Shred-telligent Design: How to Ramp Up Your Major Lifts

When it comes to developing strength and muscle mass, is your warm-up doing more harm than good?


After hearing for years from trainers, coaches, and therapists that the dynamic warm up is an essential part of any exercise program, everyone finally bought in and stopped stretching for twenty minutes prior to any activity. 

This is awesome for the general public looking to stay healthy and get a bit of a sweat dripping off their backs. But for strength athletes, a dynamic warm up is just a piece of the performance puzzle. Consistently moving heavy loads on a frequent basis with the goal of progressively getting bigger, stronger, and more explosive needs some special attention in the warm-up department.

How to Program an Effective Warm Up

Through the programming of ramp-up sets, strength athletes can utilize movement-specific warm ups while not frying their neurological systems in the process. But be careful – if ramp-up sets are programmed ineffectively, they can pre-fatigue musculature and neurological conduction patterns, largely limiting epic performances. 

“[T]here has to be a better way to get warmed up to provide an optimal carry over into your performance.”

Proceed with knowledge, strategy, and goals in mind and reap the benefits of an intelligently designed movement-specific ramp-up program. Here is an example of a full body dynamic warm up that can be used before any type of training session:

Example Dynamic Warm Up

Ramp-Up Sets

If you aren’t familiar with the term, ramp-up sets can be defined as preparatory sets of an exercise or movement that are completed with submaximal weight to activate specific musculature and prepare active joints for increased loads and intensities, while also grooving a specific pattern in order to achieve pristine movement patterns and form. Think of these as a more detailed and customized version of the generalized dynamic warm up.

Though people have started to get pretty good at warming up dynamically before strength and conditioning work, ramp-up sets are usually butchered in the commercial setting.  This is likely due to a lack of emphasis on their importance as it pertains to actual performance in the working sets.

RELATED: Build a Better Warm Up for a Better Workout

By now, everyone has seen a gym bro approach the bench just to knock out twenty reps with the bar flying off his chest, followed by a few reps with a 45-pounder on each side, then move right into the grand finale by unleashing his inner demons on his max-effort press.

I’m going out on a limb by saying there has to be a better way to get warmed up to provide an optimal carry over into your performance, while not limiting the quality of work about to be done.

Hypertrophy Program

In my twelve-week hypertrophy program, one key staple is the use of strategic ramp-up sets for each movement in a training day. While many programs fail to instruct this detail, I wanted to make it a priority because of a few key advantages that strategically ramping up your weights provides.

First and foremost, the ramp-up sets provide the opportunity to increase your total workout volume by adding a few sets for each movement while staying submaximal in your exertion. Increasing overall volume is advantageous when the goal is packing on extra muscle. Without going crazy like some of the old Arnold routines, which incorporated multiple ramp-up sets in conjunction with set-and-rep schemes of 10×10, we can add a little volume without going overboard.

Second, many foundational strength movements are highly skill-based in nature. The more time you spend under the bar, the better you will be able to find your sweet spot in both the setup and execution of a movement. Don’t listen to Allen Iverson. Practice is the key when it comes to moving maximal iron and emphasizing hypertrophy.

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As extended practice is utilized over time, the neural system will become more activated, increasing both the synergistic movement patterns that are coordinated by various segments of the body and the motor units available to play a role in moving a load.

Ramping up also provides you a way to judge how a load feels on a daily basis. Though in most hypertrophy and strength programs, lifters are continuously chasing progressive overload, the rate of perceived exertion (RPE) is also important.

“Don’t listen to Allen Iverson. Practice is the key when it comes to moving maximal iron and emphasizing hypertrophy.” 

Advanced lifters realize that 225 pounds on two separate days of the week may feel different due to other variables in a performance program or lifestyle. Smart (and successful) lifters will adjust accordingly. Appreciating that an internal force is just as important as an external load placed on the body is key in achieving hypertrophy gains for the long run.

Determining Loads Used During Ramp-Up Sets

For most big compound lifts, I have my clients use a three set ramp-up scheme that looks something like this:

The goal for the first set is to move the weight explosively, tapping into your fast twitch muscle fibers and activating muscles worked during the pattern.

In the second ramp-up set, your reps will be half the number of the prescribed working sets. For example, if you are prescribed 10 sets of 10 reps, your second ramp-up will be done with 5 repetitions. The tempo of this movement should be identical to the tempo used with your working weight.

RELATED: Maximize Your Strength and Gains With This Simple Rep Scheme

Note: It pays to know your body and its capabilities in each movement, so take notes during your training sessions whenever possible. Data will become useful as you progress over time.

The final ramp-up set will be completed with a load slightly heavier than the load prescribed in the working sets. This will kick on neural activation and prepare you for your first working set. This set also provides you with an option of boosting your working loads. Based on your RPE on a given day for any movement, attempt to get the most out of your training by boosting your weights slightly and challenging yourself.

Time + Work = Results

Put both the dynamic warm up and ramp-up schemes to good use when designing your own strength training programs, or while you follow along with my free hypertrophy-focused program.

Both types of warm ups play a key role in continued progression toward your aesthetic and/or strength goals. So put some time into preparing for each movement, and get ready to reap the benefits.


Photos courtesy of Corso Photo.