Picture this scenario:
You just walked into the gym, all jazzed up on caffeine and hair metal. It’s squat day and you’re ready to crush it.
You look over the workout, check your squat numbers from last week, load up the same weight, jump under the bar and knock out your first set of the day.
Unfortunately there’s a critical mistake here, and we see it ALL. THE. TIME.
Did ya catch it?
No warm-up sets!
This is a little bit like stepping out of bed in the morning then breaking into a full sprint, you could do it, but it’s probably not going to be a very effective start to the day and there’s a very real chance of you hurting yourself.
Luckily, there’s a better way.
It’s called a specific warm-up, and today we’ll talk about how and why you should always include it.
Note: For this, we’ll be under the assumption that you’ve already started your workout with an intelligent and effective general warm up (like we use to start sessions at UA) that addresses the various stability and mobility needs of your joints, covers all the essential movement patterns, elevates your core body temperature, and activates your CNS.
Before we get into how to execute the warm-up sets aka ramp sets, let’s look at WHY we should do them.
First, the physiological benefits:
- Joint lubrication (“greasing the groove”), will increase during warm-up reps to improve movement quality and range of motion and decrease risk of injury.
- Increased temperature and blood flow to the working muscles will improve oxygen delivery, making muscle contraction faster and more efficient.
- Further nervous system activation will increase muscle fiber recruitment, and improve coordination, stability, and timing.
All these factors combine and lead to a safer, stronger, and more effective working set by the time you get to your heavy weights.
There’s also a psychological bonus to adding in a few ramp sets:
- Warm-up sets give you a sense of how the weight “feels” that day. Some days an empty bar feels like it somehow gained weight overnight. Other days the weights practically lift themselves (these are few and far between, don’t screw it up by doing too much too fast). In either case, it’s in your best interest to work your way up slowly rather than shock the system by going straight to your max weight.
- Those first few sets are the best time for technique work. Often, when you’re under a heavy bar and struggling through a set, you’ll forget about form altogether and do whatever it takes to get the weight up. With lighter weights, you can rehearse the skills and habits that carry over to improve your work sets later.
- It’s your time to dial in your headspace! Everybody’s different, some people like to crack jokes with the person at the next rack. Others pull their hoods over their heads, smack themselves, and give the barbell the death stare. Whatever your style, use that time working up in weights to get in the zone.
Hopefully, by now you’re bought in on the reasons to include warm-up sets. Now let’s look at when and how to do it.
First, a warm-up is never a bad idea. On any given exercise, if you’d feel better getting a few reps in with a light weight first, you should.
There are some guidelines we can use to decide when it’s most appropriate though.
As a general rule, on multi-joint/compound exercises (“the big lifts”) you’ll always want to include a few ramp sets. This usually brings to mind the powerlifts and the olympic lifts, but some other examples are RDLs, Rear Foot Elevated Split Squats, and heavy pressing or rowing exercises.
Where the exercise is in your program is also an indicator. Most well-designed workouts will have the most complex and technically demanding exercises early in the session, shortly after the general warm-up. This is when those warm-up sets are crucial. When you get to your accessory exercises afterward, you’ll most likely feel comfortable jumping right into the working set and that’s just fine.
As far as weight selection goes, everyone is different, and every workout is different. I’m sure there are plenty of one rep max percentage calculators that can help you map out the “perfect” warm up. Ultimately though, going by feel is a skill that you can, and should, develop.
A coach that’s been working with you for a while and knows your strength level can help recommend good starting points, but over time you’ll develop a routine and adjust when necessary.
Back to our squat day, let’s say the day’s volume is 3 sets of 10 reps. Your training history says the last time you did 3×10 you ended up at 225 lbs on the top set. Here’s how you might get there:
Empty bar x 10 reps
Short rest – just enough time to load plates
95 lbs x 10 reps
Short rest again
135 lbs x 8-10 reps
Slightly longer rest, ~60s
185 lbs x 8-10 reps
Rest until you feel ready to take on the first work set
So, next time you’re gearing up for a lift, take the time to add in a few warm-up sets. I promise it’ll be worth the extra effort 🙂