How to Optimally Warm-Up For Strength Training
Warming up is key to getting the most out of your workout!
Today I’m going to explain:
WHY We Warm-Up
WHAT Warming Up Does For Us
HOW to Do a Proper Warm-Up
Some BONUS Warm-Up Tactics to Try Out
Why We Warm-Up
We warm up for 2 reasons. Maximum safety. And maximum strength.
Warming up ensures that we prevent injury during our workouts and ensures we lift the most weight possible. 2 things we care about very much!
Preventing injury is key to making long-term, sustainable progress. You MUST strength train properly. And getting stronger is the fastest way to change your body so you MUST try to get the most progress out of every workout.
What Warming-Up Does For Us
Warming up accomplishes 3 important things that allow us to stay safe and get strong.
First, it increases blood flow and warms up the body. The increased blood flow makes the joints feel warm which means they feel GOOD and not cold, achey, etc. This is important for everyone, but it’s even more important if you have injuries you’re working around or if you’ve got some cranky knees, hips, shoulders, etc.
A solid warm-up can be the difference between leaving the gym feeling bad and leaving the gym feeling like a million bucks. I don’t know about you, but I’d say feeling like a million bucks when you leave the gym is worth taking 3-5 extra minutes to do a proper warm-up. Don’t you??
Second, a proper warm-up has you do enough reps that you can get in the groove of doing the movement. For example- I’ve been doing barbell squats for 13+ years now. I’d say I have my squat form dialed in. BUT the first rep of my squat workout will never feel as good as my 20th or 30th rep. Going through a proper warm-up gets my body re-accustomed to the proper movement pattern making for a smoother, safer, and ultimately stronger squat!
Last but not least, a proper warm-up turns on the Nervous System. Not that your nervous system was ever off…that would be a BIG PROBLEM lol.
But when you come into the gym, especially if you just rolled out of bed or you’ve been sitting at your desk for several hours, your body isn’t in an optimal state to start throwing around some heavy weight.
Going through a proper warm-up gets your nervous system more turned on, fired up, etc.
To further break this down, strength is the ability of the nervous system (your brain, spinal cord, and nerves going to all the muscles) to recruit your muscles to move a heavy load.
Several warm-up sets gets the nervous system primed and ready for lifting heavy loads.
Could you go straight into your workings sets without a warm-up? Sure. But I guarantee you won’t lift as much as you could if you warmed up. That’s all because of the nervous system!
How to Do a Proper Warm-Up
I’ve talked lots about WHY we do a proper warm-up and WHAT it does for us. But what does a proper warm-up actually look like?
There are really 2 parts to a proper warm-up and today we’re only focusing on the second. I think it’s great to start off every workout with a whole body warm-up involving stretching and possibly some movements to get blood flowing through the body. We do this with the foam roller, followed by some static stretching before we have clients do anything else.
THEN we do the movement specific warm-up which is what we’re talking about today.
The movement specific warm-up is simply doing some warm-up sets for the main barbell lift you’re doing that day.
So we usually only do warm-up sets for the first movement of the day. The main lift. Typically a Squat, Bench Press, Deadlift, Press, or something similar to these. It’s usually a big barbell lift that we plan to do some heavy loads with.
After the main lift, you’re typically sufficiently warmed up and ready to jump straight into your working sets for the rest of the exercises in your workout.
The main exception to this is if you’re doing a full-body workout that includes both an upper body and lower body main lift. In this case you’ll do warm-up sets for both exercises.
Keep in mind as we discuss how many sets, reps, etc you should do that the goal is to get you as warmed up as possible while creating as little fatigue as possible. Because the goal is to be both WARM and FRESH for your working sets so you can be both SAFE and STRONG.
So it’s important to not warm-up too little or too much.
With that in mind, let’s dive into some specifics.
You typically want to do 2-4 warm-up sets. On occasion you will go below or above these recommendations. But for most people under most circumstances, 2-4 is the sweet spot.
So how do you know if you should do 2 sets, 3 sets, or 4 sets?
While it’s highly dependent on the individual, there are a few criteria I use to determine if someone should do more/fewer warm-up sets.
