Warming Up a Lift
Are you the type of person who would give a speech to a packed house without practicing it first? Would you dance at a wedding without having a drink or two to lubricate your get-down muscles?
If you are one of those rare souls that is eternally ready to perform at full intensity and proficiency at a moment’s notice, you can ignore this article. For the rest of us humans, I’m here to talk to you about how we should approach warming up our barbell lifts.
General Barbell Warm-Up Guidelines
First, let’s preface that this approach has greater applicability for the “slow” barbell lifts (squat, deadlift, presses, etc.) than the “fast” or Olympic lifts. While the principles apply generally to Olympic lifting, the unpredictability and technical aspect of those lifts means they will be warmed up in a slightly different manner (extended barbell drills, more singles, etc.).
So, here’s the easy part. When we warm up our lifts, we will always start with the empty bar. This is good practice for 500# and 100# squatters alike, for reasons I will delve into later. The only exception to this rule is the deadlift, where light bumper plates are needed to elevate the bar so we can get into a proper starting position. We want to generally take 3 or 4 warm-up sets to get to our working weight. Sometimes, if our work sets are very sub-maximal, we can take slightly less. If we are sore, trying to iron out some wonky movement patterns, or simply have learned that our body responds well to some higher warm-up volume, we can take slightly more. Still, it shouldn’t take much more than a handful of warm-up sets to be ready to rock.
With that in mind, let’s take a theoretical athlete warming up to squat 155x5x3 (to be clear, that’s five reps for three sets). I’ll outline the athlete’s warm-up, and use it to illustrate a few points:
Don’t Let the Appetizer Spoil Your Dinner
First, and most importantly, notice that as the lifter nears their work weight, volume decreases, moving from 5 reps when its light all the way down to 1 when its fairly heavy. You want your warm-up to be just that—something to get you prepared for your work sets, without diminishing from them. While your brain understands the difference between 145 and 155 pounds, your body will distinguish very little between the two as far as fatigue is concerned. In this example, 145 represents 93.5% of the lifter’s working weight. A set of 5 at this weight would amount to that lifter performing something so close in stimulus to their work set that it is operationally indistinguishable. For a novice lifter who is working with very sub-max weights, this might not be a problem. For someone near the end of a linear progression or attempting something relatively challenging, this could be the difference between success and failure. Your last warm-up set is simply to prepare your body and mind for your heaviest weight of the day- your work sets.
Taper Your Jumps
The next thing to consider while looking at our theoretical lifter is that each jump in warm-up weight is slightly smaller than its precedent as the lifter nears their work sets. I’ll do the math for you:
The reasoning behind this is to make sure that as we move towards heavier weights we are being a bit more cautious with our jumps. This could be thought of as the “don’t dive headfirst into the freezing lake” effect.
This doesn’t need to be approached with the precision seen in our example. It is certainly most important for the last warm-up set or two and the jump between your last warm-up and work sets. Truth be told, I had to work backwards and massage the numbers a bit to make sure each jump was smaller than the one before it. When we account for the reality of time constraints, working with partners, and annoying 2.5# plates, this is simply a rough guideline to consider when planning warm-ups.
Know Your Body
Here comes the part when I tell you to that all of the preceding circuitous rambling is highly dependent on personal characteristics, preferences, and experience, and can vary from day to day. For instance, I know I like my last warm-up to be very close to my work weight—within 5 or 10 pounds. Others are more comfortable taking larger jumps, it’s highly personal. Over time you will learn what works for you, and some days you may feel like you need a little extra warm-up, either because you feel sore or cold or because you need some extra practice before “shit gets real.” Listen to your body, consult your journal, and don’t feel too locked into one specific way of doing things. Also, keep in mind that as your strength increases, your relative jumps must increase as well—don’t get stuck making the same jumps, or else you will need to either make a giant leap between warm-up and work sets or take about 9 warm-up sets to get to work weight.
Intention Through Your Warm-Up
Lastly, here’s a thought process to guide your through your warm-ups. The following guiding principles are arranged to be considered in order, from your first warm-up (WITH THE EMPTY BARBELL) through your last warm-up set, and are cumulative—don’t discard them from your thinking as you move forward, simply shift your mental prioritization.
Position: For your first warm-up set, pay attention to your positioning, range-of-motion, and whether each joint action and limb segment is doing what they are supposed to (knees out, wrists straight, etc.). With the empty bar, it is easy and safe to make corrections or even pause in a position to work thing out. Make sure you have done so before moving forward.
Balance: After you add some weight to the barbell for your second warm-up set, you will now be better able to feel slight deviations from balanced position. Pay attention to bar path and where your weight is in your feet throughout the entirety of the lift. The weight is still light enough that you can slow or possibly pause the movement to make corrections. Make sure you are well balanced before your next set.
Tension: As we approach our third set, there should be a moderate amount of weight on the bar, and we can begin to set our intention (‘sup yoga?) to creating tension. Focus on bracing, pulling your ribcage down, and bracing your abs. Make sure your knees are driven out, your shoulders are pulled back, or whatever specific element needs to be tight and packed for your movement.
Focus: This may be the most overlooked, and possibly most important part of your warm-up. Your last set, at a weight that is virtually identical to your work weight, is your dress rehearsal. Now is the time to practice all of the singularity of purpose, tenacity, and heart you will bring to bear for your work sets. Go through your little ritual, stomp and stamp, grip the bar like you’re gonna break it, whatever works for you. Treat it like it weighs more than your work weight. If you do this right, it should feel easy and smooth, and inspire confidence for your work sets. If you are lackadaisical in your approach it will feel heavy and make you feel that much more uneasy about your work. Let it all hang out.
By now you’ve warmed up your synapses, and certainly your eyeballs, by reading this missive. While it may seem unnatural to spend this much time examining what amounts to a simple preparatory period for our work, keep in mind the 7 P’s: Proper Prior Planning Prevents Piss Poor Performance. If performance is our goal (and it is) that planning is our pathway to that goal.
Performance is in red, Competition is in blue, Accessory Work is in orange.
Strength: A) Every 2 minutes, for 8 minutes (4 sets): 3 Snatch-grip deadlifts + 1 Hang Satch
B) Every 4 minutes, for 12 minutes (3 sets): Chinups – 3×3.3.3 – rest 30 seconds between clusters
WOD: 3 sets of
5 min AMRAP
3 Hang Dumbbell Snatch alternating each arm 35/20
6 Hand-Release pushups
9 Russian Swings 55/35
Rest 2 minutes between AMRAPs
Strength: Every 2 minutes, for 12 minutes (6 sets):
Hang Snatch + Snatch
Build over the course of the six sets.
WOD 1: Complete as many round and reps as possible in 7 minutes of:
1 Squat Snatch 135/95,
2 Squat Snatches
3 Squat Snatches
. . . and so on up the ladder. Scale with MU transitions or ring dips.
Rest exactly 5 minutes, and then…
WOD 2: Complete as many rounds and reps as possible in 7 minutes of:
Row 250 Meters
10 Strict Handstand Push-Ups
Three sets, not for time, of:
Kipping Handstand Push-Up x 12-15 reps
(work on rhythm and movement efficiency)
L-Seated Rope Climb x 1-2 ascents
(scale to legless, or 2 standard climbs if you don’t have an L-seated climb)
V-Ups x 15-20 reps
(perform as quickly as possible)