In 1918, Hungarian weightlifter, Laszlo Fekete, slept overnight at the event hall for the National Championships, was woken by his coach just in time for his opening lift, leapt out of bed, and set a world record in the snatch that still stands to this day.
That incredible story is, of course, a ridiculous lie l just made up.
Nobody ever leapt out of bed and set a world record; particularly not in a test of maximal strength. Probably every single significant record ever set involved a structured warm-up ritual prior to the record-setting lift. Most records are, absolutely dependent upon the quality of the warm-up process; and that applies as much to the personal records of novices as the World records of veterans. Also, Laszlo Fekete was not even born in 1918.
It’s Not What Most People Think
Warming-up for a weight training movement is an absolutely crucial skill that will determine how far and fast you can transform your physique and how far and fast you can increase your strength performances. It is a BIG deal. What you have probably been taught is probably horribly wrong.
Warming up for serious weight training is not about avoiding injury. Instead it is all about maximising performance, consistently and predictably. Not getting injured is a side effect of successfully achieving maximum performance. (Note: if your training method or lifting technique is inherently injurious then no amount of warming up is going to save you anyway).
The primary goal of warming up is being able to achieve the maximum possible performance you are capable of on your first working set.
The warm-up process needs to ensure that you:
- do not induce any performance-reducing fatigue
- are not shocked by the heaviness or strain of initially lifting the working weight
- are absolutely confident with the execution of the movement (with heavy weights)
- have no (or minimal) muscle or joint pain or stiffness
Get [your warm up] right and you will be able to launch into the working set with the exact combination of aggression, control, speed and timing necessary to achieve your absolute maximum performance
How I Warm-Up
Here is an example of an effective warm-up process based on what I personally do for deadlifts; an exercise for which an optimal warm-up is particularly important.
I can currently deadlift triple my bodyweight (270kg) for a set of 8 reps. Whether or not you can relate to that, you can probably understand that I do not just wander into the gym, stone cold, and pick up 270kg. Nor do I sit on a stationary bike for 5 minutes and then pick up triple my bodyweight. I need to build up to it by doing a few progressively heavier sets of deadlifts first.
I personally need at least 5 sets of deadlifts to build up to my working weight; and as many as 10 sets if I am feeling particularly old and creaky that day. The methodology is always the same, but the specific sets vary depending on what I feel I need to meet the 4 objectives listed above.
Between warm-up sets I will stretch as I feel necessary; or just rest – to prevent any fatigue from building up – and focus. Deadlifting is a hugely psychological exercise, so getting into the right mental state – a state of focussed rage – is as important goal of the warm-up as the physical process. The faintest self-doubt or distraction (including any feeling of muscle fatigue or heavy breathing) can have a devastating effect on a maximum set of deadlifts.
Overall it will typically take me around 30-45 minutes to complete my warm-ups to do my best possible performance on deadlifts.
A typical warm-up to a work set with 270kg will look something like:
- 60kg x 12-15 reps
- 100kg x 8-10
- 140kg x 5-8
- 180kg x 3-5
- 210kg x 1-3
- 240kg x 1-2
- 270kg work set
Phases of Warming Up
This warm-up is comprised of 3 phases of priority:
- general physical warming and limbering (60kg x15 and 100kg x10)
- establishing the movement pattern/technique (140kg x8 and 180kg x5)
- acclimatising to load (210kg x3 and 240kg x1)
Phase 1 – General warming and limbering
The first warm-up phase/set(s) are what you probably already think of as a warm-up: effortlessly light weights for moderately high reps to loosen up the body and get blood moving around. The weights and reps should never be so much as to cause any muscle burn, heavy breathing or fatigue. A general guide would be weights around 10-40% of your 1-repetition-maximum, for sets of 10-20 reps. I also do most of my stretching between these sets. If I am already loose and warm because I have completed work sets on a related exercise, I will probably skip this phase altogether.
Phase 2 – Establishing the movement pattern/technique
The second phase is with moderately comfortable weights for medium reps; typically 40-60% of 1-rep-maximum weight for sets of 5-10 reps. The body should already be mostly warm and limber, so the focus is on reconnecting with perfect technique under load.
