It Takes Two: A Better Way of Warming Up to Lift Heavy



By Charles Staley Breaking Muscle


Charles is here on a weekly basis to help you cut through the B.S. and get some real perspective regarding health and training. Please post feedback or questions to Charles directly in the comments below this article.


Last week I had a few people ask me about my warm-up procedure for heavy lifts, so here are a few thoughts on that subject. I’m going to start with what I consider the ideal warm up for anyone about to lift heavy weights.


The Two Warm Up Set Method

In an ideal world (and of course, it never is), I’d recommend doing two warm up sets for each weight jump, until you get to about 75-80 percent of max.


If you do one set per weight jump, as most people do, each new set is by definition harder than the set before it, if for no other reason than the fact that it’s heavier. Obvious, right?


Warm up well for your heavy lifts.


But if you take, for example, 2 sets of 5 with 45lb, 2 sets of 5 with 95lb, 2 sets of 5 with 135lb, etc., you get the chance to do an apples-to-apples comparison with each new weight, which allows you to appreciate how your warm up sets are working for you. So let’s say you do your first set of 5 with 135lb. As soon as you re-rack the bar, you do an internal assessment of how it felt. Ask yourself how heavy was it, was anything hurting, do you feel tighter than usual, and so on.


When you take your second set with 135lb, you’ll do the same analysis, but in comparison to the first set. Did the second set feel easier in any way? Lighter, smoother, faster? Now you can better understand how well your warm up is working for you in real time.


Ideally, and this is just a theoretical exercise, you’d keep doing sets of 5 with 135lb until the next set doesn’t feel any better in any way than the previous set. When that happens, it’s time to move on to the next weight.


Getting Warm and Staying Warm
Now onto the lifts themselves. If we’re just talking about the three powerlifting events, I tend to need the most warm up on squats and the least warm up on bench. The deadlift is right in the middle. I’ll break down my approach to all three lifts.


Warming Up the Squat

Before I even get to the gym, I’ll take a long, hot shower as a passive warm up. Over the years I’ve found this to be really helpful, and it’s a staple practice for me now. Looking back at my last 100 workouts, I’ve only missed maybe two or three times.


Before I jump in the car, I put my knee sleeves on. This helps to maintain the tissue warmth I created in the shower and increases knee comfort overall (just as a bit of background, my knees tend to be a bit “creaky” and need much more warming up than my other joints).


When I get to the gym, I’ll do anywhere between 2-5 sets of bodyweight squats, usually in sets of 5. I do these mostly as a mobility drill – I work hard to make depth, push my knees out, and achieve the most upright position possible.


Once I feel that the bodyweight squats have done all they can for me, I move to the squat rack and start my warm up sets, which usually look like this:

  • 45lb (1-2 x 5)
  • 95lb (1-2 x 5)
  • 135lb x 5
  • 185lb x 3-5
  • 225lb x 2-5
  • 275lb x 2-5

And so on, depending on the goal for that workout and the reps I’m planning to use. My belt goes on at 225lb.


Warming Up the Bench

Just for reference, my 1RM for the bench is currently about 260-265lb. My bench warm up looks like this:

  • 45lb x 10
  • 95lb x 8
  • 135lb x 6
  • 185lb x 4

The following sets will depend on what’s planned for the day. My belt goes on at 185lb. Typically, I don’t have shoulder issues so I move up in weight much quicker than I do in the squat, even though my 1RM squat is currently 385-400lb.


Warming Up the Deadlift

My current 1RM is 500lb. I warm up for the deadlift in the following way:

  • 135lb (2-3 x 5)
  • 225lb (1-2 x 5)
  • 275lb x 5
  • 315lb x 3-5
  • 365lb x 3-5

The following sets will depend on what’s planned for the day. Belt goes on at 315lb.


I tend to have healthy hips and low back, so I sometimes take bigger jumps. In fact, just as a goof, last year I pulled 455lb stone cold and without a belt.


Making the Warm Up Work for You

  • If a given weight isn’t feeling as good as expected during warm ups, I’ll often repeat it until it does.
  • If your last working sets feels the best, it might indicate the need for more warm ups. If your first working set feels the best, you probably warmed up too much.
  • I recommend occasionally taking bigger or faster jumps as a way of challenging yourself and testing whether or not your current warm up strategy is optimal.
  • I don’t use a general warm up, as you can see. My rationale is that you’re better served using the exercise you’re warming up for to increase body temperature, since that way you’re killing two birds with one stone. By squatting light weights as my squat warm up as an example, I’m both increasing my temperature and rehearsing the exercise I’m about to do.
  • No, I don’t stretch. I’ve been thinking about it lately, however, so I’ll keep you posted.





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