If you’re looking for a weight training warm-up that’s relatively quick, effective and contains nothing complicated or fancy, this page will show you what to do.
A good warm-up helps to prepare the joints, the muscles and the nervous system that controls those muscles for the harder work to come.
However, while warming up can reduce the risk of injury and improve your performance, it doesn’t need to last forever.
I used to know one guy who would spend the best part of an hour stretching, foam rolling and standing on balls of various sizes before so much as even touching a weight.
While I admired his commitment, I did wonder on more than one occasion if more of his time might have been better spent actually training.
Foam rolling, dynamic activation drills and various “alignment” exercises can be useful at certain times and for certain individuals.
However, a lot of people are doing this stuff simply because they’re copying everyone else, rather than because it’s helping their workout.
Today, I want to show you how to warm up for weight training with the minimum amount of wasted time and effort.
The Different Types of Warm Up
Broadly speaking, warm-ups can be divided into two categories:
- General warm-up
- Task-specific warm-up
The goal of a general warm-up is to increase body temperature without generating fatigue. Think low-intensity steady-state cardio, such as cycling, rowing, light jogging, that type of thing.
Your muscles tend to perform better when they’re warmer, with most studies showing a positive association (up to a point, at least) between power output and muscle temperature [1, 2].
That is, a warm muscle is going to perform better than a cold muscle, and be more resilient to injury.
In fact, one of the reasons most people are stronger in the evening than they are in the morning is that the activation of fast twitch muscle fibers — which are called into action when force requirements are high — is preferentially enhanced at a higher body temperature, which tends to peak in the early evening.
Next, we have the task-specific warm-up.
The goal of a task specific warm-up is to activate the muscles you’re about to train, as well as giving you an opportunity to practice the movement you’re about to do.
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For weight training, the most effective task-specific warm-up is to simulate the exercise you’re preparing for by actually doing that exercise, performing a number of progressively heavier warm-up sets before your first work set.
Do You Need a General Warm-Up for Weight Training?
Whether or not you need a general warm-up depends a lot on you, the environment you’re training in, and the amount of weight you’re planning to lift.
There are occasions where you can skip a general warm-up, and move straight to your warm-up sets.
Let’s say it’s a relatively wam day, and you’re training in the late afternoon or early evening, where your body temperature is naturally higher than it is early in the morning .
You’ve got no injuries, twinges or niggles to concern yourself with, and the workout you’re doing is geared solely towards muscle growth, rather than strength, power or speed.
No sprints, snatches, cleans, box jumps, kipping pull-ups or clapping push-ups.
That is, most of your sets are going to be done using a weight that limits you to somewhere between 10 and 20 reps per set.
In this scenario, the benefits of a general warm-up are negligible.
There’s no reason why you can’t spend 5-10 minutes on the bike, just to be on the safe side. But if it was me, I’d skip the general warm-up, and move straight to my warm-up sets.
On the flip side, let’s say that you’re training in a cold garage first thing in the morning. You’re going to be doing some strength work, starting your training session with a compound lift like the squat, bench press or deadlift, pushing heavy(ish) weights in the 4-6 rep range.
And while you haven’t got any specific injuries, your knees, elbows, shoulders or hips can be a bit creaky first thing in the morning.
What should you do then?
First, make sure you’re dressed for the occasion.
Ideally, you’ll start your workout wearing several layers of clothing. The benefit of wearing layers is that you can start your workout feeling relatively warm, and then remove a layer or two as you heat up.
Some kind of general warm-up would also be a good idea. And by a general warm-up, I’m talking about 15-20 minutes of light cardio (around 55% of your maximum heart rate) on an indoor bike or rowing machine.
This type of general warm-up, followed by a task specific warm-up (2-3 progressively heavier warm-up sets) has been shown in a couple of studies to improve 1-RM strength in the leg press to a greater extent than a specific warm-up alone [4, 5].
How Many Warm-Up Sets Should You Do?
The number of warm-up sets you do depends on the exercise you’re preparing for, how much weight you’re going to be lifting in that exercise, and the placement of that exercise in your workout.
As a rule, a technically demanding lift done with heavier weights will require a greater number of warm-up sets than a less technically demanding lift done with lighter weights.
In other words, you’ll benefit from a greater number of warm-up sets if you’re squatting with 90% of your one-rep max for 3-4 reps than you would for sets of 8-10 reps on the chest press press machine with 75% of your one-rep max.
If your first exercise for a muscle group is a heavy compound lift, I’d suggest 3-5 warm-up sets, using a progressively heavier weight, before doing your first work set.
If a particular warm-up set feels like a bit of a “grinder” (i.e. the bar goes up slowly, or feels heavier than it should), then repeat that warm-up set a minute or so later. You’ll often find that it feels a lot easier the second time around.
There have been many times when I’ve ended up doing 7-8 warm-up sets in total, especially if I’m training early in the morning in a cold gym, and my joints are feeling a bit creaky.
How Heavy Should Your Warm-Up Sets Be?
With a heavy compound lift like the squat or bench press, do your first warm-up set with an empty bar. The exception is the deadlift. Warming up for the deadlift should always be done with full-diameter plates on the bar, such as light bumper plates.
If overhead pressing with an empty bar is closer to a work set than a warm-up set, you can always start off with a couple of light dumbbells, or even a few sets of incline benching, with the bench set at an angle of around 45 degrees.
With an exercise like the chin-up, where your own bodyweight is the minimum possible load, your first couple of warm-up sets should be done using a similar movement that allows you to use a lighter weight, such as the lat pulldown, band assisted pull-ups or inverted rows.
Your final warm-up set shouldn’t be so heavy that it interferes with your work sets, but be heavy enough that the first work set doesn’t come as a shock. In the final warm-up set, aim for around 70-80% of the weight used in your first work set.
As your warm-up sets get progressively heavier, taper your reps down.
The number of reps you do in the final warm-up set should be roughly half that of your first work set. That is, if you’re doing 8 reps in your first work set, your final warm-up set should be done for 3-5 reps.
Treat every warm-up set as if it were a work set. By that I mean you should stay focused, keep your body tight, and attempt to replicate what you’ll be doing in a work set as closely as possible.
The Times When You Don’t Need As Many Warm-Up Sets
If you’re using lighter loads and higher reps, and doing a less technically challenging exercise, such as the biceps curl or leg extension, you won’t need as many warm-up sets.
In most cases, 2-3 progressively heavier warm-up sets should be enough to get the job done.
What if you’re doing an exercise for a muscle group that’s already been trained? If so, the need for further warm-up sets will be significantly reduced, if not eliminated completely.
If, for example, you’ve just done 3-4 sets of pull-ups, and you’re about to do some dumbbell rows, your back and biceps are already warm enough, and you can jump straight into your work sets.
Frequently Asked Questions
How long should you warm up before lifting weights?
That depends a lot on the time of day you’re training, how cold it is, and what you’re warming up for. Warming up for a morning workout comprising technically challenging heavy lifts in a cold garage, is going to take around 20 minutes. If you’re training in the afternoon or evening, in a warm(ish) gym, using lighter loads and non technically demanding exercises, a warm-up lasting 5 minutes or so should be enough to get the job done.
What stretches should I do before lifting weights?
In most cases, there’s very little benefit in stretching, be it dynamic or static, as part of a warm-up.
While the adverse effects of stretching on strength and power have been exaggerated, most studies show that pre-exercise stretching does little for injury prevention and has no beneficial effects on lifting performance .
Can you stretch as part of your warm up? Yes. Do you have to? No. It’s certainly not mandatory, and many people will do just as well without it.
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