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Warming Up for the Weight Room Part 2

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In Warming up for the Weight Room Part 1, I took a look at some general warm up concepts along with examining the roles of cardio, stretching and foam rolling as part of the general warm up.  In Part 2, I want to look at the specific warm up and how to structure it.  I’ll be looking first at the issue of activation exercises (a current trend/fad in the training world) along with specific warm up recommendations for lifting.  I’ll also look at a few ‘advanced warm up’ techniques that people may wish to play with after they have their ‘normal’ warm up dialed in.

Activation Exercises

So what are activation exercises?  Basically, in modern training, due to the often dysfunctional demands of the modern world (e.g. sitting at a computer for 8 hours per day), coaches are finding trainees for whom specific muscles don’t fire well; this can also be caused by injuries (which often cause compensatory changes in muscle firing patterns which, if anything, tend to worsen things).

A few common ones are the glutes (which often become inhibited by tight hip flexors), the vastus medialis  (the teardrop muscle), or the rotator cuff complex.  Others such as serratus can often become inactivated from injury (this is common in a lot of shoulder problems and serratus malfunction leads to the scapula not moving right which causes bigger problems up in the shoulder girdle).

This has led to a whole host of activation movements which have as their goal getting these muscles firing better prior to lifting.  Not only is this important for injury prevention, over time this will help reintegrate those muscles into more complex movements.

Some examples of activation movements would be lying glute bridges or X-walks for the glutes, scap push-ups/push-up plus for serratus, or the YWTL complex for the rotator cuff and lower trap complex.   For the vastus medialis, various quad setting and lunge movements (e.g. Petersen lunge) can be used.

I’d note that the use or not of these depends heavily on the trainee and their needs.  A common trend is to have athletes or trainees do them whether they need them or not.  In my opinion, this isn’t an effective use of training time in the weight room (which is often limited enough for many athletes and general trainees).  If you only have an hour to train, spending 30 minutes of it with endless warm ups including activation movements is simply not time-effective.

At the same time, individuals who truly need them may be spending quite a bit of time doing those movements and essentially rehab exercises in lieu of ‘real’ training in the weight room; at least initially.  Over time, assuming the activation movements are doing what they should, they should become less important to the overall training and be replaced by more ‘real’ training.

Realistically, activation exercises could probably be considered part of the general warm up or part of the specific warm up.  In any case, they’d be done following any type of stretching and foam rolling but prior to actual weight stuff.

I want to really point out that doing the stretching/foam rolling prior to activation movements is very important here.  If a tight muscle is causing inhibition of its antagonist (e.g. tight hip flexors are keeping the glutes from firing properly), then activation movements won’t do much if the hip flexors aren’t stretched first.  The same would go for the presence of trigger points or tightness in connective tissue, if that isn’t dealt with via foam rolling, the activation movement won’t be as effective.


The Specific Warm Up: General Comments

As I discussed in Warming up for the Weight Room Part 1, the warm up serves a number of purposes. Reiterating them below they are:

  1. Warming the tissues themselves
  2. Establishing appropriate ranges of motion for safe and effective training
  3. Technical training, allowing the trainee to groove the exercise
  4. Preparing the nervous system for optimum performance

Strictly speaking, goals 1 and 2 are targeted by the general warm up although, as I mentioned, some trainees will simply use the first sets of their first exercise to accomplish the same thing.  As I noted, for some trainees, this is perfectly appropriate while others will require an explicit general warm up and the other components I discussed in Part 1.

As I mentioned briefly in Part 1, I’d note that most people I’ve witnessed in the weight room fall into one of two camps: they either warm up insufficiently or far too much. So either they go into their lifting unprepared to give their best effort or they tire themselves out so much with their warm up that they can’t give their working sets their best effort.

Invariably folks in the former category will do one or two half-assed warm up sets before trying to jump to far too heavy of a weight and the latter will make their warm up sets an exhaustive workout in and of itself.

The key, of course, is finding sort of an optimal warm up, one that prepares you to give the workout your best but without exhausting you before you get to the actual work; this can take some trial and error although there are general rules.

