Warm up sets for weightlifting are an often underutilized and overlooked part of a workout. Walking straight into the gym, loading up 225 lbs on the bench press and performing your work set cold is just asking for trouble.
In regards to weight training, there are 2 types of warm routines that people often fail to perform properly.
1. General Warm Up
This describes the warm up that occurs before you begin weight training. So this may comprise of light cardio (jogging, cycling, etc.), dynamic stretching, foam rolling, and other activities that promote general mobility.
2. Exercise-Specific Warm Up
This warm up involves using a lighter resistance to do the exercise that you are about to perform. As an example, if you are going to squat 200 lbs, you’d do warm up sets while gradually increasing the weight to work your way up to 200 lbs.
Let’s determine the ideal number of warm up sets to do, how much weight to use, why we need warm up sets in the first place and which resistance exercises even require warm up sets.
Warm Up Sets – Do I Really Need To Do Them?
To understand the purpose of warm up sets, you should know how to properly perform work sets first.
For most people, the first actual work set should always be performed with the maximum weight you can lift. Notice I said work set and not warm up set.
What does that exactly mean? It means that to achieve maximum gains, you should use:
- Straight sets – where the same amount of weight is used for each of your work sets for a specific exercise
- Reverse Pyramid Sets – where you use your heaviest weight for your first work set, then gradually decrease the weight for the subsequent sets
In both cases, you will be lifting the heaviest weight first.
I do NOT recommend using traditional pyramid sets where you’re actually using your real work sets as warm up sets. This means going from 150 to 160 to 170 lbs etc. Training this way will actually hinder your results. More on this later.
Now back to the purpose of this article.
Since most intelligent workout routines will start each exercise with the heaviest weight, a proper exercise-specific warm up routine is essential.
The Goals Of Warm Up Sets
Most people understand that the main reason for warming up is to prevent injury. However, few people are aware of how warming up influences your performance.
The goal of performing a proper warm up sequence is to:
- Prepare the target muscles
- Prepare the joints by increasing synovial fluid
- Prepare the CNS (central nervous system)
- Prepare mentally
- Achieve the above without causing excessive fatigue
Knowing that, the best way to achieve all of the goals above is to increase the warm up weight and get close enough to your target weight while gradually decreasing the number of reps to avoid tiring yourself out before the actual workout begins.
The take away message from the statement above is to avoid fatigue. The most common mistake that people will make is to perform too many reps per set (eg. 10-20 reps) and consequently exhaust themselves.
And this is why traditional pyramid sets are ineffective. By the time you reach your heaviest set (which is the most important to create a growth stimulus), you’ve already created unnecessary (and cumulative) fatigue which can negatively affect your performance.
Performing the Proper Warm Up Sequence
So what is the ideal warm up sequence? It should look something similar to this:
The percentages shown in the weight column represent the percentage of the actual weight you will be using in your work set. So if your work weight for bench press is 185 lbs, you’d use 100-110 lbs for warm up set #2 (55-60% of 185 lbs).
You can also see that the rest interval is approximately 45-60 seconds between sets. This is usually sufficient time to catch your breath, change the weight, get into position, and mentally prepare for the next set.
When your CNS isn’t properly activated, your first set will typically feel slightly awkward and heavier than normal. It basically serves as an uncomfortable “warm up” set for your second work set, which is why your second set may sometimes feel better than your first.
This warm up sequence will properly accomplish the goals of preparing your target muscles, joints and CNS for without causing unnecessary fatigue.
Should Everyone EXACTLY Follow This Warm Up Sequence?
Although this overall warm up sequence structure is ideal in many cases, there are obviously exceptions.
- Amount of weight. Lifting a heavier weight will require more warm up sets than someone lifting a lighter weight. For example, someone squatting 300 lbs will need more warm up sets than someone squatting 100 lbs. A person lifting a lighter load simply doesn’t need as many warm up sets to work up to their target weight.
- Rep Range. Based on the rep range you’re working at and hence the intensity you’re training at, warm up sets will also need to be adjusted. For example, someone squatting 3 sets of 6 reps will be using a heavier weight than someone who squats 3 sets of 12 reps and again, may require additional warm up sets to reach their target weight.
- Specific Exercises. The technicality and difficulty of the exercise will also determine your warm up sequence. A more complex movement such as a Romanian deadlift will require a more thorough warm up than someone doing hamstring curls on a machine.
As you can see, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all method to warming up. Some people may benefit from doing more sets and some from less. However, a warm up sequence similar to what I’ve shown above will be ideal for mostpeople.
Should I Be Warming Up Like This For EVERY Exercise?
Absolutely not. Following this warm up sequence for every exercise would just be a huge waste of time.
Why? Because the warm up sequence I’ve described above is only needed when performing the first direct or indirect exercise for a specific muscle group during a workout. Following the initial warm up sequence, you’ll already have warmed up the muscle groups that are engaged for similar exercises.
For example, if you are doing more than 1 exercise that targets the chest, you’d only need to follow this warm up sequence for your first chest exercise for that workout. In most cases, this would be accomplished by warming up with the flat bench press. Exercises performed afterwards such as incline dumbbell presses and dumbbell flyes would not require a full warm up sequence since your chest would already be warmed up from the flat bench press.
And although a full warm up sequence isn’t necessary for the same muscle group, you can still perform a very light set with low reps just to prepare your body for the movement pattern.
The same concept can be applied when working other major muscle groups (quads, hamstrings, shoulders, back).
The exceptions to this are your biceps and triceps, which hardly need much of a warm up unless you’ve opted to do an arm-only workout.
Since your arms are already being used for most upper body exercises and should always be done after the major muscle groups such as the chest and back, your triceps and biceps should already be adequately warmed up by the time you get to them.
Application is Power
Now that you know the proper way of warming up for weight training, give it a shot. This is the warm up sequence I will be recommending for all of my future workout routines.
Personally, performing proper warm up sets has made a massive difference; it has significantly improved my performance and increased my gains.
So apply it and tell me what you think.