A Better Way to Warm Up With Heavy Weights

Try this progressive warm-up next time you're working up to heavy weights. Don't be surprised if you come away with a new PR.

Foam rolling and dynamic warm-ups have become standard operating procedures for modern athletes preparing for a lifting session, but few trainees know what to do once it's time to grab some weights and get to work.

Whether we're talking about Squats, Trap Bar Deadlifts or Overhead Presses, the vast majority of gym-goers have no clue how to properly warm up for their work sets.

These people can be placed in two distinct categories.

RELATED: Exercise of the Week: Trap Bar Deadlift

First, you've got those whose workout warm-up consists of the occasional Jumping Jack and Arm Circle before they proceed to load the bar with weight they're as likely to hit for a solid, clean set as they are to grab a post-workout shake with Jessica Alba at a rooftop bar in the heart of Manhattan after their training session. Then they get pinned by the weight and wonder why they never get any stronger.

Then there are those who apply the concept of progression to close in on their working poundages, but fail to thrive on that approach because they wear themselves out in the process. If they're aiming for a triple with 405 pounds to hit a PR on the Trap Bar Deadlift in today's workout, here's what their typical warm-up looks like:

  • 225 x8
  • 315 x6
  • 365 x5
  • 405 x2 - slow and ugly

That's a step in the right direction, but it's nowhere near optimal. The three sets prior to 405 are not super heavy, but they do produce a level of muscular fatigue that hampers subsequent performance—especially the last set of five with 365. No wonder the guy gets destroyed by four wheels on the bar.

RELATED: Pre-Workout Warm-Up Steps You Can't Afford to Skip

The purpose of an effective warm-up is to mentally prepare the mind, enforce solid lifting technique, and prime the nervous system and muscles for heavy weights. It should stay away from accumulating undue muscular fatigue.

So exactly how are we supposed to do that?

Ascending Weights, Descending Reps

The solution is to do more warm-up sets with fewer reps per set. We want the majority of our warm-up sets in a rep range that excites the nervous system while minimizing muscular fatigue—so we're looking at 1-5 reps per set.

As you increase bar weight, you will perform fewer reps, but every rep should be done as explosively as possible, no matter how light the weight on the bar.

RELATED: 3 Simple Tips to Deadlift More Weight

Here's a simple template that can be used to maximize lifting performance on any compound barbell strength exercise:

  • Bar x6-10 reps
  • 50% of work set x5
  • 60% x4
  • 70% x3
  • 80% x2
  • 90% x1

Warming Up to a Personal Record

Applying the template above as your guide, here's how to properly warm up to 405 on the Trap Bar Deadlift:

  • 135 x6
  • 205 x5
  • 245 x4
  • 275 x3
  • 315 x2
  • 365 x1
  • 405 x3 - smoked it!

As you noticed, we use smaller jumps between weights, prepare the nervous system by lifting explosively and use lower reps to keep muscular fatigue at a minimum.

What Else You Need to Know

When you do this workout warm-up sequence as instructed, the single rep at 90 percent of working weight should be fast. That's the indicator lift I pay close attention to when assessing an athlete's readiness in a training session. Good bar speed implies they're "on" and will likely hit a PR.

Depending on your training background and situation, you can easily individualize this template. If you're an older and/or more beat-up athlete, you'll likely require a more thorough warm-up to fully prepare your body for the training session at hand. In that case, I recommend performing a few additional warm-up sets between 70 and 90 percent of working weight.

On the other hand, sometimes you can get away with doing less. My hockey players often lift after practice, when they have just come off the ice, so 5 reps at 50 percent, 3 reps at 70 percent and 1 rep at 90 percent of working weight may be all they need for top performance.

Keep in mind that the percentages listed are guidelines. They are not carved in stone—there's no need to whip out a calculator in the midst of your training session and try to figure out fractions and decimals. Choose your warm-up weights based on simple plate math—with 10-, 25- and 45-pound plates—and you're good to go.

And remember the key points: good form on each set, move the weight fast on the concentric part, decrease reps each time you add another plate on the bar, no grinders, and don't wear yourself out before getting up to a weight that actually matters.

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