Warm-Up: The Ultimate Guide

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What is warm-up?

Warm-up is extremely simple.

Stay away from people who overcomplicate things … the typical wannabe coach will prescribe moronic routines consisting of 10 minutes of carioca drills supersetted with humping a foam roller for hours on end. This set-up is more likely to earn you a restraining order than provide any significant muscular activation – just saying.

The basic purposes of warm-up are to set the physiological milieu for best nervous and muscular performance as well as prevent injuries.

Prepare the Biological Milieu – Load Your Guns

Optimal muscular contractions and energy production can only be achieved under certain physiological circumstances.

Principle #1: Raise the core temperature

A warm-up should, funnily enough, warm your body up.

Research has shown that with every 1 degree Celsius increment max power goes up by 12%. In addition, increasing core temperature allows the disruption of transient bounds in connective tissue. Likewise, blood flow improves with rising temperature as oxygen dissociates more easily from hemoglobin or myoglobin. Also remember that all biological systems are governed by enzymes. Enzymes are protein based and therefore both pH and temperature sensitive. This is due to the way proteins fold or unfold. Secondary and tertiary structures of proteins are the best predictors of how efficient the contractile and energetic machinery is.

If the temperature is so high that you can feel Satan sliding seductively down your spine upon setting foot in the gym you might miss the point but it’s not unknown for athletes to complain about frost bites after performing squat. Research shows that for best results in optimal hormonal production, the gym temperature should be 20º Celsius or 70º Fahrenheit. There really is nothing you can do to get cooler.  Just be sure to hydrate adequately as performance drops as early as with a 2% decrease in body weight by dehydration. As for cold weather, the most bang for your buck sartorial life hack is to wear a hat as 10% body heat is lost through the head.

Common Warm-Up Mistakes – when the workout does the actual opposite of what it’s intended to do in the first place

A slightly acidic pH is conductive to greater gains in hypertrophy. True. But as always, there is a fine line between good and optimal. In fact, an excessive drop in pH is highly detrimental to performance. This is why doing cardio pre-workout is not only a waste of time but also absolutely counter productive. Actually an over acidic pH disables fast twitch fibers. Don’t shoot yourself in foot and ruin your best efforts at hypertrophy and strength by performing unnecessary cardio.

To make the matter worse, Dr Schwarzbein, top expert in endocrinology in relation to diabetes, has pointed out that warming up on a treadmill or using the treadmill, per se, increases insulin resistance by up to 46% in six to eight weeks. What can be said? There are no redeeming features to cardio.

Also warm-up should not create undue fatigue. Simple rule is if the warm-up takes as long as the actual workout, the coach who prescribed it has a very questionable grasp on the reality of weight training.

Principle #2: Prevent injuries

As mentioned earlier, warm-up prevents injuries. About 30% of injuries occur at the level of skeletal muscle, for recreational or professional athletes alike. Even if static stretching is commonly used, and science is very clear on that, it elevates the likelihood of injury. When you think about it, stretching pre-workout makes absolutely no sense. Stretching diminishes strength and relaxes the CNS. In the same vein, foam rolling has a relaxing effect as well as the tendency to create scar tissue, thus limiting ROM. No bueno!

Moreover, most weight training injuries tend to occur when someone very keen on working out figures out (mistakenly) that warm-up sets are optional or a waste of time. So if you came up with the genius idea to skip the warm-up altogether well, think again, Michelangelo. If you want to be strong and last in the Iron-Game you need to stay healthy.

So, for example, you’ll have a squat workout consisting of 5×5, at 100 kilos. With squats there’s a lot of research that shows that the mobility of the ankle is what decreases the probability of injury of the lower extremities be it ACL tear, hamstring pull or groin or whatever.

So the first thing to do is go on a calf machine, and stretch the calves for 8  seconds. Select a weight that is enough to stretch you, it should be too heavy to lift. Then I finish off with a 2 seconds voluntary contraction in order to reset the pattern for strength. If you do static stretching and you don’t finish with a contraction, you’re more likely to get injured.

So, first thing is to make the ankles flexible.

Principle #3: Address the ROM – Jam-Clearing Drills

Then, hit the bar, and squat. For example, you are squatting, and depending on which muscles are tight, hamstrings, ankle extensors, quadriceps or whatever. Using the same principle as above, do PNF stretching, to ensure mobility for the range of motion.

Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF) stretching is superior to static stretching insofar as it helps “prime” the nervous system and potentiates the sympathetic nervous system. PNF stretching is done by first performing a static stretch for the target muscle and then contracting the muscle to be stretched isometrically, followed by performing the same static stretch for the target muscle. This type of stretching will allow you to stretch through a greater range of motion than with a traditional static stretch.

This kind of stretching is done after the first warm up set, if need be. That first set should tell you what needs to be worked on. Depending on the severity of the restriction in the ROM a specific remedial workout could be scheduled.

Lastly, warm up is joint specific. When training arms, use dumbbell exercises first to warm up the elbow properly. The joint is free from fixed patterns of movements and moves without constraints through a greater ROM. All the above ensuring proper lubrication of the joint alongside the other advantages of the warm-up.

Principle #4: Prepare the Nervous System – Finger On the Trigger

Hence the warm-up informs the central nervous system what ROM will be used. You can look at it as a refresher on what motor skills will be tapped into. It ensues that the complexity of the lift will dictate the number of warm up sets.

Olympic lifters have specific warm-up drills where they break down the lift into smaller easier tasks. Each subsequent movement builds up on a simpler motor task. It allows perfect technique to be ingrained in the cortex. Advanced lifters (and we are talking years of training under the belts) can somehow skim quickly over these drills.

Additionally, the warm up activates the CNS. Actually, a proper warm-up convey an crucial piece of information: the weights are going to be heavy.

The number of sets to warm up is a function of how low of a number of reps you will use. As a you rule of thumb: the stronger the trainee the more warm-sets are necessary. If you can’t bench press double your body weight yet it won’t take long. But say you are like Jeremy Hoornstra with a bench press at 2.74 BW it’ll take a tad longer…

Here some general guidelines:

Reps in workout              Number of  Warm- up Sets

1-3                                       6-8

4-7                                       4-5

8-10                                     3-4

11 and Plus                       1-2

So lets says you are going to do power cleans for sets of 1-3 reps in the 300 lbs range, your warm-up will look this.

In this process you have you to use the very scientific “guesstimation”’ principle.

Lets say your recent loads on the power clean was 300 lbs, then I would suggest the following warm-up. Just look at the numbers for now. The explanation will follow.

Set 1:    120 x 4 reps

rest 10 seconds

Set 2:     120 x 4 reps

rest 30 seconds.

(yes the weight is the same for the first two sets, remember it is a warm-up)

Set 3:     180 lbs x 3 reps

Rest 30 seconds

Set 4:    210 x 2 reps

rest 30 seconds

Set 5:     240 x 1 rep

rest 2 minutes.

Set 6:     255 x 1 rep

rest 2 minutes.

Set 7:     270 x 1 rep

rest 2 minutes.

Set 8:     285 x 1 rep a.k.a the P-set* (more of that later)

rest 3 minutes.

Set 9:     305 x 2 (first workout set)

You pick the right weight for set 9 based on the velocity of the bar in set 8.

Principle #5: Potentiate the CNS – Pull the Pin Out Of the Grenade 

That’s for a classic warm-up. Now, let’s look at the P-set.

There’s good and there’s optimal. Over warm-up is, basically, a proprioception set.  For short, P-set. But that’s a way to warm up and it will make you feel like Superman on PCP.

This technique allows you to excite the nervous system. What you do is basically performing heavy singles, staying short of failure, before your work sets. The subsequent work sets will be easier to perform.

So lets say, you want to do 5 sets of 5 reps at 100 kg, the process would look like this:

  • 4 @ 40 kg rest 10 seconds
  • 3 @ 60 kg rest 30 seconds
  • 2 @ 75 kg, rest 60 seconds
  • 1 @ 85 kg, rest 120 seconds
  • 1 @ 95 kg, rest 120 seconds
  • 1 @ 105 kg, rest 120 seconds
  • 1 @ 112.5 kg, rest 120 seconds
  • 5 x 5 at 100 kg, resting 3 minutes between sets

Of course, there are a lot of individual differences between rep performance and actual max.

In a Nutshell – Reader’s Digest

The neuromuscular system  needs to only know 2 things: what the range of motion is, and that the weight will be heavy.

So if you are doing a bench press, the best way to warm up is bench presses for multiple sets of low reps, with progressively heaver weights.  So very simple!

Note: Always come prepared – write your weights, sets, rest in advance in your journal. Write it as if it has already happened, and make sure to comment on how it benefits you. It has to have an emotional component for the trick to be effective.


Have fun and ditch the cariocas already!