- Warming up is a crucial part of any heavy workout, but I see it very often messed up.
- This post goes over the best ways to warm up in order to ensure that you maximize performance and remain injury free.
One of the most common mistakes that I see in the gym, particularly when preparing for heavy lifting, is warming up improperly. Many people understand the importance of warming up, but they still make many mistakes that reduce the effectiveness of their warmups. The goal of this post is to cover some of the most common errors I see, and answer some of the most common questions a lot of people have on the topic.
Here are the big points:
Stretching - Stretching is not an effective warmup routine, and can even hurt subsequent performance if done for very long durations. While stretching has its uses, warming up isn’t one of them. Stretching should be done after your workout, or on different days, so that you can get its benefits without wasting time at the gym or potentially interfering with your workouts. Instead, active mobilizations (for example, light or unweighted reps of the movement pattern) or foam rolling are better at helping work out the aches and kinks we usually try to "fix" with stretching.
Warming Up With The Wrong Activity - Warmups shouldn’t violate the principle of specificity. If you’re trying to warm up for a bench press, for example, then the best thing to do is lighter sets of the bench press - not pushups, burpees, bicep curls, or something else. While it may be useful to target individual muscle groups or smaller movements, this should be a supplement to your specific warmup, and not a replacement for it.
Improperly Using General and Specific Warmups - To piggyback on the point above, there are times where a general (non-specific) warmup is useful - in particular, when you’re training in the winter and just coming in from the cold. Sometimes, it’s useful to raise your core body temperature a bit, and any exercise will do this for you - but it’s easiest and quickest to do a bit of cardio, which gives you the most bang for your buck.
Making Warmups Too Hard - This one is most commonly done when lifting very heavy and building up to your working weight with a specific lift. If a guy wants to build up to a working weight of 225 on the bench press, I might see him build up with sets that are performed close to failure - 10 reps, 12 reps, and so on. However, you don’t want to train close to failure during your warmup, since this will tire you out for your working sets. This becomes especially important when going for very high intensity weights, or a max. You should rarely do more than 3-5 reps on your warmup sets, since you DON’T want these sets to be challenging. When you get even heavier (above about 80%), you may even want to drop to singles or doubles since this gets even closer to being a challenging set at these higher intensities. A good rule of thumb that I use a lot is that you should never use more reps than the number of reps in your working sets for the day - so if you’re planning on training with heavy sets of 3, then you can build up to your working weight with sets of 3 or less.
Making Too Big (or too small) Jumps In Weight - If you make too big of a weight jump from set to set in a warmup, you risk overshooting things a bit and not being fully prepared for a set, causing you to choke a bit on your first working set. If you make super small jumps, even if you’re keeping individual sets easy, this adds up to a lot of work and detracts from your overall energy. I generally say that you should take no more than about 3-4 warmup sets, and the jumps between them should be pretty evenly spaced except for the last set, which can be a bit closer to your working weight.
So in general, the process (in order) should be:
General Warmup - A bit of cardio to warm you up if you’re coming in from a cold day.
Mobilizations/Foam Rolling - A bit of quick unweighted or lightly weighted mobility work, moving through achey or sore movement patterns so help loosen everything up a bit.
Specific Warmup - Building up to your working weight with 3-4 purposefully easy sets, using the same or fewer reps as your working sets will be.
Stretching - After the workout, or at home, or basically any time that you’re not in the gym.
This method has always worked well for me and my clients, cuts down on unnecessary time in the gym, and is part of the reason that I’ve been blessed to be (mostly) injury-free for many years. With over a decade of serious lifting, I've only had to deal with one serious injury from lifting. For other injury prevention tips, here are a few useful posts from the archive:
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