Lee Boyce is a strength coach and internationally published fitness writer who works with clients and athletes for muscle development, sport performance, and conditioning. He is based in Toronto, Ontario.
The common problem in training for size is the undying need to stick to a programme. It’s not something I particularly advocate, as breaking free from the reigns to train intuitively will always take first place in my mind over doing a programme that only marginally improves your performance or physique.
One standard ‘rule’ with intermediate programme design comes in the idea of working to a certain percentage of your one-rep max, and staying there for all of your work sets before moving on to the next move. Of course, this method has been tried, tested and deemed true by many a good-sized client, so there’s no reason to knock such a protocol.
The issue is, there are some bodies that just plain don’t ‘take’ to this method like others. Especially if you’re a big guy whose muscular endurance and conditioning don’t give you the wheels to have a solid performance deep into your working sets, making a small change to your approach worth considering.
Applying volume to your ramping phase using my ‘Jail Method’ is a suitable alternative to traditional high-volume protocols. Many lifters will perform low reps and leave gas in the tank for their work sets under full load. This will help stimulate the nervous system and leave energy stores intact. The thing is, when it comes to size training, given safety is a prime concern, the central nervous system takes a backseat along with recovery and lifting percentage.
Training for size involves breaking muscles down as completely as possible, and not allowing for plenty of rest time between sets within reason. It’s a reason why training systems like German Volume Training (10×10 with approximately only 60% of your max effort, and only one minute of rest between sets) work so well, despite having what appears to be negligible weight as your working load.
With the above said, using a ramp volume approach can actually result in more cumulative weight lifted than a standard approach will, the same way it does for GVT. Remember, our primary concern is breaking muscle tissue down, and that can often transcend the amount of weight you’re moving, or concerned with moving.
How it works
Let’s say a basic and typical intermediate size programme may ask for five work sets at the top weight for a given exercise. Let’s use squats and a weight of 300 pounds for 5×8. A smart lifter won’t go into that first work set cold. He’ll warm up, mobilise, and then begin his first ramping sets at a very light weight for fewer reps for the sake of stimulating the nervous system and grooving his pattern.
Conservatively speaking, his ramp will probably look something like this:
• 95lbs x 5 reps
• 135lbs x 3 reps
• 185lbs x 2 reps
• 205lbs x 2 reps
• 225lbs x 2 reps
• 250lbs x 2 reps
• 275lbs x 2 reps
• 300lbs x 8 reps x 5 sets (the work sets)
I said conservatively speaking because many lifters wouldn’t take the time to use such small increments, and possibly may even jump from one plate straight to two plates, and straight to 275 after that. It sounds more efficient at first, but it actually feeds into the entire point of this article even more.
Doing the math to calculate the total amount of weight lifted using the example above, you’ll see that the lifter would have lifted a total of 15,160lbs. That’s a lot of weight.
If people are using bigger jumps than what’s seen here, it means less volume than the example provides. Not quite the ideal.
Like I said at the outset, sometimes lifters just plain run out of steam, and don’t have the energy left to keep their 3rd, 4th, and 5th set the same in terms of weight and effort produced. As a result, cumulative poundage, which is so important for size training, takes yet another hit since to finish eight reps the weight has to be dropped, or the lifter could opt to cut reps with the original weight.
If it’s not that, the lifter may just be looking for another method that doesn’t compromise their goals, but adds similar amounts of volume (but usually more volume) to the protocol. They can solve this problem in jail!
A better way
• 95lbs x 8 reps
• 135lbs x 8 reps
• 185lbs x 8 reps
• 205lbs x 8 reps
• 225lbs x 8 reps
• 250lbs x 8 reps
• 275lbs x 8 reps
• 300lbs x 8 reps x 2 sets
In this example, the lifter cumulatively lifts a total of 15,760lbs, handily surpassing the amount he’d lift in my first example. Plus, the lifter would likely have less technical breakdown during the workout. The reason being, he’s training so submaximally and only doing two top end sets at his ‘challenging’ weight.
You can expect this method to give your conditioning kick into high gear also, especially if you rest for less time between the lower-end sets, increase to moderate rest intervals approaching the top-end sets.
This is a training method that can be applied to most compound movements, though it can be slightly time-consuming and physically extolling, to say the least. My best suggestion is to save it for your big barbell lifts (squat, deadlift, bench press, overhead press) for results, and add assistance exercises to the end of your workout, the same way you would using a different training system.
The cherry on top of this all is the fact that not only will you be less prone to compromising the weight at your top sets, but you’ll also be more likely to have a heavier top set than you would using a more traditional method, simply because your body won’t be as taxed from an exertion and strength perspective when performing sets at lower weights. It’s all numbers you’re more than used to lifting.
With the right amount of rest approaching the top sets, you’ll be neurologically fresh and ready to go for a new eight-rep PR.
The reason I call this the ‘jail’ method isn’t because I’ve been there. It’s because any footage of jail-yard workouts I see usually involves big, intimidating men performing compound movements for reps upon reps. I recommend taking a page out of their book and applying the same ideas, with a bit more structure. With all that said, I’m sure it’ll feel a little bit like you’re stuck in prison with all those sets of eight. But your physique will thank you for it.