Originally published on April 8, 2010
A great deal has been written about the general warm-up for strength training. General metabolic warm-up, mobility drills, and soft tissue work are all recommended by various sources. Most trainees would do well to pay the general warm-up some attention. However, the specific exercise warm-up is often a source of confusion and a good specific warm-up can be an art form in itself.
So many trainees not only fail on how to properly build up to their big squats and deadlifts but also fail to realize how important a proper build up is. Yes, it’s important for injury prevention. But the simple fact is a good specific warm up can be the difference between success and failure.
Warm Up Sets for Bodybuilding
Most information on the web about weight training warm-ups are written from the point of view of bodybuilding. The typical percentage range of bodybuilding does not require the warm up know-how that strength training does, especially when near maximal loads are on the schedule. In fact, I often jump straight to my working sets when dong muscle building workouts, feeling no need to warm up my muscles further than they already have been. Much depends on what muscles you have worked previously and what kind of volume or weight you are using. For example if I’m “running the stack” the warm-up is built in.
For your first bodybuilding exercise, you probably just need to start out a little lighter than you intend to use for your working sets, just to make sure your muscles are getting some blood and to get the joints ready. But, you don’t need any complicated rationale for the most part unless you are using particularly heavy sets for hypertrophy. In that case, you can follow the guidelines given below, while modifying them for your needs.
Warm Up Sets for Heavy Singles
It is impossible to cover every possible strength training scenario and give recommendations for each so the best approach is to assume that near-maximal loads are to be attempted which are loads of at least ninety percent of your maximum ability or more. So, we can assume you are going to do heavy singles, or at least heavy doubles or triples. After you understand the basic technique for constructing the specific warm up for these heavy loads, warm ups for the lighter loads and higher rep ranges will be straight forward by comparison. Given that, we will provide some tips based on common scenarios as well.
Joe Weir and I explained a proper warm up well in the Single Rep Routine under warm up and acclimation. That explanation was given in regards to a session of single rep training which means that the build-up may be slower and the acclimation sets can end up being much closer to the maximum weight for that day. So use that only as one example.
A specific exercise warm-up consists of two parts, the warm-up and the acclimation. For the remainder of this article, when I use the term “warm up,” I will be referring to both the warm up AND the acclimation. When it comes to building up to a big lift, these can be viewed as integrated processes, each one as important as the other. The only reason we discuss them separately is so that the trainee can understand the slightly different purposes of each phase, and therefore the different rep ranges that are used.
Start with the Empty Bar
You should know approximately what your working weight will be before you begin your warm-up. For moderate percentage loads you will usually know exactly what weight you plan to use or at least within 5 to 10 pounds of it. For near-maximal training such as singles or doubles you only need to make a guess since you will be able to judge your working weight by the warm-up and acclimation process itself.
This may seem silly but you should always begin with an empty bar until you are quite strong. And Even advanced trainees may sometimes need to start with the bar empty which usually means 45 pounds for Olympic barbells although some cheaper bars may weigh around 40 pounds. Starting with an empty bar serves a number of purposes.
Depending on how complicated and long your general warm up routine is you may need more or less time to “get in the groove” of your squats, deadlifts, or other heavy lift. For those with complex needs who not only need good general warm up routines but also specific stretches for problem areas more time with very little weight to re-coordinate yourself with the lift is useful. Static stretching saps your strength. So, you will need more time to regain it during the warm-up, requiring lighter weights to prevent injury due to a lack of strength and coordination.
Although a variety of movement, as in the case of mobility training serves to facilitate motor learning in the long run, it may tend to “scatter us” in the short term. Warrior lunges and spidermans are great but the best way to get ready for a squat is to squat. I do not agree that everyone should be doing mobility routines. It may simply be a waste of time and serve to eat up your precious time in the gym!
General warm up routines emphasize continual movement. But that does not mean that static components do not exist. You should avoid holding static positions during mobility drills or any other warmup drills for more than a second except in the case of static stretches held for specific overactive or problem muscles. However, if you have many problem areas that require stretching you will need more time with the empty bar, as mentioned, as static stretching is weakening and require a slower specific warmup for your lift to get you going again.
Likewise, those who are unfamiliar with the mobility exercises will need to take more time with them and will tend to hold positions longer. This will temporarily decrease coordination even though it is a necessary part of learning the movements. The empty bar will serve as a recovery time without having to wait around for the effects to wear off, meaning the warm “wears off.”
