Strength Training Warm Up

Building Better Practices: Strength Training Warm-up Sets

Improved muscle function is one particularly useful reason to make sure your body is adequately warmed up prior to performing your main training activity. In addition to raising your body temperature and priming your muscles for their force-production duties, warm-ups should support your training goals for the day in some general and specific ways.

Why and How to Warm Up

Animal metabolism is fairly inefficient. The processes that transform food energy into ATP result in most of that energy being lost to the environment as heat. But so-called “warm-blooded” animals (mammals and birds) have developed several methods of retaining and regulating this heat. There are many advantages to being warm-blooded. For example, most fungi cannot survive in the higher internal temperatures of warm-blooded animals. Perhaps the most significant advantage, though, is more efficient muscular action.

The enzymatic processes that make muscle contraction possible depend greatly on the temperature of the environment—in particular, the temperature of the muscles themselves. There is, in fact, an observed dose/response relationship between muscle temperature and muscle function (Racinais 2010). In general, the higher the temperature of a muscle, the faster it can potentially contract. Of course, this is limited by a system’s tolerance to temperature changes; although a muscle might theoretically contract faster at, say, 120℉ than 95℉, increasing the temperature that much would cook the muscle. As the saying goes, “too much of a good thing” is dangerous. This is why our bodies have so many redundant mechanisms that try to maintain an internal temperature right around 98.6℉.

This improved muscle function is one particularly useful reason to make sure your body is adequately warmed up prior to performing your main training activity. In addition to raising your body temperature and priming your muscles for their force-production duties, warm-ups should support your training goals for the day in some general and specific ways.

General vs. Specific Warm-up Effects

Strength training warm-up sets should use the same movement as the one you are warming up for—as opposed to spending 10 minutes on a cardio machine or doing calisthenics. Warm up for squats by squatting, presses by pressing, and so on, with ascending loads that approach your target work-set weight (more on this below). Using the same movements at increasing loads or difficulties provides general effects—things you can get from any physical activity, from jogging or rowing to calisthenics—and some effects that are specifically beneficial to your barbell training.

Any general warm-up elevates your heart rate and dilates capillary beds in your muscles, improving circulation and oxygenation prior to the main training effort. Increased temperatures lower the viscosity of the synovial fluid in your joints, and moving those joints and muscles through the ranges of motion they are likely to experience during training improves mobility and reduces the likelihood of injury.

Warming up with the same barbell movement also provides a measure of skill practice and psychological preparation for the day’s effort. It’s a low-risk window of preparation for your body to “remember” and practice the movement pattern and for you to bring the cues you are currently focusing on to the front of your mind. As the weight increases, you have several opportunities to mentally acclimate and prepare yourself for the hard effort to come.

Most lifters don’t require separate general and specific warm-up regimens. Squatting will prepare you for your squat work-sets, and as it is a full-body movement, it will also prepare you for the training session in general. (A great reason to squat first!). Pressing or bench pressing is warmed up the same way. Since you’ve been active for close to an hour at this point (in a conventional full-body session), deadlifts may require fewer warm-up sets—only skill practice and intensity acclimation is needed.

General Guides to Specific Warm-ups

Luckily, planning strength training warm-up sets can be a very simple process. It’s important to realize that warm-ups are not set in stone. They serve a specific purpose but will change a little depending on you, your training goals for the day, and the lift you are performing. There is only one hard-fast rule: warm-ups should never be overly fatiguing in either volume or intensity. They should serve the above functions without being so heavy or performed for so many reps that they cross the threshold into “work” (or, more accurately, training stress). Once they do, the warm-up starts to undermine your ability to complete your main effort. (“Too much of a good thing.”) This means perform the least number of sets and reps necessary to reliably prepare for your work-sets, and set your final warm-up no closer than 10-20 pounds from your first work-set weight. Stronger lifters might complete their final warm-up set as much as 10% less than their first work set, depending on the lift in question and their personal need for acclimation.

