Warm-up sets

Warm-up sets

A few weeks ago, a reader asked me to explain how to properly perform warm-up sets. This is a great question and something that confused me when I first started following more of a powerlifting-style of training – I couldn’t understand why people did only 3-5 reps at such light weights to then almost double that weight at the end of their workout. Many people struggle with knowing how many warm up sets to do, and how to increase the weight as they go along.

First of all, before you do ANY sets, make sure you spend 10-15 minutes foam rolling and performing a dynamic warm-up (I will write a post about this in more detail at a later time), focusing on the muscles you plan on working that day. This will loosen your joints and prepare the muscles for the work ahead. You can’t just expect to walk up to the bar and rip your max off the floor with no warm-up.

Once you’ve got the proper warm-up out of the way, you can move to the bar. Regardless of whether you squat 50lbs or 500lbs, your first set should always consist of just the bar. This gets the muscles used to the upcoming movement without a heavy load. I usually do 8-10 reps with just the bar for squats, bench press and overhead press. If I’m feeling particularly stiff, I may do two warm-up sets with just the bar.

empty bar squat

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Deadlifts are slightly different. You want to get some actual weight on the bar to properly mimic the movement (i.e. when you lift just the bar, the lack of plates mean that it doesn’t hit the floor with each rep and many people actually struggle with proper deadlift form until they reach an appreciable weight). Start at around 30-40 per cent of your one rep max.

You will then add some weight, but it should still feel easy and be part of your warm-up. The warm-up sets are very, very important to prepare your joints, muscles and central nervous system for what will follow.

The way you structure the following working sets depends on whether you are training more as a bodybuilder or powerlifter. With bodybuilding, you generally want to perform lighter weights for more repetitions. For example, if my one rep maximum is 80kg for squats, I would structure my sets as follows:

Bar (20kg) x 15
40kg x 12
50kg x 12
60kg x 10
65kg x 8

I would keep my reps between 8-12 for the working sets, and never go above about 80 per cent of my 1RM. Each set would be one or two reps shy of failure, except for perhaps the last set where I may give it my all.

For powerlifting, you want to conserve your energy for your final couple of sets. Using the 80kg 1RM squat again as a guide, your workout may look like this (this is an example of how I would attempt a PR, but keep in mind that you shouldn’t be hitting your 1RM more than once a month):

Bar (20kg) x 10 (or 2 sets of 5 reps) (warm-up)
40kg x 5 (warm-up)
50kg x 5 (warm-up)
60kg x 3
65kg x 3
70kg x 2
75kg x 1
80kg x 1

In this instance, the first three sets would serve as your warm-up sets (note that you are only completing 5 reps with 40kg, as opposed to 12 reps in the bodybuilding-style workout), with the final five sets classified as your working sets. Warm-up weights should be a weight you could perform 10-12 reps with, but you must restrain yourself and keep it to 5 or less reps.

Generally, the heavier you are lifting, the more warm-up sets you will require. Feel free to experiment with what works best for you. Personally, I find that I perform best with a small number of warm-up sets for deadlifts (I perform better with single rep deadlifts, so excessive warm-up sets tire me out), but more warm-up sets for squats.

If your goal is to gain strength, you want to keep your warm-up sets away from failure. Your warm-up sets are there to prepare your body for the working sets – there is no point in tiring out your muscles with the early sets by performing too many reps. Pre-fatiguing sets are a technique that should only be employed by bodybuilders!

One thing many people struggle with is knowing how big/small to make the weight increments between sets. I usually recommend performing your first set with around 50-60 per cent of your 1RM, and then increase by around 10 per cent, depending on how many sets you want to perform.

Obviously, I can’t just tell you to add a 10lb plate to either side of the bar with each set. The amount you add will depend on your 1RM and your goals. Just make sure the jumps between weights are equal! In my powerlifting example above, the jumps between the warm-up sets are 10kg, but the working sets have an equal difference of 5kg between them.

So if you only want to do three working sets, you would have a bigger jump between weights. If you want to do eight working sets (crazy person!), you want a smaller increase in weights.

Every squat should be performed as if you have this much weight on your back!

Every squat should be performed as if you have this much weight on your back!

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One other point to note is that your warm-up sets should be performed in the exact same way as your working sets. Too many people carelessly rush through their warm-up, and don’t take the same approach, speed and form as they would during a working set. This not only increases your chance of an injury, but also makes it harder for you to hit PRs – every time you approach the bar, you should go through the exact same routine and therefore have no fear or uncertainty when approaching the bar for a PR.

Finally, the rest period for warm-up sets doesn’t need to be as long as during your working sets. I recommend resting 45-60 seconds between warm-up sets, but at least two minutes for working sets.

You do not need to perform warm-up sets for every exercise. Once you get your “main” exercise out of the way, I usually then perform one set as a warm-up for any new exercise which hits a new body part or new movement pattern – anything like a squat, deadlift, bench press, overhead press, row or pull-up. For example, if I do a bench press and then an overhead press, I will perform one warm-up set on the overhead press. If I’m doing an “easier” exercise, such as anything on a machine, I will just jump straight to my working weight. Your biceps and triceps don’t need warming up!

How do you structure your warm-ups?

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