Flash back to the first time you seriously hit the gym.
You probably walked through the front door in a pair of oversized basketball shorts and a cut-off football t-shirt to unveil your veiny 12 inch pythons.
Maybe you did every exercise with 3x10 with the same 95 lbs, gradually increasing five pounds per week for the first few weeks.
Suddenly, eight weeks later you were growing.
You traded your cut-off for a slightly bigger cut-off and continued on with heavier weights.
Then, six months later or so, that stopped working. You twiddled your thumbs, kept working at it, but no luck.
No longer did it work to use straight sets with the same weight, and you needed a new approach.
That new approach is ascending loading, one of the most effective modes to improve strength and muscle mass.
What is Ascending Loading?
Ascending loading, also known as ramp loading, is the process of gradually increasing the resistance on each progressive set.
- Straight Sets: 225x5
- Ascending Loading: 205x5, 225x5, 230x5, 235x5, 240x5
Ascending loading, also known as ramping up, takes away the guesswork and gradually activates the nervous system with progressively heavier weights, leading up to your heaviest work sets at the end the exercise. This way, you lift with the same volume, but progressively heavier weights to stimulate greater process and gains in muscle.
I already know what you’re thinking, “Won’t ramping make me lift less weight overall if I’m using lighter loads early on, and thus minimize my training gains?”
No. Rather than blowing through the gas tank in laps one and two, it prepares the nervous system to work harder as you warm-up, while still optimizing technique and the execution of each rep early on.
In other words, submaximal ramping sets help you minimize fatigue during sets, honing in on exercise technique, maximizing bar speed, and prepping the nervous system for domination of the heaviest strength sets.
The Science of Ascending Loading: CNS Potentiation
The driving force behind ascending loading schemes is potentiating the nervous system to handle heavier weights while managing fatigue.
To better understand this, a few things happen to the nervous system after a heavy resistance exercise:
1) 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 and muscle activation. Force production will improve strength numbers, indirectly improving your ability to build muscle. Then, greater muscle activation allows you to hit a greater number of muscle fibers.
2) 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.
Putting it All Together
Ascending loading schemes allow you to refine technique, reinforce coordination, manage fatigue, and ramp the nervous system to lift increasingly heavier weights, driving your high-performance training forward.
Ramping up with straight sets to (5x2, 5x3, 4x4, 5x5) (60-95% 1-RM)
Ramping with straight sets is a commonly prescribed method of ascending loading. To start, use a moderate training load (60%1-RM) for the prescribed number of reps and build your way up (ascending loading) to the heaviest set with rep range of the day.
Through each set, increase load by 5-10%, aiming to reach your heaviest set in 4-6 sets. Ramping sets work better for advanced lifters as straight sets with heavier loads provide tons of cumulative fatigue.
As Siff and Verkhoshansky state in SuperTraining, increasingly heavier loads elicit positive effects on the CNS, improving both speed and strength as long as the after affects stimulation and fatigue are managed (Siff, 1999).
Novice trainees might not get enough of a training response to benefit from submaximal ramping sets, but as your abilities progress, ascending loading with straight sets is more effective than straight-sets with a consistently higher workload.
- Squat Training Max: 300lbs
- Heaviest Workload for the Day: 80% 1-RM = 240lbs
- Warm-Up: 135x5; 185x5
Related: Calculate your 1-Rep Max
Ascending Loading, Descending Pyramids 4x10,8,6,4/5x4,6,8,10,12
Ascending loading is a method that utilizes lighter weights with higher rep sets, while getting progressively heavier while dropping the number of reps per set.
Similar to straight sets, increasingly heavier loads stimulate the CNS to improve performance as long as fatigue is kept to a minimum.
Straight sets are fine when you’re starting out, but as your experience improves your methods must adapt to your new levels of performance to continue building muscle. That means moving from straight sets to ascending loading schemes to improve strength and muscle building.
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%20folder/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.