How to: Warm-up Sets for Maximum Results

First allow me to clarify that this does not cover (nor constitute) a more general warm-up which everyone should be doing before hitting the weights: this covers specific warm-ups for a particular exercise or movement.

With that minor caveat out of the way, onwards!


The problem

Let me start off with an observation: Most people have no idea how to train heavy. The odds are that includes you (sorry) – but not to fear, help is at hand!

The amount of times I see people going TO OR NEAR-TO FAILURE on warm-up sets is staggering: How do you guys expect to see improvement (see previous blog post: Progressive Overload) if you waste your energy, insistent on “feeling the burn”, warming up?!


… Okay, okay, calm down Chris.

Let’s start with some definitions of specific warm-ups (from Google ‘define:’)

“Gradually prepares your body and mind for the workout.  Elevates body temperature and increases circulation of blood and oxygen throughout your body.  The intensity level of the warm-up is very low.  Performing a warm-up prior to your workout reduces the risk of injury. …”

“… a gradual increase in the intensity of exercise to allow physiological processes to prepare for greater energy outputs.”

“Movements and/or movement phrases designed to raise the core body temperature and bring the mind into focus for the dance activities that follow.”

Okay, okay – so that last one about dancing is a bit tenuous. But it’s there for a very specific reason I’ll come to in a moment.


The main objectives of specific warm-ups

  1. Increase blood and oxygen circulation in the area worked by the specific movement;
  2. To allow the body to prepare for greater exertions (i.e. getting into the ‘flow’, or polishing motor patterns);
  3. To focus the mind on the specific activity for the greater exertions to come.

(This is not an exhaustive list; if you can think of more, feel free to chip-in in the comments section!)

As we can see, the third quote quite neatly addresses objective #3.


What this means – the Golden Rule

Re-read quote one. Did you see it? No? Read it again. What this means is that: “The intensity level of the warm-up is very low.” Bold. Italics. Underline.

Let’s be crystal clear about this: Doing lots of warm-up repetitions is a darn good idea (refer to objectives 2 and 3 above); but it does not take a significant load to achieve the first objective, and this is where 99% of gym-goers fall down.

If at any point a warm-up rep feels even slightly hard, even a teensy-weensy bit; park it. You’ve done enough (well, more likely, you’ve already overdone it, but let’s make the best of the situation).


Question: Which sets count as warm-up sets?

Answer: Any set that isn’t specifically defined in your programme (e.g if your target for that day is 5 sets, then those 5 sets are not warm-ups. If you’re shooting for a new rep max, the anything but the one max effort set counts as a warm-up)


Further information (or, back-up sources)

For those of you who think I’m talking like a quack, let me point you to a few external articles on this very subject (there are quite a few, but these are my pick-of-the-bunch):

Fast forward to point 3 of 6: Here, Dave Tate gives you some sample numbers for a guy shooting for a new 300lb (~136kg) bench press PR, and has some choice quotes on most people warm-up technique. The article concludes:

“According to Tate, the smart lifter primes technique, activates the nervous and muscular systems, and gets the job done. The stupid lifter gets pinned.”


(If you’re going to disagree with Dave Tate, best do it when his back is turned)


In his awesome e-book on strength training, Jim Wendler advises the following:

“• 1×5 @ 40%

• 1×5 @ 50%

• 1×3 @ 60%

• Work sets

The purpose of a warm-up is to prepare yourself for a great day of work sets – not an average one. You really shouldn’t need too many warm-up sets to prepare yourself for your work sets.”

It’s worth noting than Jim gives us some actual numbers: See that the top warm-up weight he advises is 60% of your training max (technically this is not quite your one rep max, but it’s hardly worth fussing about for our purposes). This means if your max bench is 315lbs, your top warm-up weight is only 190lbs or 84 kilos, and for a meagre 3 reps!

Quote of the day: straight from T-Nation: “If you don’t know who Jim Wendler is, you’re probably not very strong.”



Well, there’s not really much to summarise today folks – but please recap those objectives of warming up. If you take the advice written here, you’ll be posting new PR’s in no time!

– fullcirclestrength

One thought on “How to: Warm-up Sets for Maximum Results

  1. Pingback: Weight Training 101: A beginner guide (PART 1) | fullcirclestrength

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