Perhaps the most important reason to begin with the empty bar is that it allows you to evaluate for the presence of potential tweaks. Those of us who are veterans of strength training know how easy it is to have a problem sneak up on us that we may have felt if only we had taken some time with an empty bar to check ourselves over.
Begin with one to three sets of no more than eight reps with the empty bar. Take your time and do the reps slowly (not superslow) and with control. Pay attention to technique.
The Warm-Up Phase
After your initial sets with the empty bar you are ready for your warm up sets. Use no more than eight reps to avoid the accumulation of excess lactic acid. Although a bit of lactic acid production can be favorable too much will degrade force production. We want more force production after the warm up, not less! The warm up should not fatigue you. It should be easy and comfortable. It is better to do several sets with 4 to 6 reps than sets with more reps if more reps mean you will be more fatigued.
To calculate how much weight to put on the bar for the warm up phase take your projected working weight and calculate 50 and 75% of that. These numbers will be used as benchmarks around which the sets will be planned.
Here is an example of a basic warm-up based on a proposed target weight of 150 pounds.
Empty Bar X 6
Empty Bar X 5
75 X 5
110 X 4
So the first two set represent 50 and 75% respectively. As you can see only moderate reps are used. Most sources advise many more reps than are needed for the warmup. As you become more advanced your warm ups (and acclimation) will consist of more sets not more reps.
As stated however, the percentages are just benchmarks. Weights up to 80% may still be considered part of the warm up for some trainees depending on individual needs and training status. Loads heavier than 80% percent are best considered acclimation.
Although after the above sets you might be thoroughly warmed up if you were to jump right to the working weight of 150 it could come as a shock. That’s a jump of 30 pounds.
If the working sets represent a moderate load and are to involve moderate reps then it is permissible to go right from the warm up to the work sets. Even so, at least one or two acclimation sets can produce higher quality and better performance. If the working load is a maximal load then the acclimation sets are absolutely required.
After the above warm up a short period of acclimation might look like this:
120 X 1
125 X 1
135 X 1
135 pounds is 90% of our projected weight. How close to approach the working weight is an important question to ask. Some, myself included, avoid coming closer to 80 or 85% of our projected load while others do better with acclimation sets that go a bit heavier. You will have to experiment and learn what suits you best. Keep in mind that what suits you may change over time. Perhaps the biggest mistake trainees make is failing to realize that their needs change as their training status progresses (or regresses as the case may be).
As mentioned, the number of warm up and acclimation sets you need may go up as you become more advanced. Everybody is a little different though and individual tolerances to lifting will determine whether shorter or longer sessions are used. What is warming up and acclimating to a more advanced trainee may well be overwhelming to a beginning trainee. So here is an example warm up and acclimation using a target weight of 300 pounds:
Empty Bar X 6 X 2 (6 reps, 2 sets)
90 x 5 x 1
120 x 4
150 x 3
175 x 3
225 x 2
235 x 1
250 x 1
260 x 1
275 x 1
Target Weight 300
This is where the 50 and 75% numbers being “benchmarks” comes into play. For a target weight of 300 our benchmarks are 150 and 225 pounds. The warm up sets are planned around these. So for the above session I used 120, 150, 175, and 225 before beginning the acclimation sets. The 90 pound set was thrown in to represent a trainee who needs additional work with very light loads. Notice, however that we didn’t mess around with 50, 60, 70, 100, etc. Those would be needlessly light loads and would only serve to accumulate more work than we needed to build up to our lift. So the benchmarks simply tell us the range to begin with. That does not mean you, as an individual, cannot go lighter if you need it. These benchmarks are good ballpark for the average trainee.
Rest as long as you need between sets of warm up and acclimation. The initial warm up sets will tend to require little rest and one to two minutes may be enough. If you are out of breath rest longer and even at the beginning it may be proper to rest as long as three minutes when needed. As the build up sets get heavier longer rest periods will be required and for acclimation sets rest periods of five minutes or even longer are sometimes needed. In general allow three to five minutes between acclimation sets. Much will depend on the nature of the training session to follow and there are no rules except not to race through a warm up.
No, you do not need to worry about your warm up “wearing off” or your muscles going cold because you rest too long between sets. This is not bodybuilding so don’t wear a bodybuilder’s hat to the gym. The purpose of the specific warm up and acclimation is to facilitate high force development and high quality. Curtailed inter-set rest periods are not conducive to this.