I’d note that a general lack of overall fitness can make even an apparently optimal warm up exceedingly fatiguing. In this situation, it’s more an issue of improving the trainee’s fitness level and work capacity than tweaking the warm up per se.

With that said, I want to make a few general ‘rules’ about how much warming up is necessary for the weight room.

  1. The more technical the lift, the more warm up you need. The Olympic lifts, and the snatch even more so than the clean and jerk, are notorious for needing a large number of warm up sets for a lifter to get a proper groove. Since most aren’t using these lifts that often in commercial gyms (and if you do, you probably have a coach), I won’t spend much time on them.  Lifts such as deadlifts, squats or bench press require somewhat less warm up but are still pretty technical while stuff like machine work or, say, isolation arm work, requires relatively little warm up at all (from a technical standpoint anyhow).
  2. The higher the intensity (defined here in terms of percentage of maximum) of your workout, the more warm ups you need.  Someone doing heavy triples (~85-90% of maximum) will need more warm ups than someone doing sets of 12 (70-75% of maximum).  The triples might require 4-7 warm up sets depending on the weight being used and the specific movement; the sets of 12 might require 1-2 warm up sets.
  3. The more advanced the trainee, the more warm up they typically need. This is probably simply a function of the loads being used, someone squatting 500 pounds needs more warm up sets to adequately prepare for that than someone squatting 100 pounds.
  4. Note that these rules are in addition to the topics I discussed in Warming up for the Weight Room Part 1: folks who are older, who live in colder areas, or who have joint injuries typically need more warm ups and may benefit from higher repetitions in their initial warm up sets than younger, non-injured folks where it’s warmer.


High Reps vs. Low Reps for Warming Up

An old school method of training was to use what was generally called an ascending pyramid to train. Lifters would start with a light weight and do a high rep set, perhaps 12-15 repetitions to failure or near it. Then they’d add weight and do 10-12 more reps. Add weight and do 8-10, add more weight and do 6-8.  Multiple sets might be done in the 6-8 repetition range or the trainee might then move to another exercise.  An example of this type of pyramid would be:

135X15, 185X12, 225X10, 275X8

Essentially, the first sets acted as warm up sets (since they were light) and the lifter worked up to the heavier sets as they went. The problem with this style of training is that the earlier sets tend to do little more than tire the athlete out without generating much in the way of strength or mass gains. Even taken to failure, the weights are too light to stimulate gains but they do generate fatigue. The consequence is that the lifter arrives at the heavy sets too tired to give it their best.

A far more modern trend is to use low repetition warm up sets to work up to the day’s working weight. The goal being to get the lifter warmed up for the day’s weights without generating undue fatigue. A lifter following that approach might do something like

135X5, 185X3, 225X1, 255X1, 275X10X3 OR 295X8X3

Since the lighter warm up sets are only that, multiple sets would generally be done at (or around) the day’s working weight. If the 295X8 felt easy, a heavier weight might be done; if the lifter wanted to get more volume, they might drop the weight back slightly to keep their reps at 8. There are endless combinations that are beyond the scope of this article but that I’ll discuss at some later date.

In any case, by using less repetitions on the warm up sets, the lifter would arrive at the day’s working weight with less fatigue but still prepared for the heavy lifting. This should allow either more reps to be done at that same 275 working weight, or a heavier weight (in this case 295) to be done for the same 8 repetitions.

The second pattern would be expected to give a better growth or strength response. I’d also note and I’ll come back to this below that some lifters actually benefit from a single repetition at or even heavier than the day’s work weight.

There is much to be said for the second pattern (some on the net have become quite militant that this is the ONLY way anyone should ever warm up) and, generally speaking, I prefer low-repetition warm ups for most people. There are at least two major exceptions to this, however.

