When it comes to working on your cardio or for movement based activities like running or sports, the game plan is easier. The warm-up could consist of dynamic stretches, mobilizations, muscle activations, and then simply doing whatever cardio or sport you’re doing at a lower intensity for a given amount of time. However, for strength training, there's more variables and thus, question.
A few common ones that come to mind: How should I be warming up for my lifts? Should I do some band work? If so, what level of resistance and at what intensity? If it’s weights, should I warm up by doing the specific lifts that I’ll be doing? Should I do them all at once or immediately prior to each specific lift? How much weight and for how many repetitions should I be lifting before my first working set?
“The biggest mistake people make with warm-ups is burning out before they even get to their working set.” —Gerry DeFilippo, a strength and sports performance coach
These are perfectly valid things to wonder, and frankly, the science isn’t crystal clear on them. However, there is emerging research and evidence that is leading us toward the answer as to what is the most effective weight lifting warm-up.
What the science says about weigh lifting warm-up routines
Generally, research has found that a dynamic warm-up involving active movements that result in both muscle contractions and joint movement (e.g. air squats, walking lunges, upper body band work) is more effective than a static stretching warm-up for higher intensity movements.
Further, within that category of dynamic warm-ups, there’s strong evidence showing that higher load dynamic warm-ups enhance and optimize power and strength performance in both the upper body and in the lower body (e.g. squat jumps).
A recent study took that even further and looked specifically at different warm-up methods for two major staple lifts: the bench press and squat. The study investigated three specific warm-ups—2 warm-up sets of 6 repetitions at 40 percent and 80 percent of the training load, 1 warm-up set of 6 reps at 80 percent of the training load, and 1 warm-up set of 6 reps at 40 percent of the training load.
The participants were randomly assigned to one of the three and then completed the working set of 3 sets of 6 repetitions of the squat and bench press at the training load. They found that for the bench press, the first warm-up (2 sets of 6 repetitions at 40 percent and 80 percent of the training load) was most effective, whereas for squats, the second warm-up (6 reps at 80 percent of the training load) was most effective. The third warm-up method (six repetitions at only 40 percent) was not enough to optimize performance in either lift.
Obviously, this is just one study, but in combination with the other research, a lifting warm-up that gets progressively closer to the training load—but doesn’t wipe you out—is key. “The goal of a strength warm-up should be to acclimate your body to higher loads so it’s prepared for the working set weight” says Gerry DeFilippo, a strength and sports performance coach who owns Challenger Strength in Wayne, New Jersey. “The biggest mistake people make with warm-ups is burning out before they even get to their working set.”
An example weight lifting warm-up
The easiest way to apply these research findings to your warm-up approach is through percentages. For example if the working set is 45lbs, then it roughly becomes:
- 10lbs x 5 (15 percent of working set)
- 20lbs x 3 (45 percent of working set)
- 30lbs x 2 (70 percent of working set)
- 35 lbs x 1 (75 percent of working set)
- 40lbs x 1 (90 percent of working set)
If the working set involves more than just one target set—for example, 3 sets of 8 repetitions—I’d recommend the 45 percent, 70 percent, and 75 percent warm-up as a healthy medium.
Last but not least, DeFilippo encourages an extended recovery between the final warm-up set and working set. For example, if you’re working on building maximum strength with heavy lifts, he recommended six minutes, but that may be overkill for lower weights.
A beginner’s strategy for weight lifting warm-ups
If you enjoy being detailed with your lifting approach and consider yourself in the intermediate or more advanced strength training group, the numbers and methodical approach may be quite appealing to you. Great! However, it isn’t for everyone, especially if you’re new to lifting.
In that case, don’t let this article scare you, and don’t feel like you need to over-complicate matters (which is an easy way to break new habits). For those who fall in this group, simply warm-up for your specific lift immediately prior with two progressively heavier weights for 4–6 repetitions each.
The goal of this approach is to feel prepared for your actual sets and not have it feel like a huge jump-up in weight and intensity while also not feeling burned out. Additionally, every individual mind and body are different so please feel free to experiment and see what works best for you!
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