Ramp-Up Sets: One of The Most Commonly Misunderstood Concepts in Strength Training

In my intermediate and advanced training programs, I often include ramp up sets as part of the exercise prescription. But I get a lot of questions as to what they mean (even though I include a detailed explanation in the FAQ) and I also constantly see people in the gym misusing them or skipping them. This article highlights everything you need to know about how to ensure you’re implementing them properly.

What are ramp up sets?

Also known as warm up sets, feeder sets or "greasing the groove", they prepare your joints, muscles, and nervous system to handle your working sets. They should not count towards your total volume, and don’t need to be tracked or logged (they’re based primarily on feel). They also do not replace a general upper or lower body warmup. Warming up your joints, nervous system, and the muscles you’ll be focusing on before you get into your movements for the day will measurably increase your longevity (and your long term muscle and strength!).

First, let’s take a look at what not to do with the following 2 examples (for each example, the lifter will be doing deadlifts for a top set of 5 with 405 lbs, followed by 2-3 backoff sets [which are arbitrary]):

Scenario 1:

After a warmup,

Ramp up 1: 135x5

Ramp up 2: 225x5

Ramp up 3: 315x3

Working set of 405 x5

This isn’t off by much, but the jumps in weight are too steep given the top set working weight of 405. If this lifter's top set was somewhere in the 600+ range, this would potentially be an appropriate jump because 315 is still less than 50% of the working set range. As a general rule, once you get to about 50-60% of your working set weight (doesn’t need to be exact - so in this case, 225 lbs) the rest of your ramp up sets should be 10-15% increases in weight per set (you can round for simplicity and use 5s 10s or 25s - so the next sets would be 275, 315, 365 etc)

Scenario 2 (same lifter, same top set @ same weight):

After a warmup,

Ramp up 1: 135x15

Ramp up 2: 225x 15

Ramp Up 3: 275 x 12

Ramp up 4: 315x 10

Ramp Up 5: 365 x 8

Working Set or 405X5

This lifter made appropriate jumps in weight, but did significantly more reps than he/she should have. The amount of fatigue this lifter has already built going into their top set is not only unnecessary, but will also reduce potential strength gains and progress at best, and present an injury risk at worst. If this lifter is trying to build a lot of work capacity, this may make sense (I’d still do it differently in a less fatiguing manner) but for strength and muscle gains, it’s not a strategy I’d suggest for anyone.

The right way to do ramp up sets (same lifter, top set @ same weight):

After a warmup 

Ramp up 1: 135x5-8

Ramp up 2: 225x 3-5

Ramp Up 3: 275 x 1-3

Ramp up 4: 315x 1-2

Ramp Up 5: 365 x 1

(Possibly Ramp Up 6): 405x1

Working Set of 405X5

Note that this is the same sequence of adding weight that the lifter in the 2nd example used, but each set was done for far fewer repetitions. This strategy will serve as a way to “ramp up” the central nervous system, prepare the joints and connective tissue, and activate the muscles involved in the movement prior to their heavy top set, rather than having heavily fatigued the nervous system, target muscles and connective tissue. This is a way to “grease the groove” before you do your hard, working sets.

Here are some other key considerations regarding ramp up sets:

-You don’t need them for every exercise. Usually a series of ramp up sets are only necessary for certain exercises at certain times in your workout. Oftentimes, once you’re towards the back half of your workout, you’re already warmed up/ramped up enough and you won’t need to do ramp up sets (or maybe you’ll just do 1). You’re also likely using lighter weight and doing a series of isolation or accessory movements. For example, using the same scenario above, if this lifter were to do a set of back extensions, hamstring curls, or glute ham raises after finishing their deadlifts, they probably wouldn’t need a ramp up set because the deadlifts are a lot more demanding of the posterior chain and central nervous system than most accessory movements. Likewise, if, for example, you’ve already done 8-10 sets of chest/pushing movements throughout a session and your last exercise is a cable fly, you probably don’t need a ramp up set. If anything, 1 ramp up will allow you to “grease the groove” and you can jump into your working sets, but it’s not always a necessity.

-Sometimes you don’t need a lot of ramp up sets. The stronger you are, the more you’re going to need. For example, if someone is dumbbell pressing the 140’s for a set of 10, they’ll likely need more ramp up sets than the person next to them benching the 40’s for a set of 10. But depending on the exercise and how much weight you’re using, you may only need 1-2 ramp up sets (if any). If you’re a beginner, you may or may not need ramp up sets, but it wouldn’t hurt to try them and see if they enhance your training. 

