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How to Warm Up Before Lifting Weights

Is warming up for wimps? No! Drop the image of the spandex-clad, sweatband-wearing jogger trying to lift their big toe up to their nose, because warming up properly before hitting the weights will help you maximize the muscle-building effect of any workout.

Why warm up? In short, warming up before engaging in strenuous lifting will prepare the target muscles, joints and the CNS (central nervous system), help focus the mind on the task ahead and reduce fatigue.

We’re going to look at non-aerobic warm ups – specifically, warm-up sets, using weights – no foam rolling, stretching or running on the spot involved.

For example, if a person were about to squat 175 pounds, regardless of if their sets were “straight” (in which the weight stays the same for every set) or a “reverse pyramid” (in which the weight becomes lighter with every set), they would do well to warm up for that exercise progressively, beginning with lighter weights and working their way up nearly to the target weight – because either set type begins with the heaviest weight which will be lifted.

Going from no exertion to 175-pound squats without preparation is, put simply, a bad idea.

In a nutshell, adequately preparing the muscles, joints, CNS and mind means performing a series of increasingly heavy sets which bring you quite close to the working weight you intend to lift during the actual workout – while progressively decreasing reps to prevent excessive fatigue.

That last line is important – a warm up should use fewer reps as the weight increases to avoid draining your energy before engaging in the main workout. Failing to grasp this simple but critical concept means less power to commit to the task at hand, more fatigue, and frustration.

The Proper Warmup Sequence

Now you know why warming up properly matters. So, how do you do it? For the majority of lifters, the following sequence works very well:

  1. x 1 extremely light set of 12 to 15 repetitions, using very light dumbbells, an empty bar, or a machine with a very low weight.
  2. x 10 repetitions of 55 to 60 per cent of the working weight to be used during the actual sets of the exercise you will be doing.
  3. x 5 repetitions of 70 to 75 per cent of the working weight to be used during the actual sets of the exercise you will be doing
  4. x 3 repetitions of 80 to 85 per cent of the working weight to be used during the actual sets of the exercise you will be doing.

5. 1 repetition of 90 to 95 per cent of the working weight to be used during the actual sets of the exercise you will be doing.

Follow up with an appropriate period of rest before engaging in actual working sets using the working weight. After every warm-up set, except the final 1 repetition, rest between 45 and 60 seconds. After the last repetition, rest as long as you normally would for that amount of weight.

Under most circumstances, this is an ideal warm up sequence. Your body will be prepared.

The working sets will feel less strenuous, since warming up properly gives the central nervous system time to acclimatize itself to nearly the maximum weight you will be lifting, and you will already have a “feel” for the movements involved – far preferable to develop it with lighter weights than struggle to lift hundreds of pounds with good form straight away.

However, there are a few exceptions:

  • The more weight being lifted, the more you have to warm up. Conversely, the less weight being lifted, the less you have to warm up.
  •  Beginners needn’t work their way as high up the warm-up sequence (to 95 per cent of the working weight) as more experienced lifters.
  • Warm-up sets should be tailored to intensity. For example, a session of 4 sets of squats for 6 repetitions entails a heavier working weight than 3 sets of 12 repetitions. Adjust accordingly.
  • Complex exercises may warrant a more complete warm-up set than a simple exercise (such as dumbbell curls).

The warm up sequence we’ve suggested is not necessary before every exercise. As a general rule, it only needs to be done when first exercising a specific muscle group.

For example, a warm up set for one type of chest exercise doesn’t need to be repeated for every following type of chest exercise, since the target muscles have already been prepared.

Small muscle groups – particularly, the biceps and triceps – seldom, if ever, require serious preparation (Small muscles: Just a few light sets to warm the muscle and joint, get blood flowing and get a feel for the working set is enough); any warm up sets done which target the large muscle groups will, consequently, get the arms limber and ready for action.