A Primer on Warming-Up

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One of my biggest pet peeves as a strength coach is when people don’t warm-up (and dudes who curl in the squat rack, but you already knew that). Of course, everyone that trains at CP does their foam rolling and dynamic flexibility exercises prior to training – so in that regard, yes, they’re warming-up.

That said, in this instance, what I mean by “warming-up” is what happens when a trainee walks up to the squat rack, bench press, or deadlift platform and prepares him or herself for lifting heavy stuff. This is where things get tricky, and where many miss the boat entirely.

You see, you have “warm-up” sets and you have “work” sets. For some reason, people have trouble understanding this concept. For example, this past weekend I watched as a female client walked up to the deadlift platform only to load up the bar to a fairly substantial weight (185 lbs).

Me: Um, are you going to warm-up?

AFCWNMOMNBKM (Anonymous Female Client Who’s Name May or May Not Be Kate Murphy): I already did – over there (points to the area where all the foam rollers are).

Me: Yeah, okay, but you still need to do like 2-3 warm-up sets, and gradually progress up to your working sets.

AFCWNMOMNBKM (looking at me as if I were talking in Klingon): Wait, what? So you mean I have to do like six sets instead of four?

Me: No, not exactly. You just need to progressively increase the weight with each warm-up set to better prepare the body for the heavier loads you’re going to be using. It’s like this: Do you think your car would perform optimally if you walked out on a 20 degree day, turned the ignition, and then just ramped it up to 60 MPH on the highway without first letting it warm-up?


Me: Okay, well the same can be said about your body and how it performs in the weight room. I certainly wouldn’t just walk up to a bar loaded up to 400 lbs, and just pick it up (although, for the record, I totally could). First, I need to do like 3-4 progressively heavier sets to “wake up” my nervous system, and then I can do my work sets. Make sense?

AFCWNMOMNBKM: Tony, you’re the smartest and best strength coach ever. It’s like you’re a Jedi or something.

Me: I know young Padwan, I know.

Suffice it to say, this type of thing happens a lot. And, it stands to reason that if this happens at CP – where we keep a watchful eye over our clients – you can only imagine what’s happening elsewhere at every commercial gym across the country.

In my article, Training Tips from A to Z, I briefly discussed the whole concept of warming-up:

We’ve all witnessed it. One minute a guy is warming up with just the bar in the squat rack. The next minute he has 275 pounds on his back. It’s never pretty.

Your body naturally limits itself to protect you from injury, a feedback process that’s controlled by your Golgi tendon organs. Any number of things can limit your ability to recruit motor units efficiently. For example, weak or tight hip flexors can limit the amount of force your glutes and hamstrings produce.

You limit interference through a process called disinhibition, slowly prodding your muscles until they’re ready to reach maximal contraction.

On the other hand, you have lifters who warm up more than necessary, wearing themselves out before they’re using weights heavy enough to produce hypertrophy and increase strength.

Lets take a look at each type of lifter, using the bench press as an example, and find a better way to warm up. In each example, the lifter has a 1RM of about 250 pounds.

Lifter #1: Doesn’t warm up enough

Warm-up: 135 x 10 reps

Work set: 250 x stapled, fail, hahahaha

Lifter #2: Warms up too much

Warm-up set 1: bar x 10 reps

Warm-up set 2: 95 x 10 reps

Warm-up set 3: 135 x 10 reps

Warm-up set 4: 165 x 8 reps

Warm-up set 5: 185 x 6 reps

Warm-up set 6: 205 x 5 reps

Warm-up set 7: 225 x 4 reps

Work set 1: 250 x epic fail

Let’s try a better way:

Warm-up set 1: bar x whatever — just groove the pattern

Warm-up set 2: 135 x 5

Warm-up set 3: 185 x 3

Warm-up set 4: 205 x 1

Warm-up set 5: 225 x 1

Work set: 260 x fist pump!

Using a non-maximal effort example, lets say you were going to do 4×5 on the front squat, and you’re goal weight is 225 lbs. Your warm-up may look something like this:

Bar x whatever (grooving technique)

135 x 5



225 x 5,5,5,5 – you’re awesome.

Make sense?

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Plus, get a copy of Tony’s Pick Things Up, a quick-tip guide to everything deadlift-related. See his butt? Yeah. It’s good. You should probably listen to him if you have any hope of getting a butt that good.

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