How to Properly Warm Up For a Lift

Warm-up sets are essential to optimize training performance, though the way each lifter goes about warming up is highly individual.

And while there isn’t a universal law that dictates how many sets and repetitions you should do, some approaches are certainly better than others.

Take my hand and let’s walk through a few different scenarios.

On one end of the spectrum, you have lifters who do way too many warm-up sets.

They perform three sets of eight with an empty bar, then another set of 8 reps every 5 or 10 kilos, until they finally arrive at their working weight.

At first glance, this method may seem innocent and efficient enough.

Though not incredibly strategic, going up in weight by 5 or 10 kilos and doing enough repetitions is sure to get the blood flowing.

But, if your goal is to be able to perform at your best (that is, at your highest level of preparedness), a more tactical approach will guarantee you’re not wasting precious energy, and also save you time in the gym.

On the other end of the spectrum, lifters who are eager to dive right into their working weights either do too few warm-up sets, or even worse, none at all.

Though too much may fatigue you, too little can be just as detrimental to your performance, if not worse.

The point of warming up is not only to increase blood flow to the muscles and lubricate the joints, but also to prime your nervous system to fire most efficiently.

The way to achieve that is by practicing perfect technique at sub-maximal intensities while keeping fatigue at bay.

Going from 0 to 100 without ramping up in weight can set you up for injuries and make your first few sets way harder than they should be, as the drastic difference in weight will be a shock to your unprepared, cold, unwoken system.

How do we go about this?

Let’s assume your workload for the day is 3 sets of 8 repetitions at 60kg, and that the bar weighs 20kg.

First, you should do at least one set with an empty bar, though my personal recommendation is always two.

Why two?

Well, think of the first set as a primer

In the compound movements specifically, coordination and stabilization improves with repetition, so your first couple of sets may feel quite awkward and maybe even uncomfortable.

The second set is used to really grease the groove*, that is, to put in more practice towards perfect reps, and to further increase blood flow and core temperature prior to loading the bar.

The first loaded warm-up set should be relatively easy but still require some conscious effort. With a working weight of 60kg, 40kg for a set of 5 is a great place to start. 

From there, it really comes down to context and personal experience.

Let’s assume our lifter has primarily trained in the sub-60kg range prior to this point. In that case, I’d advise to add another warm-up set between 50 and 55kg, for 3-5 repetitions.

If our lifter can comfortably handle the jump from 40 to 60kg, that would also be an option, provided that 60kg isn’t close to her max.

Notice that, as the weight gets heavier, we make incrementally smaller jumps in weight. In our example, we started at 20kg (2×8), then moved to 40 (x5), 50-55 (x3), and then 60.

Another thing you may have noticed is the number of repetitions decreases as we approach our first set.

As the load gets heavier, you’ll need fewer reps to recruit additional muscle fibers, so sets of 3 to 5 tend to be enough to positively stimulate the nervous system. Any additional reps will just add to your exhaustion and likely limit your performance when it really matters.

Here’s another example. Let’s say our lifter must work up to an RPE of 8 for 5 reps (for those who are familiar with the reps in reserve concept, this would be comparable to a RIR of 2. For those who aren’t, you can read up on auto-regulation here.).

In this instance, past training performance matters, so keeping a detailed training log will come in handy.

Using previous weights as reference, we can estimate our goal weight for the day based on the target intensity and desired number of reps. From there, we can use warm-up sets to gauge our strength (that is, our preparedness), and either increase or decrease the target weight as needed.

For example, say our goal weight is 50kg for a set of 5. Our first warm-up set is 35kg x 5, then 45kg x 3. If the last warm-up set at 45kg feels great and speedy, we may decide to adjust our target to 52.5 or 55kg instead.

Conversely, if we’re feeling beat up and weak, we may decide to stay at 45kg for the day, or bump it up slightly to 47.5kg.

In the end, the approach we take to warming up must include some forethought, but the good news is that it also improves with training experience.

Consider planning your warm-up sets in advance, and see the difference it can make not only in your strength performance, but your attitude leading up to your first real set of the day.

To your strength,

Coach B.

*Note: the term “grease the groove” was popularized by Pavel Tsatsouline in reference to deliberate practice aimed to improve strength and technique in a specific movement.

About The Author

Barbara M.

Since 2013, Barbara has been helping women of all fitness backgrounds get stronger, leaner and more confident, both inside and outside the gym.

Her passion lies in educating, empowering and encouraging women to find out what they’re capable of, and more.

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