  1. Individuals with joint injuries: folks with wonky shoulders or knees often benefit from one or more high repetition (10-15 rep) sets at the beginning of their workout to pump some blood through the affected area. Which isn’t to say that heavy weights need be used.  But one or two sets of high rep bench presses (for example) with just the bar prior to moving into the lower repetition warm up sets is often beneficial in this situation. The same would hold for squats and knees, a set or two of higher rep squats (with the bar or a light weight) may help warm up painful joints.  Since a very light weight is being used, this shouldn’t generate much fatigue to hamper the lifter’s main sets.  More importantly, it may be required for the lifter to lift pain free; any small decrease in performance is more than offset by that.
  2. Beginners often benefit from doing somewhat higher repetitions during their warm up sets although this has to be carefully balanced against generating too much fatigue.  Many coaches advocate multiple sets of low repetitions for technique practice for this reason but this has to be carefully monitored to work effectively and keep the trainee from going too heavy too soon.  This goes back to my comments in Part 1 about using warm ups as an additional form of technique practice. warm up sets are an excellent time to practice proper technique and a good place for relative beginners to accumulate technically correct repetitions that will help with motor learning in the long run.  Again I’d mention that this only works is the lifter is paying attention to what they are doing during the warm up sets (and the coach, if there is one, is giving feedback).  Just ‘going through the motions’ for 12 reps without using proper form won’t do anything for long-term motor learning.

Before moving on, I want to mention one slightly more individualized approach to warming up, something I was taught by my mentor. He noted that, during warm up sets, most trainees will find a place in the set where suddenly the reps become much easier. It might be repetition 5 or 6 or 10 depending on the person.  So the reps will feel hard, hard, hard, easy.

That repetition would be the point when the warm up set should be terminated and the weight increased for the next warm up set. For many trainees, this may work better than following some specific repetition guidelines; if it takes you 4 reps on a given warm up set for the weight to feel easier, do 4 reps. Even if someone says you should only need 3 or 1 or whatever.

Basically, use the above as guidelines, not as holy writ.


Some Practical Examples

Ok, with all of that out of the way, I want to look at some specific warm up schemes.

A generic warm up approach might look something like this.

50-60% of the day’s work weight X 5-8 repetitions
65-75% of the day’s work weight X 3-5 repetitions
75-85% of the day’s work weight X 1-3 repetitions
85-95% of the day’s work weight X 1 repetition
100% of the day’s work weight by 1 repetition (optional).  I’ll come back to this at the end of the article.

The lifter might take 30-60 seconds between the warm up sets and then rest 1-3′ after the last warm up set prior to the first work set.

I’d encourage readers not to get super hung up on the percentages, it’s sufficient to get close enough and just pick reasonably spaced weight jumps to get in the ballpark.  Depending on the weight being used, it may just be easiest to jump with 5-10 pound plates (if the weight is light), 25 pound plates (if it’s medium) and 45’s (if it’s heavy).

Lifters using very heavy weights may start far lower than 60% and take multiple single repetitions up to the day’s work weight after the initial sets of lower repetitions; typically larger jumps would be used initially and smaller jumps as the work weight was approached.

So a lifter who is using 500 lbs. in the back squat might go
500X1 (if needed)

In contrast, a relative beginner working with 135 pounds in the back squat might do something like
95X5-8 (the higher reps would give more technical practice but may generate more fatigue)
135X1 (again an optional single at the work weight may be valuable).

Someone using 225 might do something along the lines of
225X1 (if needed) before moving to their work sets.

Hopefully you get the idea.


Warming Up for Multiple Exercises

A question that comes up is what, if any, warm up should be done if a lifter is doing a second exercise for the same muscle group (or simply doing an exercise involving the muscles that were used in the first exercise).

For example, say a lifter is performing heavy bench press followed by lighter incline DB presses. Strictly speaking, the muscles being used in the second exercise should already be warmed up; it’s all pecs, right? The same would go for a lifter following heavy bench with a triceps exercise, the bench should have warmed up the triceps.

So from the standpoint of tissue warmth, etc. a warm up set is probably not strictly needed and the lifter could probably jump straight into the second exercise without a warm up set.

