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Warming Up for the Weight Room

Warming up is a critical aspect of training that, because it’s really not very sexy, often isn’t discussed nearly enough.  Watching people in the weight room, people seem to fall into one of two categories when it comes to warm ups, either they warm up for ever and ever (exhausting themselves in the process) or come in and try to lift near maximum weights without any warm up at all.  Neither is ideal.  In this article, I want to look specifically at warming up for the weight room.

What is the Purpose of Warming Up?

As with most aspects of training, warming up is done to achieve a certain set of goals and looking at them is a good first step to determining what an optimal warmup should be.

The first purpose of warming up is exactly what the name suggests: warming the body and/or tissues that are going to be trained. There are a number of reasons that this is important.

One is that warmer tissues tend to be less likely to injure as they tend to be more pliable when warm. A second is that warmer tissues generally perform better than colder ones.  Related to this is establishing sufficient ranges of motion such that the movements being trained can be done safely and effectively.

An additional aspect of warming up is to practice and reinforce good technique and “groove” movement patterns. This tends to be relatively more important for beginners and intermediates but it’s interesting to note that you’ll usually find top level athletes going through basic drills daily as part of their warm up.  Doing these drills is critically important when someone is trying to change their technique.

It’s also important to note that those same athletes put just as much focus into doing their warm up drills properly as they do during the workout itself.  This is a key aspect that I find is often missed, too many people simply ‘go through the motions’ when they warm up rather than using it as an excellent time to accumulate more perfectly done reps (which is a key aspect of motor learning).

Finally, there is an aspect of warming up the nervous system that is often ignored in warm ups. Many find that nervous system activity “ramps up” gradually with progressive sets. Getting the most out of a workout, and this tends to be more important for individuals handling very heavy loads or those using lower repetitions, means ensuring that the nervous system is firing effectively.

To that we might add getting “mentally ready”.  An athlete about to perform a maximal effort workout has to get their head right to give full effort.  A progressively intense warm-up allows them to get their game face on to give it their all.

Components of the Warm-Up

Traditionally, warm ups have been divided into a general warm up and a specific warm up and I see little reason to deviate from that terminology.

The general warm up is exactly that and encompasses any general activities that are done to prepare the body for the upcoming workout. This might include low level aerobic activity or some form calisthenics; I’d also place any pre-workout stretching here. A somewhat recent addition to the general warm up is the use of foam rollers to work on connective tissue or trigger points.

The specific warm up are those activities specific to what is being done and generally entails progressively more intense variations of whatever movement is going to be done. In terms of the weight room, this generally means the performance of several sets of the exercise to be performed during that workout.

The General Warm-Up: Aerobic/Cardio Work

Most people, for their general warm up will do some type of aerobic activity although this is far from universal. Whether it’s walking on the treadmill, a few minutes on the bike or jogging or whatever, some type of light cardio-type activity is commonly done. This is done simply to raise body temperature and, in general, is unlikely to hurt anything unless it’s done to excess.  Many, of course do this, they try to get in a full cardiovascular workout prior to lifting and then wonder why they don’t perform well.

Generally speaking, I feel that the least amount of this type of work that is done, the better.  Go until you break a light sweat or “feel” yourself warm up and then stop.

A typical approach to this part of the warm-up would be 5-10′ of light activity until a slight sweat is broken.  In colder weather, of course, it can take longer to reach that point.  By the same token, when it’s warmer or more humid it may take longer.  This is why I prefer “breaking a light” sweat as an endpoint instead of time.  If you’ve broken a sweat after three minutes, you can stop; if you haven’t broken a sweat at the 15 minute mark, you should keep going.

I’d note that empirically, older trainees tend to take longer to get through their general warm up; as well, the more highly trained (especially aerobically) an individual is, the longer this part often takes before the body warms up.

I’d also point out that there is no fundamental requirement to do aerobic type activities for a general warm up. Sled dragging, bar circuits or calisthenics can also be used; one trainee of mine would swing a sledgehammer against a tire and that would warm him up just fine.

Many lifters don’t bother with any of that and go straight to their first exercise for the day.  One or two higher repetition sets, or just bar work or complexes can work fine under certain circumstances.

The General Warm-up: Foam Rolling

Depending on what types of things you read and what type of gym you train at you may or may not be familiar with foam rolling. In short, it described a variety of movements performed by rolling around on a fairly hard piece of foam to work kinks out of connective tissue; it can also be used to release trigger points.

Rather than try to describe it in much more detail than that (or try to describe the movements verbally), I’ll simply link out to an excellent article by Eric Cressey and Mike Robertson about the topic.

