The warm up routine is an essential part of weight lifting. Unfortunately, it is also one of the most misunderstood and overlooked aspects of most lifters’ training routines.
This page explains how to warm up correctly and why warming up is such a critical part of training.
As an overview, a complete warm up routine consists of the following components:
- General Warm Up (light cardio and stretching/mobility)
- Specific Warm Up (warm up sets)
Why Warming Up is Important. A correctly executed warm up routine will help you achieve the following important benefits:
- Optimally perform weight lifting exercises
- Increase flexibility and range of motion
- Prevent short and long-term injuries
- Improve circulation and general health
In other words, a proper weight lifting warm up routine will help you perform effectively and achieve your goals of building lean muscle and strength, faster.
The Ultimate Warm Up Routine for Weight Lifting
Phase I: Light Cardio (General Warm Up)
Your general warm up should consist of low to moderate intensity cardio for 5-10 minutes. This can be anything from jogging on the treadmill or elliptical, to playing ball on the courts.
Remember that this is just part of the warm up routine. You still have to finish warming up and get an entire workout ahead of you. You should feel more awake or energetic when you finish – not tired. You’ve overdone it if you end up sweating profusely and panting like an obese cop in hot pursuit of a donut thief! The benefits of the general warm up are listed below:
- Prime Your Body. Get your body in the mode for physical activity with some light exercise. This helps your joints move around before putting stress on them. You body should feel loosened up when you’re done.
- Kickstart Your Heart. The light activity slowly accelerates your heart rate. This increases blood flow throughout your body to the extremities. Not only does the fresh blood replenish nutrients in the muscle cells, but it heats you up. The goal is to feel physically warmer afterwards.
- Get Focused. The cardio helps you to focus mentally. The increased blood flow gives you a little boost of energy and mental sharpness. I use this (and my iPod) to zone out distractions and get in the zone, chief.
Phase II: Stretching/Mobility (General Warm Up)
After the general warm up, your muscles will be warmer and more pliable. This is the perfect time to take advantage of stretching and mobility/tissue work. I use a mix of dynamic stretches and static stretches, as well self myofascial release exercises (e.g. foam rolling).
The basic goal of this phase of the warm up routine is to ensure that you have the proper range of motion to effectively perform your weight lifting exercises. The stretching/mobility phase should last as long as is necessary to achieve this goal, but not so long that you turn into Stretch Armstrong. The benefits of the stretching warm up are listed below:
- Increase Flexibility. Stretching is best known for improving flexibility, which translates to greater mobility and range of motion (ROM). You automatically use better form when you can comfortably perform weight lifting exercises movements using full ROM.
- Avoid Injuries. Stretching not only improves flexibility, but also activates chemicals that lubricate the joints and connective tissues. Joint and tissue protection plus better flexibility is an essential safeguard when dealing with weights and gravity.
- Prevent Imbalances. You can prevent muscle imbalances that may occur when you add on the pounds. For example, many lifters tend to focus on exercising the muscles that are typically overused in modern life. Pain and posture problems can result because some muscles are too tight while their opposites are too loose.
- Less Muscle Soreness. Stretching before (and after) working out has been shown to decrease the soreness you feel the day after a big workout. It sucks if the only way you can get around the day after an insane leg workout is by borrowing grandpa’s sporty Jazzy 1170XL mobility scooter! I’d say stretch instead.
Phase III: Warm Up Sets (Specific Warm Up)
The specific warm up is the final warm up phase. It involves doing warm up sets where you work up to the weight that you plan to use on your first work set.
It is key that you do not fatigue yourself. So, you must keep reps low-moderate (no more than 8) on the first warm up set, and decrease the number of reps with each set afterwards (see example below for clarification). The benefits of the specific warm up are listed below:
- Warm Up the Target Muscles. The light cardio (phase I) increases your blood flow evenly, to all muscle groups. However, you want to target the blood flow and fresh nutrients straight to the muscle groups that you will be working. This also increases muscle pliability, lowering the risk of muscle tears.
- Practice the Movement. You must repeat the exercise technique even if you know the exercise like the back of your hand. You tap into your muscle memory and ‘remind’ the muscles exactly what they’re doing before throwing the big weights on.
- Prepare for Heavy Weights. It’s impossible to go from 0-60 in zero seconds flat in a car. It takes time to accelerate and shift gears. The same thing applies to weight lifting. Except, instead of shifting up until you get to the right speed, you increase the weight in each warm up set until you reach the top weight. Properly ramping up the weight ensures you can lift your heaviest during the work sets.
- Prevent Injuries. This phase of the warm up routine is the best safeguard against injury. The combination of calibrating technique while gradually transitioning into heavy weight ensures that you perform the exercises safely and optimally.
Warm Up Routine – Specific Warm Up Example:
Let’s say your first exercise is the bench press. Your routine tells you to do 3 sets of 5 reps. You plan to do 225 lbs for each set, which we’ll assume is a heavy weight for you. Therefore you should use several sets (about 5-6) to ensure proper warm up:
Warm up sets (weight x reps):
If the weight was less intense (lighter), then you wouldn’t necessarily have to do as many warm up sets. Let’s say you were to bench 3 sets of 10 reps. You plan to lift 170 for every set, which we’ll assume is a moderately heavy weight for you. You can properly warm up using about 2-3 warm up sets:
Warm up sets:
Note: These are just examples, not holy writ. Use the basic guidelines and play it by ear when in comes down to actually doing it. Essentially, use common sense and don’t think too hard about it.
Congratulations! You now know how to correctly perform a full warm up routine. That alone deserves a pat on the back because this new knowledge automatically catapults you ahead of the crowd. You’ll be speeding past the competition when their progress is stalled because of injury or the inability to correctly perform their weight lifting exercises.
Make It a Habit. Now, the only part left is doing it consistently. The warm up routine is definitely not the most fun part of being in the gym (at least not for me), but it is crucial to your weight lifting goals as well as for remaining injury-free.
Since it’s just as important as the rest of your weight lifting routine, be sure that you make enough time to perform your warm up routine without being crunched for time. You don’t want to feel compelled to skip it or be forced to cut your weight lifting workout short.