How to Write a Warm-Up Progression for Weight Lifting

In last week’s posts we went over general dynamic warm-ups and how to warm up for specific barbell movements, aka, the squat, bench, and deadlift.

Today’s post is even more nuanced: how to warm up once you’re under/over (if you’re deadlifting properly you should be over the bar…) the barbell.

If I had a dollar for every time I saw someone jump right into their working weight for a barbell movement, I could make it rain.

 from  giphy.com

As you intelligent readers know, skipping warm-ups can lead to physical injury. It can also lead to your pride receiving a good smack in the face too.

True story: while at a commercial gym, I watched a fellow saunter up to the bench, flap his arms around, and then throw on 225… he then was promptly stapled with the weight. Fortunately his lifting partner was there to help get him out, but still, he was pretty embarrassed because it was, apparently, a weight he could “normally do, but he was just sore…”

Moral of the story: don’t be a fool and skip your warm-up unless your goal is to entertain people around you by your failures.

I can almost guarantee that if he warmed up properly, he would have saved his injured pride. (Assuming of course that he can actually bench 225.)

Anyway, back to warming up.

WHY

  • Prepare the specific muscles, joints, and tendons for work. As you warm-up, you increase blood flow to the muscles and stimulate the flow of synovial fluid in the joint (all kinds of flowing going on). The synovial fluid is there to reduce friction in the joint amongst the bones, ligaments, and articular cartilage- always a good thing- to reduce the tin-man-like grinding within the joint. This reduces the chance of injury to either the bone or cartilage (early onset arthritis anyone?).
  • Fire up that CNS (central nervous system). Trying to train without a primed and ready-to-go CNS, which tells your muscles what to do and how quickly to do it, is like trying to write a blog post without turning on the computer; it’s is not only a waste of time but rather difficult to accomplish anything tangible outside of producing frustration.
  • Mentally prepare you for your lift. Stress from the outside, be it work, school, family, lack of a new Harry Potter book, can easily crowd out the mental focus needed for executing the lift. Personally, warm-up sets build walls in my mind that block out anything that’s not related to that specific lift so I can focus entirely on all the thoughts that need to be thunk. The feeling of executing a near-flawless rep should be on everyone’s top ten most-satisfying-things-list.

All this needs to happen- key point here- without creating unnecessary fatigue. Which leads me to my next point...

COMMON MISHAPS

On one hand, there are those who skip warm-ups entirely- who have been chastised sufficiently up to this point- while on the other, there are people who warm up too much or make mistakes that render the warm-up about as useful as a poop-flavored lollipop. Here are a few of said pitfalls:

  • Doing too many reps and/or sets. If you’re essentially doing a workout before you actually hit your working sets, you’ve overdone the warm-up thing. Performing 4 sets of 10 reps of increasingly heavier weight isn’t a warm-up, it’s a workout. Stop this nonsense.
  • Taking enormous jumps in weight close to your working set weight. It’s one thing to make 20 or 30 pound jumps if you’re very early in your warm-up sequence, say, the second or third warm-up set, but doing so right before your working set is a poor decision my friend.
  • Missing the opportunity that warm-up sets afford to “grease the groove” of the movement. Since the weight is lighter, these sets should be performed as perfectly as possible; again, I could make it rain with the number of times I’ve seen someone rush through warm-ups or are a sloppy mess with their form. Practice doesn’t make perfect, it makes permanent so practice perfectly.

HOW?

The warm-up is dependent on several factors, so don’t take these as rules, but more like guidelines.

 from  giphy.com

Movement- complexity of movement i.e a squat versus a weighted pull up, the squat is more complex and has more moving parts.

Timing within the workout- movements earlier on will require more warm-up sets than subsequent ones.

Working weight- the higher the working weight, the more warm-ups needed

Age/Injuries- older people and/or people with prior injuries (not always the same thing) will need more time to warm-up than those who are neither of those categories. (however, if they want to stay out of the latter, they should warm-up sufficiently…)

Experience level- this is often co-dependent on the working weight. Less experienced trainees are generally training with lower weights and don’t need as many warm-ups, however, this isn’t always true, so it’s a less concrete factor.

All that said, what does this actually look like? I have a couple of examples and you can use these to extrapolate to your own training. In general, a couple of things to keep in mind:

As weight increases, the reps should decrease

  • Big jumps are ok in the beginning, but they should decrease as you approach your working weight
  • Try not to take a bigger jump than the prior set’s jump. By that I mean, don’t make a 20 pound jump if on the prior set you only increase by 10 pounds.  
  • Usually, you can take bigger jumps for your lower body than upper body.

There are several charts out on the interwebs that provide percentages of your working weight and correlate it to the number of reps. This is totally fine if you’re a precise numbers person, but due to my personal detestation of doing complex math during training I usually choose my weights based on the most convenient plate additions. It’s called the “science of plate math according to Kelsey.”

Again, there are a several different ways to do this, and some coaches prescribe sets of 10 or 8 in the beginning, which I’m not opposed to at all. Choosing the number of reps per set depends on the movement. Here are some very general examples:

Note that these are assuming a working set of 5 reps.

Deadlift, working weight of 250

Set 1- 135 x 5

Set 2- 185 x 3

Set 3- 205 x 3

Set 4- 225 x 2

Set 5- 240 x 1

Start working sets

Bench, working weight of 185

Set 1- bar x 5-10

Set 2- 95 x 5

Set 3- 135 x 3-5

Set 4- 155 x 3

Set 5- 175 x 1

Start working sets

Squat, working weight of 200

Set 1- bar x 5-10

Set 2- 135 x 5

Set 3- 165 x 3

Set 4- 185 x 2

Set 5- 195 x 1

Start working sets

Those are pretty simple examples, but I think they illustrate the point of how to choose weights when warming up.

So, what are the key points to remember?

Don’t be a fool and skip your warm-up.

Utilize your warm-up sets judiciously but not excessively and don’t be a slob when doing them.

Warm-ups should energize you and prime your body and mind for lifting, not fatigue you. You should be chomping at the bit once you start your working sets.

Combine all that and you’re in for one fan-freakin’-tastic training session!