Warm Up Sets: Warming Up For Weight Training Exercises

One of the most overlooked aspects of a workout routine is the warm up.

In terms of weight training, there’s primarily 2 different forms of warming up that people tend to neglect or just screw up altogether:

  1. The General Pre-Workout Warm Up
    This refers to the overall warm up that takes place before the workout actually begins. For example, this may include cardio/aerobic activity, stretching (statically and/or dynamically), foam rolling and/or various forms of mobility work.
  2. The Specific Pre-Exercise Warm up
    This refers to the warm up sets being done before the weight training exercises themselves. For example, if you were going to bench press 200lbs, you’d typically do warm up sets using progressively heavier weight as you work your way up to 200lbs.

While both are definitely important for different reasons, today I want to focus specifically on the second item on that list: warm up sets.

Let’s figure out their purpose and goals, how many sets to do, how much weight to use, and which weight training exercises do and do not actually need warm up sets in the first place.

Why Do I Need To Do Warm Up Sets?

In order to properly understand the purpose of warm up sets, there’s a recommendation you need to hear first.

And that is, for the majority of the population, the first real work set of every exercise you do should always be with your heaviest weight.

What that means is, I recommend that most people either use straight sets (where you use the same weight for all of your sets of an exercise), or a reverse pyramid/descending ramp (where you start with your heaviest weight and then reduce the weight from set to set).

In either scenario, your first set still ends up being as heavy as you will be going on that specific exercise.

What I don’t recommend however is a traditional pyramid set structure (where you start with something like 100lbs, then go to 110lbs, then 120lbs, etc.), where you essentially use your real work sets as warm up sets.

There are exceptions of course, but for most people, this is a completely idiotic and counterproductive way to train. More about that here: Pyramid Sets vs Reverse Pyramid Training vs Straight Sets

Now back to my point…

Since most of us will always be starting off each exercise with our heaviest working weight, there won’t be any lighter work sets leading up to our heavier/heaviest work sets… we will just be jumping right in from the very first set.

For this reason, a proper warm up set sequence is absolutely crucial.

The Goals Of Warm Up Sets

Now, here is where people start to screw things up. They understand the reason for warming up, they just don’t understand the goals… and that leads to all sorts of dumb stuff being done.

Specifically, the goals of warm up sets are as follows:

  • To allow us to prepare the target muscle(s).
  • To allow us to prepare the joints being used.
  • To allow us to prepare our central nervous system.
  • To allow us to prepare mentally.
  • To accomplish all of the above WITHOUT creating unnecessary fatigue.

With all of that in mind, the most common recommendation for optimally accomplishing everything on that list is to:

Perform a series of progressively heavier sets that will get pretty close to our actual working weight, while using fewer and fewer reps as we go to avoid fatiguing ourselves before we even begin.

Most people grasp the “progressively heavier sets” part of that, but they miss the second part about avoiding fatigue.

That’s why one of the most common stupid things people do when warming up is perform a bunch of sets of anywhere from 10-20 reps per set.

What they are primarily doing here is just tiring themselves out with warm up sets and creating a ton of unnecessary fatigue (which is why traditional pyramid sets suck for most people) while at the same time doing little to actually accomplish what we are hoping to accomplish by warming up.

I’ve personally been there and done that myself back in the day, where I basically turned my warm up sequence into a full on workout by doing a bunch of sets of 10-12.

By the time I got to my first actual work set, I was (unknowingly) significantly fatigued and my performance (unknowingly) suffered for it.

The Proper Warm Up Sequence

What eventually happened in my case is that I instinctively started experimenting with my warm up sets to try to find something better, and I ended up coming upon a sequence that I later realized was extremely close to what a lot of experts recommend.

What is that warm up sequence, you ask?

Well, for most of the people, most of the time, it should go something along the lines of this:

  1. Start off with 1 VERY light set of 10-15 reps. For this set you’d usually use just the bar (with no weight on it) or some VERY light dumbbells if it was a dumbbell exercise. If it’s a machine exercise, you’d put on some equally light and easy/insignificant amount of weight.
  2. The next set, do 8 reps using 55-60% of the actual weight you will be using during your actual work sets for this exercise. So, if your first work set was going to be with 200lbs, you’d use 110-120lbs for this set.
  3. The next set, do 5 reps using 70-75% of the actual weight you will be using during your actual work sets for this exercise. So again, if your first work set was going to be with 200lbs, you’d use 140-150lbs for this set.
  4. The set after that, do 3 reps using 80-85% of the actual weight you will be using during your actual work sets for this exercise. So once again, if your first work set was going to be with 200lbs, you’d use 160-170lbs for this set.
  5. And for your final warm up set, do just 1 rep using 90-95% of the actual weight you will be using during your actual work sets for this exercise. So, using the same example, if your first work set was going to be with 200lbs, you’d use 180-190lbs for this set.
  6. You’d then rest for whatever the prescribed amount of rest time is for that exercise, and then begin your first work set.

To make that even clearer, here’s a pretty chart…

The Proper Weight Training Warm Up Sequence

Set Weight Reps Rest
#1 Just the bar/very light dumbbells. 10-15 45-60 seconds
#2 55-60% of the weight you will be using for this exercise. 8 45-60 seconds
#3 70-75% of the weight you will be using for this exercise. 5 45-60 seconds
#4 80-85% of the weight you will be using for this exercise. 3 45-60 seconds
#5 90-95% of the weight you will be using for this exercise. 1 Full Amount

As you can see, you’d typically take about 45-60 seconds between each warm up set. There’s really no special set amount of time, but usually the time it takes to casually change the weight, catch your breath (if it needs to be caught) and get into position will last about 45-60 seconds anyway, so something similar to that would be perfectly sufficient.

