How to Approach Warm-Up Sets

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You want to learn how to safely lift big-for-you weights. (I love this about you!) But perhaps you’re not sure how exactly to get from colder than the water cooler to raring to go. Smart warm-up sets are the answer.

Let me be clear: I’m not talking about your actual warm-up, which is the sequence of movements you perform prior to your workout, during which you might perform wrist, elbow, and neck circles to wake up your joints, use a PVC pipe to improve your shoulder mobility, do sets of bodyweight squats, and add several jumping or ploymetric drills to get your body ready to rock. (If you don’t do any of this before you lift, check out THIS thorough, total-body warm-up. Takes no more than 5 minutes, I promise, and you won’t regret spending the time preparing your body to perform a range of movements.)

But back to warm-up sets: Let’s talk about what they are and the important role they play in both your training sessions and your overall progress.

Essentially, they’re work-up sets, where you perform sets of the main lift you’re working on that day, starting with a very light weight and gradually adding more — all while decreasing your number of reps — until you arrive at the weight you will use for your work sets. You might also know this as “ramping up,” because that’s exactly what it is: You incrementally add more weight to the bar to get your body ready for the demand of the prescribed sets and reps in your program.

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The purpose of performing warm-up sets is threefold:

  1. They increase the actual temperature of the muscles you will be using in your main lifts.
  2. They stimulate synovial fluid lubrication in your joints, making your movements feel smoother and more efficient.
  3. Just as important: Warm-up sets increase your total volume on the main lifts without overly taxing your systems. This means you get more practice under the bar and an increase in neuromuscular efficiency. (Put plainly, the more time you spend practicing a lift, the easier it becomes to execute that lift.)

Again, your warm-up sets are different than your muscle and joint activation warm-up listed at the beginning of your training program. Warm-up sets are specific to the main lift and are the key to priming your muscles and mind for your work sets while avoiding early fatigue.

Think of it as stoking a fire slowly versus a lighting a match just to have the wind blow it out immediately. You’ve got to approach your sets just right. Here are three different lifting scenarios based off the same goal, to illustrate what I mean.

  1. Based on previous training logs, Lifter No. 1 wants to work up to 4×4 on the back squat at 135 pounds. After her activation/joint mobility warm-up, she does a set of 10 with an empty, 45-pound bar. That felt great, so she adds 25-pound plates to get to 95 pounds on the bar for a set of 8 reps. That felt a little hard, but still doable, so she decides that 135 isn’t in the cards today and will go for work sets at 115. That felt nice, so she does another set of four. That felt even better, and NOW she feels ready for 135, after all, and does that for her remaining two work sets of four. Her total volume, including her warm-ups sets, is 3,210 pounds. (That’s 1,210 during the warm-up + 2,000 during work sets.)

Issue: This lifter spent an insufficient amount of time during her warm-up sets, leading to less-than optimal volume in her work sets.

  1. Based on previous training logs, Lifter No. 2 wants to work up to 4×4 on the back squat at 135 pounds. After her activation/joint mobility warm-up, she does a set of 10 with an empty, 45-pound bar. That felt nice, so she brings the bar to 65 pounds for a set of eight. Still good to go, so she adds another 20 pounds for 85 pounds, and does a set of 6. She repeats this strategy and adds another 20 pounds, bringing the bar to 105 for another set of 6. She does one more set at 125 for a set of for reps.

Finally ready to begin her work sets, she then loads the bar to 135 for one set of four reps, but it feels too heavy to complete with good form, so she brings it back down to 125 for the remaining three work sets of four. (In this scenario, her reps on her work sets may decrease as well.)

Her total volume is 4,560 pounds. (That’s 2,610 during warm-up + 1,950 during work sets.)

Issue: This lifter spent too much energy spent on her warm-up sets, leading to less-than-optimal volume in her work sets. (And probably some frustration, too!)

