Ramp-up Sets, RPE, and Proper Loading Procedure

Ramp-up Sets

Ramp-up sets = the increasing weights that you lift prior to completing the “work sets.” These sets are meant to PRIME and PREPARE the body for the work ahead WITHOUT causing additional fatigue.

It is also important to understand that the general accepted guideline for “total work sets per week” for a natural athlete (i.e. without assistance of anabolics) is 10-12 sets per area for large upper body muscles (Chest, Back, Shoulders). The number is slightly lower for Biceps and Triceps. For Legs, it is 10-12 work sets for quads and 10-12 for hamstrings.

It’s important to understand how to properly build in weight so that “ramp-up” sets are not treated as “work sets.”

Work Sets

Work sets = any set that is above an RPE of 8. RPE stands for “Rate of Perceived Exertion.” This is generally an individualized metric based on “feeling,” and therefore is quite subjective. For the purpose of implementation, RPE 8 will represent any set that is within TWO REPS of TECHNICAL FAILURE.

Technical Failure = Loss or compromising of technique. If you perform a Squat where your low back collapses over and your chest drops, this is BEYOND Failure and is considered a bad rep. If your butt comes off the bench in a Bench Press, or if you kick your legs in a Strict Pull-up, these are also bad reps. To properly perform at an RPE 10, the last rep would be the one you can achieve with perfect form.

So how can we properly implement “Ramp-up” sets?

There are three primary ways in which ramp-up sets take place in our programming.

#1 – Decreasing Reps Building In Weight

These sets may appear in one of the following ways:

20-15-10
15-12-10-8
15-12-9-6
12-10-8-6
12-9-6-3
10-8-6-4
8-6-4-2
5-4-3-2-1
3-3-2-2-1

Also includes other variations where load increases as reps decrease. When performing this format of progression, the goal is to make BIG JUMPS in weight so that only the final set (or two) would truly be considered WORK SETS. The goal is to make sure you have enough left in the tank for the heaviest sets at the end, and therefore should utilize the earlier sets as a form of progressive warm-up.

As an example, let’s assume a Deadlift max of 500 (male) and 300 (female). Here are how you should approach a 10-8-6-4-2 progression:

Male – 225 x 10, 275 x 8, 315 x 6, 365 x 4, 415 x 2
Female – 135 x 10, 165 x 8, 195 x 6, 225 x 4, 255 x 2

#2 – Increasing Weight, Reps Stay the Same

These sets may appear in one of the following ways:

4 x 12
4 x 10
4 x 8
4 x 6
5 x 5
6 x 4
7 x 3
5 x 3

Also includes other variations where you perform multiple sets of the same rep number

Using the Deadlift example from above, here is how you might perform a 5 x 5 increasing weight:

Male – 225 x 5, 265 x 5, 305 x 5, 345 x 5, 375 x 5
Female – 135 x 5, 155 x 5, 175 x 5, 195 x 5, 215 x 5

Using the 5 x 5 example, sometimes it might say “increase weight for 2 sets then complete 3 sets at same weight.” In this case, you would still go light and progressive for the first two sets, and then choose a weight where you can achieve all three working sets for the proper number of reps while staying just shy of “technical failure.” In general, this approach would warrant a slightly lower weight for the 3×5 than when performing just ONE TOP SET of 5 reps.

#3 – Build to ONE TOP SET (with no prescription of total number of sets)

This is a favorite of ours. It assumes that the athlete has a good understanding of the principles previously discussed and can properly maneuver through the “multiple set” ramp-ups. This method may appear as WORK TO ONE TOP SET of 10, 8, 6, 4, 3, 2 or 1 rep. The approach is slightly different for the higher rep sets than the lower rep sets, but the concept of avoiding anything even slightly strenuous while simultaneously PEAKING the CNS will be key.

Example of higher rep set – 8-10 Reps
*Assume same 500 (male) and 300 (female) max Deadlift

Because of the HIGHER REP for the work set, this approach will use the “over-warm-up” to stimulate the CNS and make the working weight feel lighter.

Male – 135 x 10, 225 x 6, 275 x 3, 335 x 1, 405 x 1
Then 365 x WORKING SET of 8-10 Reps

Female – 95 x 10, 145 x 6, 185 x 3, 225 x 1, 265 x 1
Then 240 x WORKING SET of 8-10 Reps

Second Example, would assume you are working to a heavy single rep

Male – 135 x 10, 225 x 6, 275 x 3, 335 x 1-2, 405 x 1, 445 x 1, 475 x 1, 500+ x 1
Female – 95 x 10, 145 x 6, 185 x 3, 225 x 1-2, 255 x 1, 275 x 1, 300+ x 1

In both cases, you would want to avoid anything over 1-rep after you reach about 70-75% of max. This will ensure the CNS can be at its best and primed for performance.

Practice the Way You Want to Play

My basketball coach in High School used to always say this, and he would end the sentence by saying something like:

Imperfect practice leads to bad habits which will become permanent.

This is very applicable to training with weights, as well. When performing your “Ramp-up” sets, make sure you put in the same level of focus and effort that you would for a heavy set. People are constantly looking awkwardly out of the corner of their eye because the performance of a 155 deadlift is akin to that of a 400 lb set.

Set the body in perfect rigid position. Take a deep breath and retract the lats down and back, drive the heels aggressively through the ground engaging the hamstrings, fight the chest up, hold the breath through the sticking point, and lower weights under control.

When you always lift a weight the same way, whether it’s light or heavy, your bodies’ central nervous system will be prepared as the weights ascend. You won’t need to change the way you setup or perform, because it is already permanently engrained as a HABIT.

Always strive for perfection. This will help you target the proper muscles to perform the work, while also remaining injury free and stimulating the CNS optimally so that you can get all the performance and aesthetic gains.