By: Barbell Logic Team

Warm-ups and Muscle Function

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You are not a robot. No matter how much you may want to be a deadlift machine or a squatting cyborg or a bionic bench presser, there are fundamental differences between a mechanical engine and your biological one. One of the key differences is heat.

A mechanical engine can use heat to create energy; a biological system releases heat as “an essential but useless component of reactions in which other forms of work are accomplished.” (Brooks, Fahey “Exercise Physiology” (4th ed 2005)) Useless, because your body doesn’t convert heat into energy, as does an internal combustion engine. Essential because the enzymatic processes that facilitate muscle contraction depend greatly on the temperature of their environment. 

In general, the higher your muscles’ temperature, the faster they can potentially contract. “Variation in muscle performance seems to range from 3 to 5% per 1 [degree Celcius] of variation in muscle temperature.” (Racinias, “Muscle Contraction and Temperature”) This is tempered by the biological system’s sensitivity to temperature changes. Where the chemical reactions improve the tissues and biological functioning begins to fail drastically. “Consequently, although a muscle might theoretically contract faster at 50 [degrees Celcius] than at 35 [degrees Celcius], increasing the temperature that much would literally cook the muscle.” (Brooks) So, heat for muscle contraction is a good thing, but too much is dangerous. This is why our bodies work so hard to maintain temperature homeostasis right around 37 degrees C or 98.6 F.

The proportional, dose/response, relationship between muscle temperature and muscle function is one reason why athletes and coaches tend to ritualize their warm-ups. A warmer biological environment (within reason) means better performance. We can create this effect through movement and light physical exertion or passively, as when we are training in a hot environment. (Racinias, “Muscle temperature is the net result of a regional heat balance, caused by locally generated metabolic heat, heat carried to and away by the blood, heat lost to superficial tissues by conduction and local heat storage.”) 

This improved muscle function is one particularly useful reason for warming up prior to your main training sets while lifting. In general, your warm-up should support your training goal for the day, typically determined by lifting a certain weight for prescribed sets and reps.

General vs. Specific Warm-ups

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In addition to raising your body temperature and priming your muscles for their force-production duties, a warm-up provides some general effects—things that you can get from any physical activity, from jogging or rowing to calesthenics—and some effects that are specific to your training session when you use the same movements that you use to train—i.e. the squat, press, bench press, and deadlift:

General Effects

A general warm-up—

  • Elevates your heart rate and dilates capillary beds in your muscles, improving circulation and oxygenation prior to the main effort of training and
  • Improves your mobility by moving your muscles and joints through the ranges of motion they are likely to experience during training.

Specific Effects

A warm-up with the barbell lifts provide a measure of skill practice and psychological preparation for the day’s effort:

  • Skill Practice: You practice the movement patterns, cues, and form issues that are going to contribute to your successful training session.
  • Get your mind right: A specific warm-up will help prepare you, mentally, for the hard effort of your work sets.

This doesn’t mean that you always need both a general and specific warm-up regimen. For most lifters, in most environments, a gradual loading of the lifts, starting light and increasing the weight systematically, will adequately prepare you for your work sets.

Squat to warm up for your squat work sets, but also to warm up for the training session generally. And press, bench press, and deadlift to warm up for those lifts. The only variable that changes between warm-ups and work sets is the intensity and volume of the work. Warm-ups are light enough that they 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, that is going to undermine your ability to complete your main effort.

General Guides for Specific Warm-ups

There are many different ways to warm up for your lifts, but here are a few general guidelines that work for most lifters, especially novice lifters.

Every lift starts with the lightest weight possible, determined by your available equipment. For most lifts, most lifters will use the empty bar for their first warm-up sets.  Some lifters may need an empty bar that is lighter than the standard 45 lb. (or 20 kg.) barbell. For the deadlift, proper warm-up requires the bar to be the proper height from the floor. This means that the most common starting weight for warm-ups is 135 lb., since the height of the bar is determined by the standard diameter of the 45 lb. plates. However, If your deadlift work set is less than 200 lbs., you will benefit from loading the bar using lighter, standard diameter bumper plates and, perhaps, a lighter barbell.

You will typically perform 2 – 3 sets at this weight, but you may need more sets the colder, older, or more injured you may be. Rarely will you use fewer sets, since part of the purpose of this warm-up is to work on the movement pattern of the lift itself.

Your target weight for the day is set by your first work set. Between the first warm-up sets and the first work set, you should perform anywhere from three to five more warm-ups sets. The most common and effective warm-ups tend to increase weights while decreasing repetitions—e.g. 1 set of 5 reps; 1 set of 3; 1 x 2; and 1 x 1 each of these at evenly increased jumps in weight (more or less). For ease of loading, round up or down to the nearest five pounds where you can. If you can’t easily make the jumps even, take the bigger jumps during the first sets and the smaller ones for your last sets and between your last warm-up set and first work set. This takes some minor calculations the first few times, but pretty soon, you will have the system down.

It’s important to realize that warm-ups are not set in stone. They serve a specific purpose but will change a little bit depending on you, your training goals for the day, your lifting environment, and even the lift that you are performing. Below are a few examples of warmups for different situations.

Novice Linear Progression

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During the novice phase of training, your warm-ups can follow the above structure pretty closely. Figure out your last warm-up rep as 6-10% of your first work set. The higher the weight of your work set, the closer to 10% you will get for this final rep. From there, subtract the empty bar weight from your final warm-up weight and divide by 4. Rounding up for easy plate loading, this is the size of the incremental jumps in weight you will make for each successive warm-up set. Most lifters prefer slightly smaller jumps between their last warm-up and first work set and slightly bigger jumps between their first warm-up sets. 

Here are a few examples:


Your Workout Lifts
Squat 3 x 5 @ 225Press 3 x 5 @ 92.5Bench 3 x 5 @ 165
Your Warm-Up Sets
2 to 3 x 5 @ 452 to 3 x 5 @ 452 to 3 x 5 @ 45
1 x 5 @ 951 x 5 @ 551 x 5 @ 75
1 x 3 @ 1351 x 3 @ 651 x 3 @ 105
1 x 2 @ 1851 x 2 @ 751 x 2 @ 135
1 x 1 @ 2051 x 1 @ 851 x 1 @ 150


Deadlifts come at the end of the workout during the Novice Linear Progression when you are already warm. Here, fewer warm-up sets are okay, because you are just warming up the movement pattern.

Deadlift Work Set: 1 x 5 @ 315
2 x 5 @ 135
1 x 5 @ 185
1 x 3 @ 225
1 x 1 @ 275

1RM Test

A novice will rarely perform a 1RM test. By this point, you should have a pretty good idea of how you like to warm-up. For a 1RM test, consider that there are many factors that will determine your warm-up. Including how heavy the lift is, you as a lifter, and your own preferences. You should know what your 1RM will be before your workout. From there, you can select a final heavy single at 6 to 8% less than your 1RM attempt. You should lean more toward the higher end of this range the heavier the lift is and the more explosive you are.

1 RM Test @ 405
2 to 3 x 5 @ 45
1 x 5 @ 135
1 x 3 @ 225
1 x 2 @ 315
1 x 1 @ 345
1 x 1 @ 375

We hope you find this practice helpful. Let us know if you have found any other warm-up methods that work particularly well for you.

Brooks, Fahey “Exercise Physiology” (4th ed 2005)
Racinias, “Muscle Contraction and Temperature” (
Racinias, “Temperature and neuromuscular function” Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports (2010) (


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