Foam rolling may be useful, especially when trainees have long-standing injury or connective tissue problems and can be a useful way of checking for any small problems before they become larger problems.  I’d only note that foam rolling can’t take the place of the general warm up (as it won’t do much to warm the tissues) but should generally be done (if at all) prior to stretching.

The General Warm-up: Stretching

.If there is a single aspect of training and warm-up mired in more argument and debate these days, it’s the issue of stretching prior to workout.

To understand why, I need to define a few different kinds of stretching. They are:

  • Static Stretching: this is what most think of as stretching and entails holding a stretch for extended periods (15-60 seconds or longer) without movement.
  • Dynamic Stretching: This is a type of stretching involving controlled movement where the body is taken through progressively greater ranges of motion for a number of repetitions. Various walking lunges, Spidermans and the other host of active mobility drills that have become popular could probably be placed under this heading as well.
  • Ballistic Stretching: often confused with dynamic stretching, this type of stretching entails essentially ‘throwing’ a limb through a given range of motion without control. This type of stretching has generally fallen out of favor in recent years.

The United States has long had an almost pathological obsession with static stretching and claims that you need to stretch for 10-20 minutes before training are still heard.  It’s quite common to see folks going through extended static stretching routines prior to all manners of workouts as well.  Many will do additional stretching in-between sets and again afterwards.

In contrast, there has been a recent backlash against static stretching prior to training with emerging research that extended static stretching can impair power and strength production. Based on this research, many will state without qualification that static stretching should never be done prior to lifting weights and that only dynamic stretching should be done.

Admittedly, there are merits to the idea of using dynamic stretching pre-workout and saving static stretching for later (either after the workout or later in the day).  Research certainly supports that idea.  Without going into excessive detail, excessive static stretching appears to “damp down” certain neural processes involved in optimal strength and power performance.

At the same time, there are a few problems with the dogma that static stretching is always bad. For example, many studies have used fairly excessive amounts of stretching, at least one study found that only extended static stretching (longer than 30 seconds per stretch) had a negative impact on performance, shorter stretches cause no problems.  Other research suggests that any length of static stretching can impair performance.

Another issue, however, is that many of the study protocols often don’t really represent a realistic approach to training in the first place.  Typically, the subjects are given extensive static stretching routines and then expected to perform some type of maximal strength or power test.  This isn’t usually how people train in the real world.  Well it’s not a way anybody should train in the real world.

Rather, most would perform their stretching following a general warm-up but would follow the stretching with some type of specific warm up such as progressively heavier sets of an exercise that should, in premise, reactivate any inhibited neural mechanisms.   When this is done, performance is not harmed.  Amazing.

Sometimes Stretching is Required

Additionally, there are times when static stretching may be absolutely required prior to weight training; usually this occurs when someone has a severe flexibility limitation that prevents them from performing an exercise in good form.

A common example would be someone for whom tight hamstrings or glutes might cause low back rounding in the bottom of the squat. Another would be someone who, due to poor posture (from sitting in front of a computer for example), had problems properly performing a safe and proper bench press without static stretching their pecs and delts.

Clearly, in this case, any small loss in strength or performance is far outweighed by being able to perform the exercise safely and effectively.  In the short-term, avoiding injury is far more important than any acute loss of performance.

That said, my general preference is to use dynamic stretching pre-workout and save static stretching for post-workout or later in the day (a hot shower followed by gentle static stretching can be a good way to relax the body and prepare for sleep). Just keep in mind that the whole ‘never static stretch before workout’ isn’t quite as absolute as many are making it sound.

I’d also note that the need for stretching can vary drastically. Someone with a large number of major inflexibility issues will need proportionally more stretching prior to training than someone who has no such limitations and relatively good flexibility.

The former trainee might need a fairly extensive stretching program prior to training while the latter might need, at most, a quick spot check of the muscles to ensure everything is as loose as it needs to be.

Summing up the General Warm-up

So a full blown comprehensive general warm up might consist of the following:

  1. 5-10 minutes of low-intensity aerobic or full body activities (bar complex, calisthenics, rope jumping)
  2. Foam rolling (under specific circumstances)
  3. Some type of stretching: static, dynamic, ballistic or some combination

Overall, this might take roughly 10-20 minutes to complete prior to the main part of the workout.

However, I’d like to note that, for some trainees, none of the above may be necessary in the first place and many trainees (especially those without joint injury or flexibility issues) find that they can use the first warm up sets of their weight exercises to accomplish everything I’ve described above.