Really, as long as you’re not rushing or taking forever you’ll be fine.

And then, after your final warm up set, you should rest for whatever that exercise’s regularly prescribed rest time is, and then begin your first work set.

Why Is This Warm Up Sequence So Ideal?

Because it allows us to accomplish everything that needs to be accomplished. Simple as that.

We get to warm up the muscles and joints being used, and we get to prepare the nervous system for the stress it’s about to be under (which basically prevents the first work set from feeling surprisingly heavy).

We also do enough to get a really good feel and groove (both physically and mentally) for the exercise we are about to perform, and we do it all with low reps so we never come close to causing unnecessary fatigue.

Sounds pretty ideal to me.

Is This The EXACT Way EVERYONE Should ALWAYS Warm Up?

While the overall structuring of this warm up sequence is pretty close to ideal in most cases, there are some notes and exceptions.

Here are the main ones that come to mind:

  • Strength Levels. The heavier the weight being lifted for a given exercise, the more warm up sets you’ll typically need. The opposite is true as well (the lighter the weight, the less warming up you’ll need). Meaning, someone bench pressing 275lbs would need more warm up sets than someone bench pressing 135lbs. Or, if you want to look at it from the other point of view, the person bench pressing 135lbs just doesn’t need as many warm up sets to work up to their lesser weight.
  • Experience Levels. This goes hand-in-hand with the first item on this list, but it’s worth giving a separate mention. Beginners are typically weaker than intermediate and advanced trainees. Therefore, beginners wouldn’t need as many of the heavier warm up sets as someone more advanced would. (So for example, sets #4 and/or #5 in the warm up sequence outlined above might not be as necessary for a beginner.)
  • Rep Range and Training Intensity. Warm up sets may also need to be adjusted based on the rep range and level of weight training intensity being used. Meaning, if you’re bench pressing for 4 sets of 6 reps, you’ll be using a heavier weight than you would if you were bench pressing for 3 sets of 12 reps, and more or less warming up may be needed or preferred in comparison.
  • Specific Exercises. The type of exercise being done might also warrant changes to how you warm up. For example, a harder/more technical exercise like barbell squats might require a more thorough warm up sequence than something like leg presses.

Really, warm up sets are not an exact science where one method is universally perfect for everyone on all weight training exercises and at every level of strength and experience.

Some people benefit from more sets, some from less. Some from heavier weight, some from lighter. Feel free to experiment (if needed) to find exactly what feels best for you.

For the majority of the population however, something similar to what I described above is what’s most ideal and most often recommend.

Should I Be Warming Up Like This For EVERY Exercise?

Nope, you should NOT warm up like this for every single exercise. It wouldn’t be bad… it just wouldn’t be needed.

A full warm up sequence like this is only needed when doing the first direct or indirect exercise for a given muscle group or movement pattern during that workout. After that, you are already warmed up for various other exercises that target the same muscle(s) and movement patterns.

So, for example, if you are doing more than 1 chest exercise in a workout, you’d only need to warm up like this on the first chest exercise being done that day. Any chest exercises done after that would require little to no warm up sequence of any kind.

The same applies to the other bigger muscle groups too (back, shoulders, quads, hamstrings).

The exception here is biceps and triceps, which rarely ever need any sort of warm up (unless you’re doing an arm-only workout, which is pretty dumb in the first place).

Biceps and/or triceps will almost always (and SHOULD always) be done after more important stuff like chest, back and/or shoulders. And, since chest and shoulder exercises train the triceps secondarily and back exercises train the biceps secondarily, your biceps and triceps are already warmed up sufficiently by the time you get to them.

What’s that you say? You’re still a little confused about which exercises need warm ups and which don’t?

Alright then, here’s a complete real world example…

An Example Of Which Weight Training Exercises To Warm Up For

Have you seen The Muscle Building Workout Routine? It’s the workout program that I recommend to intermediate/advanced trainees looking to build muscle or improve the way their body looks in any capacity.

Well, here’s a full break down of exactly which exercises in this program do and do not need a full warm up sequence:

  • In the Upper Body A workout, you’d only need to warm up like this for bench press and rows. Incline dumbbell presses (warmed up from benching), lat pull-downs (warmed up from rowing), lateral raises (warmed up from both bench pressing and incline pressing), and the biceps and triceps stuff (warmed up from all of the chest and back work thus far) would not require a warm up sequence anywhere near as thorough as this (or really, none at all).
  • In the Lower Body A workout, you’d do this warm up sequence for Romanian deadlifts and leg presses, and maybe calves too (or more likely just half of this warm up sequence).
  • In the Upper Body B workout, you’d only use this warm up sequence for pull-ups and shoulder presses, and maybe dumbbell presses as well (or again just half of this warm up sequence). Nothing else.
  • In the Lower Body B workout, you’d really only need to do this warm up sequence with squats, and maybe just half of this sequence for leg curls and calves.
  • However, for all of the exercises that DON’T need a full warm up sequence, you can still throw in 1 VERY light set of 5-8 reps just to prepare yourself for the actual movement and get into a good groove. I personally like doing this for certain exercises (usually only compound exercises), but don’t seem to need it at all for others (such as most isolation exercises). Just a personal preference. Nothing more than that, though. And make sure it’s VERY light and easy if you decide to do it.

Now Go Try It Out

So, that’s pretty much everything you need to know about how your warm up set sequence should look for various exercises and why it’s so important and beneficial in the first place. In fact, this is the protocol I recommend for the majority of the workouts I’ve included in The Best Workout Routines premium guide.

If you’ve been warming up in some other (dumber) way or just barely warming up at all, give this method (or something similar) a try and notice how much better your work sets feel.

For me, it was a big improvement over the silly stuff I was previously doing. It will probably be an equally big improvement for you too.

Try it and see for yourself.

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