However, remember that warm ups are also useful from a technical standpoint and to get the groove of the exercise. Performing one (or two) light warm up sets prior to the second exercise shouldn’t hurt and can be beneficial to find the groove of the next exercise before jumping into the work weight. Since the tissues are already warm, etc. it’s usually sufficient do do one or two very low rep sets (like a set of 3-5 and a set of 1-2) for warm up in this situation.


Advanced Warm Up Ideas

Ok, I’m hesitant to even add this section to the article because trainees always over-estimate how advanced they are and I find that they start trying to incorporate all of the neat advanced concepts before they get the basics worked out.

My point being that until you have a decent idea of how you should be warming up (by playing around with some of the guidelines in the above section), you have no business fooling around with these advanced concepts.

However, for folks with a reasonable training background and/or who are using fairly heavy weights, here are some things that I’ve found can be helpful for optimizing the warm up.

The Optional Single

As I mentioned in the examples above, sometimes a single at 100% of the day’s work weight can be beneficial for trainees and I want to talk about that now.  Many lifters find that doing that single repetition makes the first work set of the day (at that same weight) much easier and ‘lighter’ (in terms of feel).

This is both a neural and mental issue and lifters who find that their second set at a given weight is usually easier than the first should experiment with the single repetition at 100% to see if it helps. When higher repetitions are being used, it can also be useful to do a single slightly heavier than the day’s work weight; this tends to make the work weight feel much lighter.  When low repetitions (threes and below) are being done, a single at the day’s work weight is often too heavy and can cause more fatigue than it does benefits.

A Supramaximal Hold or Partial Repetition

Taking the optional single idea a step further, there can often a be a neural potentiation effect from using a weight that is in excess of the day’s top work weight.  However, this would typically not be done for a full repetition (unless high reps were being used in training).  Rather, it would typically be done for an isometric hold or a partial.

So someone squatting heavily might benefit from taking a weight in excess of the day’s work weight and simply setting up with it.  So get under the bar, take it out of the racks, set up, stay there for 6-10 seconds and then re-rack the weight.  A heavy bench press workout might be preceded by a bench hold done the same way.  I’d note that you don’t have to go insanely heavy on this type of thing.  10% over the day’s work weight should be sufficient.

A related idea would be to do a partial repetition with a weight above the day’s top weight.  So someone full squatting might work up to a moderately heavy triple in a partial squat prior to full squatting.  After feeling the heavy weight on the back with the partial, invariably the full squats feel ‘lighter’.

Benchers might do board pressing prior to full range bench to achieve the same thing. Again, the key is to find a load that is heavy enough to provide a benefit without exhausting the lifter and generating too much fatigue.

Using Heavy Weights to Warm Up for Explosive Movements and Vice Versa

Similar to the above ideas, lifters performing explosive movements (e.g. cleans) often benefit from working up to a heavier weight in a slower lift (e.g. RDL or deadlift).  When the lifter moves back to the explosive lift, the weights usually feel much lighter and often move faster.

Similarly, athletes often find that doing a small amount of explosive work can really get the nervous system clicking for heavy work.  Clean pulls warming up to deadlifts or Westside style speed work prior to benching or squatting can all be potentially beneficial.

Bands, Chains and Unstable Movements

Finally, some lifters may find that doing a few sets with bands, chains or the new trend of hanging plates off the bar attached to bands can be beneficial prior to heavy work.  I’ve heard of lifters doing banded GM’s or light band deadlifts prior to heavy work and this is simply being done as a neural potentiation technique.

One lifter of mine found that doing 2-3 sets of front squats or bench press with chains made the non-chain lifts feel much easier.  I suspect that both activation of some stabilizer muscles along with her nervous system was the key aspect.

With another, we played around with a single set done with plates hung from bands prior to heavy work.  For the same reason, when moving from the incredibly unstable situation with the plates hung from bands to the straight weight, everything was so dialed up that heavier weights felt that much easier.

Again, the above are all advanced techniques and shoudn’t even be considered until a lifter has the other aspects of their training and warm up figured out first.


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