(Last updated 2023-06-02)
In this article I’ll detail how to properly warm-up for strength training. I’ll touch briefly on some misconceptions but focus more on what to actually do instead. There are a few valid strategies and the one you choose will depend on how you train and for what.
Table of Contents:
- Basics of warm-ups
- What about stretching
- A very specific warm-up
- General warm-ups
- Warm-up as practice
- Warm-up as part of the workout
- Do warm-up sets count?
Basics of warm-ups
Let’s make sure we’re on the same page. First, the warm-ups I’ll be talking about are for strength training, not endurance training. Second, the purpose of the warm-up is to prepare for the specific training session. Third, I’m talking mostly about warm-ups for big lifts. If your first exercise is dumbbell curls then just go and do 1-2 sets with a light weight before moving to your work sets.
The preparation for strength training is meant to make you stronger, not tired. It should also increase blood flow to the muscles. Despite its ill-chosen name, we’re not very concerned with being “warm”. If that would be the case we would be all warmed up and ready to go as soon as we had a fever!
You often see people riding a stationary bike which have little to do with any form of strength training. Some will use a rowing machine which, while better because of actually using a fairly large amount of your musculature, still suffers from a common issue with the bike: it’s done seated.
Too much sitting is somewhat of a health hazard these days and putting it in your warm-up for actual physical activity is completely backwards.
What about stretching?
Search for “warm-up” in picture mode and you'll probably get a few pictures of poor stretches. Stretching should not be a major part of warm-ups. The dynamic kind should take priority, such as leg swings and shoulder dislocates. Some very light static stretching can also be useful - and I emphasize light! I covered this in the book Minimal Stretching Guide which is free to read.
A very specific warm-up
As stated, a warm-up is supposed to make you stronger. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the typical warm-up for a powerlifter or Olympic weightlifter. Some leg swings and shoulder dislocates might be all that’s done before going to the bar to squat, or whatever is the first lift of the day.
You see, the actual movement itself is the warm-up. A powerlifter who squats 200 kg will start with 20 kg on the bar for one or a few sets. When it feels “right”, they’ll add weight and rep that until it feels “right”.
Similarly, a weightlifter who’s about to do snatches will start with the bar but perhaps break down the movement a bit (because it’s much more complex than a simple squat) into some light snatch pulls, muscle snatches, or overhead squats, before snatching the bar. It’s the same idea - the warm-up is meant to increase the strength in the lift you’re about to do.
The number of jumps between weights should be 5-7 to reach the work sets if the work sets are large weights, that is >90% of 1 repetition maximum (1RM).
Example with 150 kg 1RM, 140 kg work sets:
20 kg, 60 kg, 80 kg, 100 kg, 120 kg, 130 kg, work sets
The number of jumps can be less with small- and medium weights As few as 2-3 but don’t be afraid to do more.
Example with 150 kg 1RM, 105 kg work sets:
20 kg, 55 kg, 75 kg, 95 kg, work sets
Note that we’re talking about jumps here, the amount of sets can be more! For instance, one might do 2-3 sets with 20 kg before making the jump, and another two sets with the next weight before the next jump. It’s all about feel. If the weight doesn't feel right, don’t add more until it does.
DOUBLE WARM-UP: The double warm-up technique is simply doing two sets at each weight, typically up until around 80% of ones 1RM. I’ve used this technique extensively myself in big grinding lifts like squats but not so much for the Olympic lifts.
The idea is simple: do one warm-up set, then follow it with another at the same weight but with roughly half the amount of reps. The purpose is to make the jump to the next weight easier, not to do more volume.
For example, with weights below 50% of 1RM you might do a set of 5 followed by a set of 3. Then maybe a weight or two with a set of 4 followed by a double. Finally make the jump to a weight for 2-3 reps followed by a single. Weights above 90% of 1RM are all singles for me and typically only done for 1 set each.
One day I was looking at my training partner (who’s training is also in my hands). A former powerlifter who now specializes in the fast sport of Olympic weightlifting, she looked anything but explosive that day.
She was warming up with the bar, about to do snatches, and every little thing seemed like the utmost suffering. Groans and moans when squatting down. Aches and pains when pressing the bar behind the neck. What I saw was a common sight among lifters. What I saw was anything but a good mental- or physical preparation for explosive lifting. Worst of all, what I saw was myself some years prior.
I decided at that moment that for the time being we were both done with only specific warm-ups. I drew inspiration from the bodyweight training I used to do many years ago (before it became all cool and people only know it as “calisthenics”) and from martial arts practice.
