that approach, the 450 will be much easier; in fact, our lifter might even be able to do one more heavier set after that.
TM: Okay, I get it. But here’s my beef: we’re still only talking about one all-out work set with the heavy weights, as opposed to traditional approaches that have a lot more “money sets” with the work-weights like 4 sets of 6 or 8 sets of 3.
So really, by having just one max set, you’re almost treading into HIT land. What next, Ayn Rand quotes?
That’s almost funny, but you couldn’t be more wrong.
You’re making the mistake of assuming only the last maximum set will have a training effect. That is 100% not true. Anything over 60% of your max can affect strength and size gains, provided that you attempt to lift the bar with as much speed as possible.
TM: So then the ramping sets are doing more than just prepare you for the max-effort set?
Absolutely. Everyone has to stop looking at the preliminary sets as junk sets or simple warm-up sets. Just because they don’t involve near-maximal weights doesn’t mean they’re not contributing to the process.
Think about it, on some exercises like jump squats, the best load to train at is 20-30% of your maximum, and that increases strength and power. You essentially compensate for the lack of weight by an increase in acceleration (Force = Mass x Acceleration).
TM: And that word, acceleration, is key here, right?
Absolutely. If you don’t at least try to accelerate that weight as much as possible, ramping will not work optimally. It’s the brain’s intent to accelerate the load that jacks up the nervous system so much that it becomes increasingly activated with each set, thereby increasing your working state.
As an aside, I find it odd when strength coaches praise Olympic lifters and constantly use them as examples to follow when it comes to training, yet they frown upon “flat pyramiding/ramping,” which is the way that all Olympic lifters, without a single exception, trains.
TM: Yeah, but you said it right there. It’s how all Olympic lifters train. Most of our readers aren’t Olympic lifters; they’re just normal dudes that want to get bigger and stronger. Should the hypertrophy-based lifter even care about ramping?
Admittedly, it’s less clear when it comes to higher rep ranges. I still recommend using a ramping approach when performing sets of 6-8 reps, which is a rep range that will build a ton of muscle.
TM: So what would that “hypertrophy ramp” look like?
Obviously you’ll have less sets in your ramp. It might look like this:
135lbs x 8
185lbs x 8
225lbs x 8
250lbs x 8
275lbs x 6
285lbs x 5 (stop exercise)
Now compare that to most “traditional bodybuilders” who try to get a max performance on their first set, which could look something like this:
135lbs x 8
275lbs x 6
275lbs x 4
(the previous set with 275lbs burned a lot of energy because it was less efficient, due to an improperly activated nervous system).
250lbs x 4
(despite the lowered weight can’t complete the required 6 reps).
In the first example, you have 19 reps at or above 250lbs, while in the second one you have 14.
Obviously the first example would stimulate more growth even though the lifter might feel more tired after the second example.
TM: That makes a lot of sense.
I’ll believe that you actually understand it when I see you doing it.
Different Approaches – Similar Results?
TM: Coach Thibs might have quite a following at Testosterone, but he’s not the only thoroughbred sitting in our coaching stable.
I sent out invitations to comment on ramping to Alwyn Cosgrove, Bret Contreras, and Chad Waterbury and not surprisingly, received a diverse set of responses in return.
“We use both ramping and traditional loading protocols,” says Cosgrove, of California-based Results Fitness. “It depends on the goal of the workout.”
“The rep range dictates the physiological response. In other words, a 1-rep-max is a neural response, while a 20-rep max is a metabolic response, almost like cardio.”
“For hypertrophy-based goals, we use a rep range of somewhere between the two,” he says.
TM: Cosgrove’s approach can best be described as let the goal dictate the rep range, which dictates the weight. “If the goal is work capacity for example, then we want to use as much load for a given rep range as possible,” he says.
So if the goal is strength, does Cosgrove ramp?
“Absolutely,” he says. “With pure strength work, we try to ‘ramp’ up the nervous system so we can lift progressively more weight.”
“So we use ramping more for lower-rep strength-based workouts,” says Cosgrove.
TM: The ever-agreeable glute-guru Bret Contreras takes a slightly different approach, especially for those looking at the issue from a hypertrophy standpoint. “Before you decide on whether to ramp or not, you first have to determine what’s more important for hypertrophy, getting strong or chasing the pump?” he asks.
Most Testosterone readers would say that strength should remain the number one priority, but Contreras argues that there is published and anecdotal evidence showing the effectiveness of pump-type training.
“I personally know of several natural bodybuilders who are jacked out of their minds from following high-volume bodypart splits while focusing on the mind-muscle connection, muscle confusion, instinctive training, and chasing the pump,” says Contreras.
“But I also know plenty of pencil-neck geeks who practice this philosophy and achieve absolutely no success due to the fact that they’re using loads that my 13-year-old niece lifts,” he says.
TM: Contreras feels that training variety is important for long term gains, but over time an experienced lifter will figure out what system they should follow for the majority of the year. “I would venture to guess that 20% of the male lifting population would see better results by focusing on straight sets and using traditional loading as their go-to system for most of the training year,” he says.
“These individuals would consist of mostly mesomorphs, or guys who bench pressed 225-pounds within their first year of strength training,” says Contreras. “They don’t have to work hard for strength as their nervous systems are already extremely efficient so they can focus on straight sets, which targets the muscular system more.”
