To lift heavier weights, success starts with the warm-up. Getting your muscles moving by ramping up to heavy sets protects joints from damage and muscles from tearing, but those lighter reps have another effect that's essential for setting a PR: They light up the nervous system.
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The central nervous system controls fast-twitch muscle fibers, which fire during explosive efforts like lifting a weighted barbell. Performing low-intensity ramping sets activates the fast-twitch muscle fibers, and like a dress rehearsal, also preps the body to perform the movement pattern.
The biggest mistake that people make is going overboard in the warm-up. It's easy to fry your muscles warming up for a max-weight lift simply by doing too much work before it's time to make your true attempt. One way that happens is using the classic pyramid training method, shown below. This is a great way to add size, but you'll do too many reps — 42 before the last set — for your muscles to stay fresh for that last, heaviest attempt:
The Wrong Way to Warm Up for a Heavy Lift: A bench press max test using the pyramid method
- Set 1: 135lbs x 12 reps
- Set 2: 165 x 10
- Set 3: 185 x 8
- Set 4: 205 x 6
- Set 5: 225 x 4
- Set 6: 245 x 2
- Set 7: 255 x 1
Below is the better way. The lifter performs 17 reps before his max set. While the first example induces muscular fatigue — a PR-hitting enemy — this method properly primes the central nervous system with sub-maximal sets of sub-maximal reps.
The Right Way: A bench press max test using ideal ramping
- Set 1: 135lbs x 5 reps
- Set 2: 165 x 3
- Set 3: 185 x 2
- Set 4: 205 x 2
- Set 5: 225 x 2
- Set 6: 245 x 1
- Set 7: 255 x 1
- Set 8: 265 x 1
- Set 9: 270 x 1
When your max weight is on the bar, you should feel strong, explosive, alert, and ready to lift. (If you don't, you've probably done a bit too much in preparation.) Remember, your ultimate goal should be to stay safe, so take the time to foam roll, stretch, and mobilize before you even start your first warm-up set.