How do you warm up when you head to the gym? Our athletes start with an empty bar. The bar might weigh 15, 33, or 45 lbs., depending on the needs of the athlete. We do this to offer the athlete an easier starting point for training each day. This is often confusing for the athlete as we don’t start them at their capacity. In fact, we don’t start anywhere near their capacity. We start light so the athlete can drill technique.
Why Should we Warm-Up
Its not unusual to dismiss the warm-up because it “isn’t heavy”. You must understand the purpose of warming up, however. We are aiming to prepare your muscles, heart, body temperature, joints, ligaments, tendons, and nervous system for the task at hand. The goal of the warm up is to be loose and warm by the time you get to your work set. Specifically, a warm up should:
- Increase your heart rate
- Increase your respiratory rate
- Increase your body temperature
- Increase your joint range of motion
- Produce a condition of readiness in the athlete
Warm Up Option 1: The Specific Warm Up
At our gym, we like the barbell warm-up. It’s pretty simple, you just take an empty barbell and work up to your projected work weights in the first exercise of your daily program. Using this set up, the lifter would warm up with squat to prepare for his/her squats. Here is a sample warm up for a lifter that is scheduled to squat 275 x 5 reps x 3 sets.
- Set 1: empty bar x 5-15 reps
- Set 2: 135 x 5 reps
- Set 3: 185 x 5 reps
- Set 4: 225 x 3 reps
- Set 5: 250 x 1 rep
- Sets 6-8 (work sets): 275 x 5 reps x 3 sets
There is nothing magical about the specific numbers the athlete used other than the result the numbers produced. The athlete got some lighter work (sets 1-4) in to actually warm up tissues and he/she got some heavier work in (set 5) to prepare the nervous system for heavier weights. This warm-up should have produced a great session for the athlete.
Using Percentages to Warm Up
Another specific warm up approach would be to use percentages of the intended work set for the day. This could look something like this:
- Set 1: empty bar x 5-15 reps
- Set 2: 50% work set x 5
- Set 3: 70% work set x 5
- Set 4: 80% work set x 3
- Set 5: 90% work set x 1
- Sets 6-8 (work sets)
This approach can work fine but as the work set values grow, the percentages would likely need some tweaking. For example, if the lifter had 405 x 5 x 3 scheduled, jumping from an empty bar to 205 might not feel great. It’s not to say it couldn’t be done, it just might make sense to toss in a set around 135 lbs.
Athletes that rush warm-ups will commonly suggest that their 3rd set feels the best. This can certainly happen to anyone from time to time but if it’s consistently happening, you may want to rethink your strategy and include some additional warm up sets to prepare you for your daily workout.
Warm Up Option 2: The General Warm Up
Another great option is the general warm up. This prepares the body as we noted above, but does so in a “general way”. Rather than using the squat… to warm up the squat, the lifter may have a short circuit planned to start his/her daily routine. It may look something like this:
Upper Body Dynamic Effort (volume) Session
- sling shot push up x 15 reps x 2 sets
- wide grip pull down x 15 reps x 2 sets
- farmer carry x 120′ x 2 sets
The lifter may then follow his/her circuit with the schedule bench press work. This option can be great for a lot of folks as it allows them to get in some added variety and hypertrophy work. As the lifter becomes more experienced, he/she may event get a slight metabolic benefit from warming up with a light circuit each session.
Most commonly, we implement this type of strategy with an upper/lower split schedule but there is no reason it couldn’t be done with a full-body session.
Additional Thoughts on Warm Ups
Working off the ideas above, it’s important to note that some athletes may require even more warming up to get into desired positions. Us older lifters have creaky joints and might need even more “light” work to adequately prepare. This may also apply to athletes that are rehabbing an injury as well. This is fine, the athlete should do what is needed to get the job done. I’ve used box squats without a barbell to get athletes moving as well as having them do multiple sets of 5 with an empty bar (as many as 5-8 sets). Over time, the athlete will likely require less warming up but if not, the job of the warm up is still to prepare the athlete for the work scheduled that day.
Another great option would be to start with a higher box and work it down each warm up set. Once the athlete has achieved depth, weight would start to increase up to work set values.
Lastly, as an acceptable “non specific” warm up, we use sled pushing or dragging. This prepares the body as we noted above, whilst asking less from the hips and knees. Using the sled, we then would transition into the barbell warm ups noted above.