TM: But as for the redheaded stepchildren comprising the remaining 80%?
“The remaining 80% of the male lifting population would see better results by focusing on Thibaudeau’s ramping method and using that loading scheme as their go-to system for most of the training year,” says Contreras.
“These folks do not have efficient nervous systems and have to work very hard to get strong. These guys tend to grow steadily as they pack on additional strength over the years.”
TM: So it’s not that one system is better than the other, it’s that it depends on the body type?
“Precisely,” says Contreras. “The best coaches and trainers avoid cookie-cutter approaches and seek to figure out each client’s unique parameters of exercise selection, split, frequency, volume, intensity, density, intensiveness, and periodization.”
TM: Any discussion of strength training and the nervous system is sure to get a rise out of Chad Waterbury, who has spent the better part of the last decade immersed in the subject. Yet as for having an opinion on ramping versus traditional loading, Waterbury sounds as on the fence as his colleagues.
“It depends,” he says. “The way I see it is, ramping is just another way to prepare your muscles, joints, and nervous system for training. It’s a fine method, but it just depends on what you’re trying to achieve.”
TM: However, Waterbury doesn’t completely shy away from debate.
“In my opinion, to increase strength, performance, and motor unit recruitment, research clearly demonstrates that inducing PAP, as in post-activation potentiation, is the way to go,” he says.
TM: According to Waterbury, PAP facilitates the nervous system so that you can essentially recruit more muscle fibers with each lift. Inducing PAP will make the contractile elements of muscle more responsive, or it’ll send more powerful nerve signals to your muscles, or both.
Okay, so how does someone increase PAP?
“There are a number of ways, although I use supra-maximal holds or plyometric exercises with a light load because my experience and research shows they’re both very effective,” he says.
“When you take full advantage of PAP, you can immediately boost your strength up to 10 percent, which is significant, especially when you get into the heavier weights,” says Waterbury.
TM: To try this out for yourself, Waterbury recommends a supra-maximal hold for presses, squats, and deadlifts. Here’s how you do it:
- First start with a few warm-up sets, then load the barbell with 110-120% of your 1RM. For a 300-pound bench presser, that would be 330 to 360 pounds.
- Unrack the load and hold it near lockout for about 10 seconds.
- Then, rest for about 30 seconds and perform a set of the same exercise with a sub-maximal load of approximately 85% of your 1RM, which for our hypothetical 300-pound 1RM would be 255-pounds.
“You’ll feel stronger, faster, and you’ll get an extra rep or two, depending on the sub-maximal load you choose,” says Waterbury. “The lighter loads obviously result in more extra reps.”
TM: Waterbury says you don’t need to get too hung up on the percentages, though. Just hold the heaviest weight you can handle near lockout for around 10 seconds, then wait about 30 seconds and perform your first work set.
When the subject switches from strength and neural-based training to hypertrophy, Chad takes a decidedly different approach than any of his colleagues.
“If the goal is maximum muscle hypertrophy where nervous system recruitment is less of an issue, I typically stick with unchanging loads,” says Waterbury.
“Let’s take 8 sets of 3 reps as an example for hypertrophy training. If you stick with a constant load for all sets, say a 6RM, your total workload will usually be higher than if you start light and ramp up the weight with subsequent sets.”
“I’m not saying the other guys’ approaches don’t work, this is just what I prefer to do,” he says. “Different approaches to reach a similar goal; there’s no right way or wrong way.”
“In the end, every lifter has to figure out what works best for themselves,” he says.
The Ramping Wrap Up
Still confused with what to do? Don’t be. Pop a few Rhodiola Rosea and let the cortisol fall a few notches.
- Ramping can mean one of two things: One is a desired physiological effect, while the other is an actual loading approach.
- Ramping up (or activating/potentiating) the nervous system while trying to minimize fatigue leads to an optimal lifting performance. Any training method that potentiates the nervous system can be used to “ramp” yourself up.
- In the traditional setup, the contrast between the last warm-up set and the first work set is often too big. The last warm-up set should feel more like another work-set.
- Too many reps during a warm-up will only serve to deplete energy levels from your more important sets.
- The ramping sets aren’t simply warm-up sets. Anything over 60% of 1RM is contributing to building size and strength, not to mention priming the nervous system for the big stuff still to come.
- A hypertrophy ramp would be quite similar, except with more reps per set. The overall approach would be very similar.
- Ramping seems to receive unanimous approval from our coaches for strength or neural-based goals. Traditional loading or pump training are often favored in straight hypertrophy applications, at least some of the time.
- Hard gainers or non-genetic mutants looking to get bigger and stronger should basically do whatever Thibs says. Seriously. Whether it’s ramp load, shave their heads, or pray for the resurrection of the Quebec Nordiques.
- For another way to trick your body into pushing heavier weights, try experimenting with ways to induce PAP. Manipulating the nervous system and managing fatigue truly are the keys to getting strong as fast as humanly possible.
- Become your own strength coach. Experiment with new techniques and keep a log to monitor your progress. You’ll quickly realize what systems work best for you and which one’s suck harder than a Twilight triple feature.
Got a question or comment of your own about ramping? Fire away!