i amIt’s lifting day and you’re all set to go. Energy levels are on point, body is feeling great, mindset is in a state of growth and wanting to take on all challenges. You go to the gym, fill up on your water and head to your workout area. You know that weightlifting warm-ups are important for performance and reducing the risk of injury, so you’ve already set aside some time to build your actual work sets. But, what is the best way to warm up safely and effectively for strength training?
When it comes to working out for your cardio or movement-based activities like running or sports, the game plan is even simpler. A warm-up can include dynamic stretching, mobility, muscle activation, and then doing the cardio or sport you’re doing at a lower intensity for a period of time. However, for strength training, there are more variables and thus, questions.
Some common things that come to mind: How should I warm up for my lifts? Should I do some band work? If so, what is the level of resistance and what is the intensity? If it’s weights, do I need to warm up by doing the specific lifts I’m doing? Should I do them all at once or immediately before each specific lift? How much weight and how many repetitions should I lift before my first working set?
“The biggest mistake people make with warm-ups is burning out before they get to their work set.” —Gerry DeFilippo, a strength and sports performance coach
These are perfectly valid things to wonder about, and frankly, the science isn’t crystal clear on them. However, there is emerging research and evidence that is leading us to the answer to what is the most effective weight lifting warm-up.
What Science Says About Weight Lifting Warm-Up Routines
Generally, studies have shown that a dynamic warm-up that involves active movements that result in both muscle contraction and joint movement (such as air squats, walking lunges, upper-body band work) is more effective than a static stretching warm-up for high-intensity movements. . .
Furthermore, within that category of dynamic warm-ups, there is strong evidence that high load dynamic warm-ups increase and optimize strength and power performance in both the upper body and lower body (such as squat jumps).
A recent study took this a step further and looked specifically at different warm-up methods for the two main major lifts: the bench press and the squat. The study investigated three specific warm-ups—2 warm-up sets of 6 repetitions at 40 percent and 80 percent of training load, 1 warm-up set of 6 repetitions at 80 percent of training load, and 1 warm-up set. 6 reps at 40 percent of the training load.
Participants were randomly assigned to one of three and then completed a work 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, while for squats, the second warm-up (6 repetitions at 80 percent of the training load) was the most effective. A third warm-up routine (six repetitions of only 40 percent) was not sufficient to optimize performance in either lift.
Obviously, this is just one study, but in conjunction with other research, a lifting warm-up that gradually moves closer to—but doesn’t wipe you out—a training load does. “The goal of a strength warm-up should be to acclimate your body to the high load so it’s ready for effective sets of weights,” says Gary DeFilippo, owner of Challenger Strength in Wayne, New Jersey. “The biggest mistake people make with warm-ups is burning out before they get to their work set.”
An example is the weight lifting warm up
The easiest way to apply the results of this study to your warm-up routine is through percentages. For example, if the work set is 45lbs, 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 work set consists of more than just one target set—for example, 3 sets of 8 repetitions—I’d recommend a 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 the working set. For example, if you’re working to build maximum strength with heavy lifts, he recommends six minutes, but that might be overkill for lower weights.
Weight lifting is a beginner technique for warm-up
If you enjoy detailing your lifting routine and consider yourself in the intermediate or more advanced strength training group, then the numbers and methodical approach may be quite appealing to you. Great! However, it’s not 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 have to overcomplicate things (which is an easy way to break new habits). For those who fall into this group, warm-up immediately with two progressively heavier weights for 4-6 reps for your specific lift.
The goal of this approach is to feel ready for your actual sets and not feel like it’s a huge jump-up in weight and intensity and burn out. Additionally, every individual mind and body is different so please feel free to experiment and see what works best for you!