Warming up the wrong way - are you guilty?

With regard to warming up for a weight lifting workout most people fail to take the right approach from the very start.

I would say that 99% of the people that lift weights, warm-up wrong. And in doing so, it reduces their ability to work with the heaviest weights they can use.

Understand that warming-up is nothing more than warming-up to enable maximum overload to be placed on muscles. What this means is that you should warm-up in a fashion that will allow you to infuse the right amount of blood into the muscles and connective tissue while progressively introducing overload to the targeted muscle group. The warm-up process should not fatigue the muscle.

Many lifters perform endless reps and sets “pyramiding” up to their working weight, and they perform this procedure for each exercise! Needless sets and reps promote lactic acid accumulation within working muscles. Excess lactic acid promotes a decline in muscle/blood pH which interferes with efficient muscle contraction, particularly under high overload. Lactic acid accumulation is a contributor to fatigue.

Research shows that fatigue compromises performance in the working sets.

A proper warm-up technique should progressively acclimatize the muscles, connective tissue and central nervous system, without producing fatigue. The correct warm-up primes the targeted area (by increasing blood flow and temperature) without promoting fatigue so muscles can handle the heaviest weights possible in the working sets without fear of injury.

The technique that you will be shown in the gym will provide immediate results in the amount of weight you use in your training. As you have learned, the science-based prerequisite for achieving results is overload. The greater the overload placed on a muscle, the greater the muscle-growth stimulus.

For this warm up example, we’ll use the bench press exercise. However, this warm up protocol can be implemented in any exercise. This protocol I’m about to explain should be used on the first exercise of your workout, and no others. If you are targeting one muscle group per workout, there is no need to go through this procedure for every exercise.

Here’s how to warm up the right way.  

First of all, you need to know the amount of weight the individual finished with the last time they performed the exercise. That is, the most that was lifted, in correct technique for the specified number of reps.

For arguments sake, let’s say this amount is 80kgs (including the bar). That is, the heaviest weight this person used was 80kgs to complete a 8RM in the bench press. However, if the correct warm-up is used, I guarantee this person will surpass this weight.

First Warm up Set: 12 reps with approximately 20% (80kg / 20% = 16kg).

I recommend you start with the empty Olympic bar as most are approximately 20kgs. For this first set, its close enough to 20% and you'll be using this bar for all your other sets so if it fits within the 20% approximate for your total,  I'd use it  for the12 reps

These should be smooth reps. Not too slow and not too fast. Your main goal is to increase blood flow and get the feel of the movement. Right from the start, concentrate on technique. In essence, flip that switch in your head, to on! Once completed, rest no longer than 2 minutes.

Second Warm up Set: 10 reps with approximately 40% (including bar) (80kg/40% = 32kg).

If you don't have access to small increments I'd go with 32.5kgs (the bar + 12.5kgs in total)

Rhythm should be a little faster this time. However, always focus on technique and form. Consciously scrutinize your form, every single rep. Keep asking yourself, is the body, limbs, joints etc positioned to exert maximum force and get the absolute most from this exercise? Rest no longer than 2 minutes.

Third Warm Up Set: 6 reps with approx 60% (including bar) (80kg/60% = 48kgs)

This is the next step in the process - your first acclimation set. Again if you don't have access to small increment weights I'd use 50kgs for this set in stead of 471/2kgs. Why? Simply because its a set of 6 reps, this weight is still within a 2kg range of the 60% and at this point for neural activation I'd rather err on the side of being slightly heavier (but remember its only 2kgs heavier.)

During this set you’re starting to visualize your heaviest weight BUT the weight you are using NOW in this set should still feel light and be relatively easy to lift. Rest no more than 2 minutes before the next set.

Fourth Warm up Set: 3 reps with approx 80% (including bar) (80kg/80% = 64kgs)

Again if you don't have access to small increment weights I'd use 65kgs for this set, for the same reason I've detailed above.

We’re gradually approaching your working weight without unnecessary reps and fatigue. This is your second, heavier acclimation set. Use the same controlled tempo and visualization. Keep perfecting your technique with every rep, remember, you’re practicing for the working sets. Perform 3 strong reps. Rest 2 minutes before next set.

Fifth Warm up Set: 1 rep with 80kg  (including bar) (80kgs/100% = 80kg)

Now we’re at the person’s previous best 8RM working weight. (the weight they used for 8 maximum effort reps last workout.) And now only one rep is completed. That's right, just 1 rep. The purpose is acclimation. This is your third and final acclimation set, it should be a strong, focused and technically perfect rep. Then rest no more than 2 minutes.

Sixth and Seventh Sets are Working Sets: Aim for 82.5kgs.

These are the working sets; the only sets that produce results. All the sets leading up to these sets are merely warm-up sets and should be treated as just that.

*Notice that in the first working set the client went straight to 82.5.kg instead of starting again with 80kgs. The correct warm up gives the trainee the best opportunity to attack the heaviest weight possible when they are at their freshest.

Attack the heaviest weight when you're at your best. How many people do that?

Automatically you're giving yourself (or your client) every chance for progression, for success.

Once the trainee reaches the designated RM with this new weight, it’s time to re-set the bench mark. That is, add a small amount to the bar and start the process again.

The warm up procedure described is performed only for the first exercise of the workout. For subsequent exercises with the same muscle group, no further warm up sets are necessary. However, one (or sometimes two) acclimation sets should be completed before attempting the workings sets in the new exercise. An acclimation set is approximately 60% of the weight utilized in the working sets. Complete only 3-6 reps in any acclimation set.

Table summary. Remember this is based on the best weight used (80kgs for 8RM) in the last workout

increment (kg) 
 weight used (kgs)
 1  12    20         16   20kg (empty bar)
 2  10    40         32  30kg
 3    6    60         48  50kg
 4    3    80         64  65kg
 5    1
 100         80  80kg

First working set start with = 82.5kg.

Now even if the lifter doesn't get their designated reps, so what. You've made sure that its the best attempt possible.

This procedure might take one or two workouts to get the hang of, but I can guarantee you, within a couple of attempts at this warm-up protocol, you'll smash your previous best bench, deadlift or squat. Simply because you've learned how to warm-up the correct way.

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