By the end of this phase, the correct execution of the movement should be flowing automatically, so 100% focus can be applied simply to moving the weight. If you need to consciously focus on engaging specific muscles, or concentrate on moving in an unnatural way to conduct an exercise, then you probably should not be attempting a maximal performance on it. For myself, if I am simply unable to feel like I am connecting with the exercise during this phase of the warm-up then I will abandon the exercise altogether that day.
Phase 3 – Acclimatising to load
The third and final phase of the warm-up is arguably the most important, the most tricky to get “right” and is the phase that most trainers and coaches have never even heard of. It is performed with heavy weights for very low reps; typically 60-95% of the working set weight, for sets of 1-3 reps. This phase is not relevant or needed for light exercises. But for the biggest, most important exercises, this phase is critical to acclimatise and calibrate your body and mind for total control of extremely heavy weight.
This phase is a very difficult balancing act. Just one too many sets or reps and fatigue can reduce performance on the work set. But one too few sets or reps and lack of preparedness can reduce performance on the work set. Get it right, though, and you will be able to launch into the working set, from the very first rep, with the exact combination of aggression, control, speed and timing necessary to achieve your absolute maximum performance.
Assessing Warm-up Success
The ideal weights, reps and rest periods for these 3 phases of warm-ups can only be discovered through trial and error. If you are achieving a new all-time PB on your first set of an exercise, every time you train, that is a good indication you are doing things well. However, to really be sure that your warm-up is well tuned on the major exercises, look at your second set.
If you have properly maxed out a multiple-rep set on an exercise like squats or deadlifts, then your next set should be considerably worse, irrespective of how long you rest (ie you cannot achieve the same reps on the same weight). So, if your second set is equal or better than your first, then your first set cannot have been the absolute maximum that you were capable of. An equal or superior performance on the second set is irrefutable proof that your warm-up was not maximally effective. It is proof that you used your first set to complete the warming-up process, thereby compromising performance.
Fortunately, if you have just started training for maximum performances then you will be minimally impacted by sub-optimal warm-ups while you learn what works best for you. Understanding the process and priorities described above will help you fine tune your warm-up to be maximally efficient and effective. But it is important to develop the skill as early as possible so that you have that foundation when it really starts to matter.
How do I record my warmups in my training diary/Recomposer?
You should not record your warm-ups; only your working sets. Your warm-up needs to change based on how you feel and the circumstances of the day. Whatever you do in any given warm-up, the outcome is to get you into the exact same state of readiness for the first work set. The work set performance is the measure that matters. If you messed up your warm-up somehow (eg you did too much and caused fatigue), record that in the notes of the work set. Assuming you did not mess up your warm-up, there is nothing to be recorded that can be of any use later.
I heard that stretching during warm-ups reduces performance, and does not reduce the chance of injury?
If you have joints and/or muscles that feel tight, restrictive or uncomfortable when warming up, then you should stretch between your warm-up sets. If you are very tight in a particular area, you should probably stretch a lot. If stretching everything out eliminates distraction and discomfort, thereby helping you maintain correct form on your work set, then stretching will improve your performance and help prevent injury. On the flip side, if you feel good, limber and loose during your warm-up sets, then stretching is unlikely to positively or negatively affect anything.
How long should I rest between warm-up sets?
There are 2 factors determining the rest between warm-up sets. Firstly, you need to rest long enough to avoid fatigue from accumulating, but not so long that you cool down again. Secondly, you need to rest long enough to feel mentally ready to focus properly. This means you will actually need longer rests between the heavy, 1-3 rep warm-up sets than during the light, higher rep warm-up sets. For myself, the rest between an ultra-light warm-up with an empty bar and the next set will only be as long as it takes to put some weights on the bar. But, using my deadlift warm-up above as an example, the rest between the 210kg and 240kg set will be more than 5 minutes; and even longer after the 240 to do the work set. It mostly just takes that long to feel the psychological aggression and confidence build.
How heavy should my last warm-up set be?
This depends on numerous factors and you will need to find what works for you on each exercise. But as a very general rule of thumb for big barbell exercises, you probably should do 1 rep with around 85-90% of that work weight. For machines, dumbbells and lighter exercises, the final warm-up will usually be a few reps with 70-80%.