Time management is, of course, a factor and no one wants to spend half an hour on the warm up. But remember that the first lift in your session is your priority lift. If you need to sacrifice for time then shave time off the end of the workout, never the beginning. Accessory exercises can be supersetted, for instance, which will save a great deal of time at the end of the workout.
Warm-Ups for Secondary Exercises
The second most common question about exercise warm ups is whether or not you need to warm up for each and every exercise you do. The answer is it depends and not exactly.
Let’s say your first exercise is deadlift and your second exercise is step-ups. Once you’ve finished your deadlifts your entire body has done work and it is safe to say that your lower body is thoroughly warmed up. But that is not the same a being “prepared.”
The obvious difference between the deadlift and step-up is that the deadlift is a hip dominant exercise and the step-up is a knee dominant. Some may understand that as “posterior chain dominant” and “quad dominant.” But the deadlifts do work your quads just like step-ups for sure work the posterior chain to some extent. The less obvious difference is the amplitude of movement, the step-up having more. The ROM of the step-up is greater than deadlifts.
So you may still need a few lighter sets to get ready for the step-ups. But no you do not need a full-fledged warm up and acclimation. In fact, you should rarely need any acclimation at all for a secondary movement and at most a couple of sets of 4 to 5 at say 50 to 70 percent of the working load. Play it by ear and learn what works best for you. It is doubtful you will be using near maximal loads on such an exercise, after all.
What if your second exercise is upper body and your primary one is lower body? Well, this changes things. You will need to consider whether the second exercise is near maximal or submaximal work. Also, consider injury history. The shoulders need more love and care than almost any joint in the body. Don’t think you are ready to launch into some heavy military presses just because you’ve deadlifted and after all, the deadlifts do work your shoulders a bit.
You will never need the same long warm-up process for any secondary exercise but always hold out the need for some warm up. For exercises after the first few there is rarely any need for further warm up. You will be working the same area of the body with movements of a similar class and the weights will be lighter.
The question of stepped sets is bound to come up. Stepped sets are when the weights used during successive sets of a resistance exercise are increased in steady increments. Only the final set is the maximum working load so the initial sets, depending on the size of the increments, may well be considered a “warm-up.”
So, in general, stepped sets will require much less warm up since you are still warming up as you begin the initial sets. How much warm up is needed before the “working sets” depends on how heavy the initial set is or, in other words, how tight the increments are.
Usually stepped sets are planned by taking the final working set and planning each set downward from there based on a certain percentage.
Let’s say you plan to do 200 X 6 for your final set and want to do 4 stepped sets. If you use only five percent increments your sets will be
170 X 6
180 X 6
190 X 6
200 X 6
A couple of sets with the empty bar, followed by some moderate rep sets of around 100 and 135 should suffice before beginning the stepped sets.
If higher increments are used even less warm up would be needed.
Stepped sets are often confused with “pyramiding” by the way. These are two different methods. Pyramid sets involve working up to a maximum set and then back down again. So the pyramid has “two sides”. Stepped sets only work upward.
Submaximal Sets Across
Warm-ups for submaximal sets across like the typical 5×5 or 4×6 fall under the discussion above for warm ups for non-maximal training. Little acclimation will be needed but it is still necessary to have some warm up and even some acclimation.
A typical complaint from many trainees during these sessions is that the third set is easier than the first few sets and then the fourth set is hard again. This does not make sense to the trainee since it seems logical that the first sets should be the easiest and then each set should simply get successively more difficult as they fatigue. What is happening is the result of lack of warm-up and acclimation. The first sets, lacking warm-up, are difficult and sloppy and are serving in place of a warm up, albeit an improper one. Then comes a sweet spot where it feels easier. After that fatigue is building up and the last set tends to be a gut buster.
This may seem fine to many. After all, you’ve got the work done. You accomplished what you set out to accomplish. However, with a proper warm up and acclimation, as needed, you will be able to perform your reps with much higher quality in general and be able to judge your performance much better. Your ability to correct faults will improve with a good warm up. Amplitude across the session will be better in general. Basically everything about your performance should improve. Meaning that over time the bulk of your work is of higher quality which helps prevent compensations and injury mechanisms taking hold over time. Just another way that the warm up helps us.