It’s fairly rare to see most strength athletes going through extended warm ups of the cardio/stretching type, although, as trainees get older it tends to become more prevalent and necessary.  Alternately they may need a bunch more light warm-up sets (especially on squats) to get their joints moving well.

For younger trainees with no major inflexibility issues or other problems, simply starting light and performing slightly higher repetitions for their first sets will serve to warm the tissue by increasing blood flow. Ranges of motion can be progressively increased at the same time.  So for squat you might start with the bar and gradually increase depth over 8-10 repetitions.  Many would argue that this is a far more “specific” way to improve flexibility/mobility in the first place.

That is, compared to performing dynamic stretching for the quads, glutes and hamstrings, performing several sets of progressively deeper squats will stretch everything involved in squatting in a far more specific way. Performing one or two light sets of bench presses with just the bar for high reps both warms and stretches the pecs, delts and triceps in the fashion that they are going to be used.

A Gray Area: Activation Exercises

One potential warm-up activity I want to describe doesn’t really fall clearly into the general or specific warm-up although it would tend to come between the two.  These are activation exercises.  These refer to exercises meant to get muscles that may be inhibited firing better.  As often as not such inhibition is due to daily life (i.e. sitting at a computer).   In other cases, it’s just a muscle that may benefit from specific activation.  In powerlifting, coaches may have athlete do band resisted hip extension prior to their deadlifts to activate the glutes for lockout for example.

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.  Basically you get the muscles firing in simple patterns so they work bette in more complex stuff.

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.

Whether or not these are done 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.

I do want to note that muscle can become inhibited due to tightness in other tissues.  If activation movements are to be done, it’s critical to either stretch or foam roll whatever those tight tissues are first.

The Specific Warm-up: Introduction

As I described above, 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/get the trainee’s head in the game

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 both goals.  As I noted, for some trainees, this is perfectly appropriate while others will require an explicit general warm up possibly including cardio, stretching and/or foam rolling.

As I said above, my experience is that people often fall into one of two camps in the weight room.  Either they do little to no warmup before going to maximum weights or they spend more time warming up than actually training. 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.

Some people even consider this a good sign and trite memes abound.

Your Workout is My Warmup

No, your warm-up is stupid because you’re wasting energy better saved for real training.

General Rules for Finding an Optimal Warm-Up

The key, of course, is finding sort of an optimal warm up, one that prepares someone to give the workout their best but without exhausting them before you get to the actual work.  Finding this happy medium can take a little bit of trial and error but here are some 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 while 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 above: 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.

With those general rules in mind, let me examine some other issues related to warming up for the weight room.

High or Low Repetitions 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 (or drop back for a burnout set).  An example of this type of pyramid (weights in pounds) 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. Certainly, taken to failure, those early sets might stimulate some growth but they are also generating a lot of early fatigue.  From a strength standpoint, this is far from ideal because the lifter will arrive at their top sets too fatigued 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

135X5-8, 185X3-5, 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.

The point is that by using just enough repetitions in the early sets to get warmed up, the lifter arrives at the heavier weights prepared for the heavy weights without being excessively fatigued.  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.

Exception 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.

Exception 2: Beginning Lifters

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 the idea of using those repetitions to practice solid technique and accumulate technically correct repetitions for motor learning purposes.  Let me mention that this only works if the trainee actually focuses on what they are doing.  Pumping out 8 mindless reps is not good practice.  Performing 8 perfect sets of 1 while you warm-up leads to eventual greatness.

Individualizing Your Rep Count

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.  This helps determine what your body needs.

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

Practical Examples

Ok, with the above in mind let me give a couple of specific examples.  I’m going to use percentages to make it more generic.

Generic Warm-Up Approach
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 talk about this below.

The lifter might take 30-60 seconds between warm-up sets and then rest 2 minutes after the final warm-up before their 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.

Sample Warm-Up for Someone Squatting 500 lbs
135X8
225X5
315X3
365X1
405X1
455X1
475X1
500X1 *
(optional)

Sample Warmup for a Beginner Squatting 135
45X8-10
95X5-8
115X3-5
135X1 *

Intermediate Trainee Squatting 225
135X5
185X3
205X2
225X1*

All sets listed with an asterisk are optional depending on the trainee and their needs.

I think you get the idea.  The goal should always to do enough warm-up to be prepared without doing so much you fatigue yourself unnecessarily.

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 Heavy 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 Heavy Hold or Partial Rep

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.

Post-Activation Potential (PAP)

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.

In scientific terms this is called Post-Activation Potential (PAP) and addressing it in full would take another article.

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.

Let me reiterate that lifters shouldn’t even consider the advanced warm-up techniques until they have optimized their general and specific warm-ups first.

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