  1. Based on previous training logs, Lifter No. 3 wants to work up to 4×4 on the back squat at 135 pounds. After her activation/joint mobility warm-up, she does 1×10 with an empty 45-pound bar, 1×8 with 75 pounds, 1×5 with 95 pounds, and 1×3 with 110 pounds for her work sets. She then goes on to do her 4×4 at 135 pounds. Her total volume, including her warm-up sets is 4,015 pounds. (That’s 1,855 during warm-up sets +  2,160 during work sets.)

Issue: None! The lifter was able to sufficiently warm up her body for the main lift and execute her work sets without having to adjust her reps or weight on the bar.

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LIFTING GOLDEN RULE: The overall driver of progress (and with many types of lifting, that comes down to the number of pounds on the bar) is your training volume. You want to use your warm-up sets as a primer for your work sets so that your work sets can be strong and consistent, and you can perform them with great form.

It’s important to remember that warm-up sets aren’t always going to be the same for everybody, or even the same for an individual from day to day. But, there are a few key guidelines you can follow to ensure you are using your warm-up sets to your best advantage:

  • As the weight on the bar goes up, the number of reps you perform should go down.
  • The heavier the weight you plan on lifting, the more warm-up sets you will need. It’s important to remember that heavier can also mean “heavier for you and your body,” not the actual pounds on the bar. If the weight isn’t actually heavy for you based on your training logs, but it FEELS heavy on that day, take more warm-up sets.
  • Often, however, the number of warm-up sets will depend on the intensity and volume of work sets prescribed in your program for that session. You will need fewer warm-up sets for work sets of 3×10 than you will for 4×4, or 3×1.
  • Not every warm-up set sequence is going to be the same, given the training session and your own level of strength and experience. Use this template as a general guide, but make adjustments to suit your workout, and your individual needs:

1×10 with an empty bar

1×8

1×5

1×3

1×1

Work sets commence!

Remember, as reps go down, the weight goes up. Use your previous workout logs and how your body is feeling that day as your guide for weight selection. (Because even if lifter No. 3 decided to stay at 125 for all four work sets because her body wasn’t feeling 135 that day, she still would have come out ahead of lifters Nos. 1 and 2 in terms of total volume.)

Ready? Set? Lift!

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Author:Jennifer Blake

Jennifer Blake’s leggings might be pink but her weights aren’t. A personal trainer at The Movement Minneapolis she is a powerlifting and strongman enthusiast with a passion for human movement, here to spread the good word that strong is fun. Facebook: Strong Is Fun, Twitter, Instagram
Comments: 11

11 Responses to “How to Approach Warm-Up Sets”

  1. Dee
    November 17, 2016 at 6:42 am #

    Link broken on the warm-up before the workout.

    Really helpful article. Thanks.

    • Jennifer Blake
      November 17, 2016 at 8:57 am #

      Hi, Dee! Big thanks for the heads up! The link has been fixed in the post, but you can also find it here: https://youtu.be/cEfSl1bB44U. I’m happy to hear you liked the article!

      Have a great day! 🙂

  2. K
    November 17, 2016 at 7:36 am #

    no warm up vid ;(

  3. Lynn
    November 17, 2016 at 10:01 am #

    Great article, as usual! Always learn so much from you, and always stuff that I can put to use immediately. Really want to see the 5-minute warmup, hoping the link gets fixed soon!

    • Jennifer Blake
      November 20, 2016 at 7:58 pm #

      Hi, Lynn! I’m thrilled you found the article useful. Let me know how it goes, or if you have any questions after you try it!

  4. Lynn
    November 17, 2016 at 10:02 am #

    just saw that link has been fixed, thanks!!

  5. Jen
    November 17, 2016 at 11:14 am #

    Super helpful! Headed to the gym in a bit for deadlift day and I’m putting this theory into action.

    • Jennifer Blake
      November 17, 2016 at 11:18 am #

      Awesome Jen, have fun! Would love to hear how it goes!

  6. Shauna
    November 17, 2016 at 9:27 pm #

    Great tips, thank you! I am guilty of being lifter #2. I’m going to give #3 a try

    • Jennifer Blake
      November 20, 2016 at 7:59 pm #

      I look forward to hearing how it goes!

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