Should I ride the stationary bike for 5 minutes?
I am a bodybuilder. This warm-up looks like a Powerlifting warm-up?
The warm-up described here is, broadly speaking, the same method used by Powerlifters, strongmen and Olympic lifters for both training and competition. This is the approach used by the people who care most about maximising performance, while minimising the chance of injury, when lifting the heaviest weights of any human in the world.
I am a disciple of the church of bodybuilding.com, so all of my work-sets, including the first, are lazier and easier than your warm-up sets. I do not even like seeing other people train hard. Why should I learn to warm up efficiently and effectively? #trenlife
Good point. Do not bother.
More Rambling Insight
Considering the example of my deadlift warm-up above, I will probably be fully limber and ‘warm’, in the sense most people think of ‘warming up’, by the end of my set with 140kg. But if I tried jumping from 140kg straight to my 270kg work weight – almost doubling the weight – I would be lucky to get 1 rep, let alone 8 reps. If the bar left the ground at all, I would probably get injured because the unexpectedly heavy weight would probably pull me out of line. If I did not get injured, I might literally pass out before I get to the top. At the extreme – and repping triple bodyweight deadlifts is pretty extreme – the shock of the sudden strain can literally be that traumatic. And the sensations will be different every time; so you have no guarantee that succeeding today will mean you won’t pass out next time. As Forrest Gump says “Jumping to your work set without a proper phase 3 warm-up is like a box of chocolates: you never know what you’re going to get”.
But lets say I managed to connect with my inner psychopath after the 140kg warm-up and was able to launch into the 270kg with the necessary force to lift it powerfully. I still would not be likely to get my 8 rep maximum capability. Energy would almost always be wasted “finding my groove” on the first few reps. By going into the set with no practice or gauge of how heavy weights felt and moved on that day – because the sensations are different every day – there is almost zero chance of doing 100% of the reps, 100% perfectly. So energy is wasted on imperfect reps, finding that ‘groove’.
So instead of guaranteeing the worst possible experience, with the least chance of success, I do not jump from 140kg straight to 270kg. I perform, for example, a few reps on 180kg, then a couple on 210kg and finally just 1 or 2 on 240kg.
These sets are not what most trainers think of as ‘warm-ups’ because they do not serve to stretch or raise the temperature of the body. But they are, in fact, arguably the most important warm-up sets of all. Acclimatizing to load with these sets will do more for your performance on your first set than all of the typical warming up actions you are probably used to. The difficult part is figuring out the ideal balance of sets and reps to be optimally prepared for the work set, without inducing any fatigue.
I personally find that these steps in weight of 30-40kg ‘feel’ like the best compromise for me on Deadlifts. But on leg press I use jumps of 80kg. On Bench Press I step up in jumps of 20kg. With the right increment (typically around 10% of my 1-rep max on heavy exercises; 20-30% on lighter exercises) each step up in weight feels noticeably heavier, but the execution of the movement itself feels exactly the same. When too big of an increase is made it feels jarring, distracting and like the execution of the technique needs to be adapted for the weight. That distraction and adaptation wastes energy and saps confidence from the next set. So it is a balancing act to step up the weight gradually, but not so gradually as to be exhausted from too many sets.
Using my deadlift warmup as an example again, you can imagine that if I stepped up in 20kg jumps (ie 140, 160, 180, 200, 220, 240, 260) then I would get exhausted from doing too many sets. If I was to step up in 50-70kg jumps (eg 140, 190, 240), I would save energy on warm-up sets, but each weight would feel alarmingly heavier than the last, negatively affecting my confidence and focus.
I rest a fairly long time between the last warm-up sets too; longer than I rest between the lighter, higher rep sets. It is very easy to cause fatigue that will negatively affect the work set, when you are lifting weights so close to the work weight. But it is also important to attack these warm-up sets with the same aggression as a work set; or, at a minimum, due respect of the weight. For example, 240kg might be a warm-up set for me, but it is not ‘light’ or ‘easy’. If I approach it too casually (which I have done before) I could fail to lift it, or it could literally feel like an absolute maximum weight. Rather than help prepare me, it could ruin the work set by destroying my confidence, focus and aggression. So I need to attack the 240 warm-up like it was a maximum weight.