Reasons to do FEWER warm-up sets:
Younger in age
The working sets are done with a relatively low weight
You don’t have any injuries or joint pain
It’s warmer outside
It’s later in the day
Reasons to do MORE warm-up sets:
Older in age
The working sets are done with a relatively heavy weight
You have injuries or joint pain you need to work around
It’s colder outside
It’s early in the morning
To touch on these briefly:
The older you are, typically the more warm-up sets you’ll need. Your body is still ready to do great work but it might need a little more TLC.
Heavier loads typically require more warm-ups. Even though you’re strong enough to lift the heavy weight, it’s a pretty big jump to go from zero or even just 1 or 2 warm-up sets to lifting 200, 300, 400+ pounds. 10/10 would NOT recommend. The reality is, the stronger you get, the more time you may need to spend warming up. View it as an honor, not an annoyance.
The colder it is outside, the more sets you’ll need to feel warm.
The earlier it is in the morning, the more sets you’ll need to warm your body up.
Use the guidelines above as a starting point to see where you fall on the spectrum of how many sets you should do.
Now let’s talk about how many reps to do in each warm-up set.
Generally speaking, the lighter the load and the farther the current weight is from your working set weight…the more reps you’ll do.
And the heavier the load and the closer that weight is to your working set weight…the fewer reps you’ll do.
For someone doing 65x5 on their working sets, I might have them do 45x8 then 55x3 then the next set would be their first set of 65x5.
For someone doing 275x8 on their working sets, I might have them do 45x10, 135x8, 185x5, 225x3 then do 275x8 for the first working set.
As you can see above, we keep the reps high the lighter the weight is relative to the working set weight. And we decrease the reps as we approach the working set weight.
This ensures we get the blood pumping so the joints are warm, we get plenty of practice on the movements, and we get the nervous system turned on without creating much, if any, fatigue so you get maximum performance on your working sets! Which is the whole point of the warm-up!
Some BONUS Warm-Up Tactics to Try Out
If you do everything we mentioned above your warm-ups will have you feeling and performing like a champ! But if you’re someone who likes to have a little extra fun in the gym, here are 2 bonus warm-up tactics you can try. (ONLY after you’ve implemented the basics first!)
Tactic 1- The Heavy Single
Sometimes I like to toss in one more warm-up set, but this last set is a single. Meaning it’s just one rep. So in the example above with the person doing 275x8 for working sets, in addition to the 45x10, 135x8, 185x5, and 225x3…we would do 245 or 255x1. This gives us a chance to handle a heavier load that’s very close to the working set weight without creating any kind of fatigue. Sometimes this is very helpful when using very heavy loads.
Tactic 2- The Over Warm-Up
If you played baseball you likely remember the donut. The heavy, circular weight you put on your bat. The idea was you’d swing the heavier bat around for a while, then you would take it off and the bat would feel super light. And you’d feel like you could swing the bat even faster!
You can do something similar with your warm-ups. Warm-up sets are almost always with weights LESS than your working set weight. But we’re going to break the rules this time. This time we’re going to warm-up to a single that’s actually HEAVIER than your working set weight. But only slightly heavier. The idea here is that when you drop back to your working weight set, it’ll actually feel a little light, even though it’s very heavy!
Using the 275x8 example again, this is what it would look like:
45x10, 135x8, 205x5, 255x1, 295x1, then you would do the 275x8 for your first working set.
So to wrap it up, let’s review what we discussed.
We warm-up to maximize safety and performance. Warming up properly will increase blood flow to the joints which makes them feel better, it gets us back into the groove of the movement we’re doing that day, and it gets the nervous system fired up so we can lift the most weight possible.
A proper warm-up typically has you do 2-4 warm-up sets and only for the first barbell movement of the day. (Unless it’s a full body workout in which case you’ll do a warm-up for the first upper body movement and first lower body movement of the day.)
A warm-up set is usually somewhere between 3 and 10 reps. Your early warm-up sets should have higher reps and as you increase weight in your warm-up sets you should decrease the reps.
As you select the number of sets and reps you’ll warm-up with, remember the goal is to maximize safety and performance. So don’t do too few warm-up sets/reps but also don’t fall into the trap of thinking more is better.
Once you’ve done the above, your main lift of the day will feel amazing. But if you want to play around with even more warm-up ideas you can try out the Heavy Single and/or the Over Warm-Up.