Before any barbell work we started doing several bodyweight movements with no rest between sets. If you’re not used to it you’ll be out of breath at first. Don’t worry, it just means that you’re out of shape - your body will adapt. We changed it basically every session but here are some movement to play around with:
- Walking lunges
- Standing knee to elbow
- Hindu puhups or plyo pushups
- Side walking lunges
- Pullups or chinups
- Jumps for distance
You can do anything. The point is to activate most of the body. While side walking lunges seem kind of silly, I find it great to open up the groin for squats. It could also be substituted for something like renegade lunges if your gimmick is hurt by not doing exercises with cool names.
The second point I’d like to mention is the fast movements. I think they serve a great purpose by making you feel excited and invigorated rather than aching, groaning and moaning when you’re about to pick up the bar. But one has to be careful with jumps and plyo pushups before being properly warmed up. Therefore you should put them at the end of the warm-up. Do at your own risk. You can also use kettlebell swings, throws and ball slams.
If you’re about to compete in powerlifting or weightlifting you might go a bit easier on this kind of warm-up and opt for the more tried and true. But for your own sake, don’t get so out of shape you can’t manage a little work before training. And for anyone just looking to be strong for life: you have no excuse not to do this stuff at least periodically.
Warm-up as practice
At times you might want to learn a new lift. You might think power cleans is a good idea, or perhaps you think incorporating sumo deadlifts into your conventional deadlift routine is a good idea. What's not a good idea is to start doing these things really heavy. The key before adding any significant weight is to practice them. The practice should make you comfortable with the movement, the goal is to make the movement feel natural to you. You might break a sweat from moving but your muscles won't really struggle.
Gee, that's starting to sound a bit like a warm-up, doesn't it? Indeed, the initial learning of new lifts and movements should be placed early in the workout (skill acquisition is higher with less fatigue) which is why it sort of blends the line between the strength training and the warm-up.
Do not confuse this with skill practice for a lift you're already comfortable with. A powerlifter or weightlifter doing skill practice need to be close in execution to competition, meaning heavy weights. That type of skill practice is very different.
Warm-up as part of the workout
“The warm-up is the workout” - I got this from Dan John, who might’ve gotten it from someone else. Either way it’s a pretty neat concept. I will not speak about anyone else approach but here’s mine.
I think it’s best illustrated with an example of how I did it not too long ago. My sessions were weighted chins, weighted dips, either squats or single leg stuff, and maybe deadlifts. Whatever the case was, I felt that I didn’t want to start the session by jumping into weighted chins and dips because they can both be kind of rough on the elbows. I had also just come off a cycle of behind the neck presses and didn’t want to stop pressing over head.
So the simple idea was this: as a warm-up, before the main lifts, do some muscle clean & press. I picked a light weight, did a pyramid: 1,2,3,2,1.
Since this was just a warm-up I had no real plan for it. Some days I would do ladders, some days pyramids. But my constantly progressive thinking mind couldn’t leave well enough alone! I tried to start the pyramid/ladder one rung higher every time, and thus end higher. So 2,3,4… 3,4,5. When the reps got that high I decided to do double jumps: 2,4,6… 3,5,7.
At that point I was getting real comfortable with the weight and decided it was time to put some more plates on the bar. I reverted back to 1,2,3… But again started the rung one higher every session. Once again I get to the higherish rep ranges and add weight.
Remember that in my mind this is still a warm-up! I’m still doing a full session after and improving those lifts. And I'm doing this literally every training session.
I finally got the gist that it wasn't much of a warm-up anymore when I realized I was doing singles and doubles with close to my max. That’s when I dropped it. Very nice way to train actually. I don’t know if it was good or not that I added so much weight but at least I got stronger.
Do warm-up sets count?
With all the logging apps available, people like to log every little set and say “look! I’ve lifted 2 tons today!”. I don’t want to kill motivation for anyone, but total weight lifted in a session is a very poor indicator of a good session. Lift a bar 10 times and you’ve lifted 200 kg. Now lift 200 kg once... Not really the same thing, is it?
Personally, I only log work sets and with people I train I only care about work sets. The only time I will even ask them about warm-up sets is if something seems “off”. A typical indicator of this is if they’re supposed to do two or more sets but are significantly weaker in the first.
If I was to somehow reconsider work sets from the way I do now, I guess I would start counting (and logging) at 50% of 1RM. As it stands now, if it’s not a prescribed work set or a weight over 90% of 1RM I don’t really care.