Every lift starts with the lightest weight possible, determined by your available equipment. For most lifts, use the empty bar for your first warm-up set. Some lifters may need an empty bar that weighs less than the standard 45 lb. (or 20 kg) barbell. The deadlift requires the bar to be the proper height from the floor, making the most common starting weight 135 lb., since the height of the bar is determined by the standard diameter of 45 lb. plates. If your deadlift work set is less than 200 lb., you will benefit from loading the bar with lighter (standard diameter) bumper plates, hard plastic “technique” plates, or a lighter barbell.

You will typically perform one or two sets at this weight, depending on how cold and creaky you are. Experience will inform you here. Between these initial sets and the first work-set, you should perform three to five additional warm-up sets. The most common and effective approach tends to follow this basic pattern of increasing weight and decreasing repetitions: e.g. one set of five reps (1×5); 1×3; 1×2; 1×1—each of these at evenly increased jumps in weights. Round up or down to the nearest 5 lb. where it’s more convenient for loading. And, if you can’t easily make the jumps even, take larger jumps during the first few sets and smaller ones when nearing the work-sets. This takes some minor calculations the first few times, but soon, you will have the system down.

Novice Training

During the novice phase of training, warm-ups can follow the above structure pretty closely. Decide on your last warm-up set weight, subtract the empty bar weight, then divide by the number of sets you will perform. Round up or down for easy plate loading and relatively even increments. Most lifters prefer slightly smaller jumps between their later warm-ups and the first work-set and slightly larger jumps between their first few warm-up sets.

A few examples:

Your Workout

Squat 3(sets)x5(reps) @ 245

Your Warm-up

1-2×5 @ 45

1×5 @ 95

1×3 @ 135

1×2 @ 185

1×1 @ 225

Your Workout

Press 3×5 @ 95

Your Warm-up

1-2×5 @ 45

1×3 @ 65

1×2 @ 80

1×1 @ 90

Notice here the empty bar is almost half the work-set weight, so an additional set of 5 after it is not necessary.

Your Workout

Bench Press 3×5 @ 165

Your Warm-up

1-2×5 @ 45

1×5 @ 85

1×3 @ 115

1×2 @ 135

1×1 @ 155

Your Workout

Deadlift 1 x 5 @ 310

Your Warm-Up:

1×5 @ 135

1×3 @ 185

1×2 @ 225

1×1 @ 275

1×1 @ 295

Other Considerations and Post-Novice Training

It is rare that a lifter will have a mobility limitation that can’t be addressed by simply performing the barbell movements themselves, but an exception to this sometimes is shoulder flexibility for squatting. It can be helpful to take a few minutes before beginning squats to stretch the shoulders. Taking your normal grip on the bar (or slightly wider) and “pushing” the shoulders under the bar—holding that position for several seconds—can help make the beginning squat sets more manageable. Some lifters benefit from using a broomstick or similar object to perform the (inaccurately named) “shoulder dislocate” stretches for the same effect.

Beyond the basics above, a few more points can be made as programming progresses. If deadlifts are performed first in a session, a few more warm-ups are probably a good idea to make sure the body is generally prepared for activity. If you are on a four-day split, the lower body won’t have much demanded of it on an upper-body day, so simply performing the benching and pressing warm-ups will probably be sufficient on those days. If you find it isn’t for you, start those days with a couple of empty-bar sets of squats—or you could utilize an exercise bike or rower before the lifts. Just make sure it is light activity for a few minutes, enough to slightly elevate the heart rate and heat your body up. This can also be very helpful for some older lifters that find they need a little extra activity to feel prepared before lifting.

As a lifter gets stronger and begins lifting larger absolute amounts of weight, more warm-up sets will be required. The same rules apply, but more steps will have to be taken to get to heavier working loads, and larger initial jumps. For example, a strong deadlifter with a working set of 1×3 @ 525 might have warm-ups that look like this:

1×5 @ 135

1×5 @ 225

1×3 @ 315

1×2 @ 405

1×1 @ 455

1×1 @ 485

1×1 @ 505


Racinais S, Oksa J. 2010. “Temperature and neuromuscular function.” Scand J Med Sci Sports. 20 Suppl 3:1-18 (Oct). https://doi: 10.1111/j.1600-0838.2010.01204.x.




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