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5 Rules of Warming Up: The Truth to More Strength

5 Rules of Warming Up: The Truth to More Strength
James Michelfelder & Therese Sommerseth

Lift more weight and you’ll build more strength and muscle. The problem, however, is that most guys shortchange their strength with a crappy warm up before they even start their actual workout. But we’re not talking about the warm up you do when you walk into the gym — dynamic stretches, activation drills, cardio, etc. — we’re talking about the warm up sets you do before lifting heavy weights.

Most guys do too many sets with too much weight or they do the complete opposite and risk injury. Before someone tries to bench press 220lbs for five reps (which means 220lbs is their “work weight”), for example, you’ll see them either jump right into it or do something like this:

Warmup Set 1: 135lbs x 10
Warmup Set 2: 155lbs x 8
Warmup Set 3: 175lbs x 6
Warmup Set 4: 200lbs x 5

But this wastes strength, endurance, and energy; over time, they’ll wonder why they’re plateauing. Ramping up is the only way to prime your body for strength and muscle gains, which is all about doing decreasing reps for sets while increasing weight — before you actually start doing your real workout. Read on to learn how.

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Yes, really. For your barbell exercises, start with just the bar. This lets you focus on speed and technique, two of the main ingredients in building strength and size. It also fires up your nervous system to push some serious weight without fatiguing your muscles — even world-class powerlifters start with just 45lbs before they set records on the bench press.

The only exception is the deadlift. Why? Because, for most gyms, you need 45lbs plates on each side for the barbell to start at the correct height. At many commercial gyms, 25lbs plates and 35lbs plates are smaller than 45lb ones, which will start your deadlift at a deficit. Also, given how much weight people can pull with a deadlift, 135lbs is a relatively small number anyway.

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If you increase your warm up weights with small increments, you’ll waste a lot of strength. Your muscle and nervous system can handle larger jumps; something in the 35 – 50lb range is perfect.

If you’re going to back squat 250lbs, your warm up sets will look like this:

Warmup Set 1: Barbell
Warmup Set 2: 95lbs
Warmup Set 3: 135lbs
Warmup Set 4: 175lbs
Warmup Set 5: 215lbs

For the last set, you could do 225lb, but that weight is too close to your work weight. Remember: you want to warm up your muscles, not fatigue them.

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Warmups sets work because of “progressive fiber recruitment,” which means acclimating your muscle fibers to increasingly heavy weight. This means they only need a sip of a heavy weight, not a chug.

Pushing out too many reps, however, is overkill. The truth is five reps — even with the barbell — is plenty to activate your muscle fibers. Just be sure to focus on great speed and great technique.

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As you increase your weight, drop your reps down to doubles and singles. Regardless of how strong you are, anything over 225lbs is still a lot of weight — don’t waste your energy or risk injury by doing a 5 x 5 workout before you even get to your work weight.

If you’re going to back squat 250lbs, your warm up sets will look like this:

Warmup Set 1: Barbell x 5
Warmup Set 2: 95lbs x 5
Warmup Set 3: 135lbs x 3
Warmup Set 4: 175lbs x 2
Warmup Set 5: 215lbs x 1

If you’re going to deadlift 350lbs, your warm up sets will look like this:

Warmup Set 1: 135lbs x 5
Warmup Set 2: 175lbs x 3
Warmup Set 3: 225lbs x 2
Warmup Set 4: 275lbs x 1
Warmup Set 5: 315lbs x 1

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Some people still believe you need “cool down” sets after doing your work weight. For example, after doing 8 sets x 5 reps of front squats with 185lbs, some guys will do 135lbs for eight or so reps.

That, however, is completely unnecessary. (And if you still have fuel in the tank after 8 x 5 front squats, perhaps you didn’t go hard enough on your work weight.) If you want to cool down after a heavy workout, do breathing exercises instead. They quickly relax your muscles, dial down your sympathetic or “fight-or-flight” nervous system, and bring your heart rate down to a calmer level. ­

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