-Ramp up sets shouldn’t fatigue you. The purpose of them is to get blood flow to the target muscles and the primary joint(s) involved in the movement, and to prepare your nervous system for upcoming hard sets. If you’re feeling fried going into your first working set, you’ve done too many ramp up sets or too many reps for each (scenario 2). If you put the weight into the starting position and it feels very heavy, you probably didn’t do enough, or the weight increases weren’t appropriate (scenario 1).

-A well programmed sequence of movements results in the need for fewer ramp up sets. If you start your chest day with some unstable pushups, cable flys, or machine flys, and you follow it up with a compound exercise like incline dumbbell press or dips, you’ll need fewer ramp ups for the compound lift. This is only appropriate for older intermediates or advanced trainees of any age, and only for certain goals (muscle gain and general strength with a heavy emphasis on longevity). For example, if you went to do dumbbell incline press as your first movement, and your top sets are 95x8, 85x10, 80x10, your ramp ups would look something like (reps higher than deadlift because less fatiguing lift and higher rep working sets):

Ramp Up 1: 55x6-8

Ramp Up 2: 65x 4-6

Ramp Up 3: 75 x 3-4

Ramp Up 4: 85 x 2-3

(Potentially) Ramp Up 5: 90-95x1-2

Working set 1: 95x 8

If you’re more advanced/older and your program calls for 2 sets of 8-12 cable flys or ring pushups for your first movement, and dumbbell incline press for your 2nd, perhaps you’ll have a lower top set (because you’re a bit fatigued- which is fine, and great for longevity) of 95x5-6, then 85x8, 80 x8-10 your ramp ups will look more like

Ramp Up 1: 70x4-5

Ramp Up 2: 85x 3-4

(Potentially) Ramp Up 3: 90x1-2

Working Set 1: 95x6

There’s nothing wrong with either approach, but just a consideration.

-Skipping them altogether (when they’re necessary) and jumping straight to your working weight: In the former example above, It also wouldn’t surprise me to see someone go straight to 95’s for their first set after a general warmup. This isn’t a good idea either. If you can jump straight to 95’s and knock out a set of 8 after just a general upper body warmup (different from ramp up sets), you could probably be handling the 105’s-110’s with proper ramp up set integration. Your muscles, joints, nervous system, and connective tissue can handle more load with better form (which will lead to less pain and more long term gains) when proper ramp ups are implemented.

-Logging them or including them in your daily/weekly volume: If you do 3 ramp up sets and 3 working sets, you only need to log 3 sets. The ramp up sets (if done properly) will not contribute to acute muscle gain because they’re not done at a close enough proximity to failure. They will, however, lead to more muscle gain and better joint health down the road because your working sets will be more effective. Don’t overthink it, just think of them as extra practice and extra prep. 

-Using your ramp ups as your only warmup. For this example, we’ll use a fan favorite, the bench press. The lifter walks into the gym, checks in, and makes a beeline to the bench press station. He (I say “He” because in 99.9% of cases, a male will be the one who does this) immediately begins repping out the bar (maybe), 135, 185, 225 etc and then goes into his working sets. Although you don’t need to spend 30 minutes warming up, if you always go straight into your ramp up sets without a proper upper body warmup, you’re not going to be able to sustain it long. Warmup your shoulders, upper back, and get some blood flow to your upper body before you begin ramping up for your first main movement. This will measurably increase your longevity and reduce joint issues. It’ll also make you stronger in the long run.

I Understand this may seem like a lot of overanalyzing, but some people really hinder their top (effective) set output by overdoing ramp up sets or just skipping them altogether. This doesn't make a huge difference in one or two workouts, but over an entire training career, the effect is quite profound. 

Ramp up sets need not be complicated, but the frequency at which I see them performed incorrectly is something I feel needs to be addressed. Hopefully this article helps you conceptualize how to utilize them properly for your future lifting sessions. As a result, you’ll feel better, perform better, and build more muscle.

Thank you for reading! Do you implement ramp up sets? Did you just learn you’ve been doing them all wrong? Let me know (along with any questions you may have) in the comments below!

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