Training Log

Starting Strength in the Real World

Our warm-up is...a warm-up

by Niki Sims, SSC | April 07, 2016

warming up the squat

A warm-up should not be a workout, but it is a very important part of a training session. It literally warms up muscles and associated connective tissues by increasing their temperature, and it prepares the neuromuscular system for the task ahead.

It is very important that a warm-up prepares you for the work set, but does not steal from it. The reps of a work set are the ones that matter. These reps provide the stress that, if the appropriate recovery occurs, will generate the desired strength adaptation.

A good warm-up will ramp you up without wearing you down and the best way to do that is simulate the movement you’ll be doing as closely as possible by actually doing the movement, the only difference being the amount of weight used. This means that to warm-up for a squat, you should squat!

There is no shortage of “internet science” out there telling you that you need to ROMWOD for hours a day, but when it comes to efficient and effective training, sitting at the bottom of a squat or flossing for 10 minutes is not nearly as productive or beneficial as 10 more minutes of sleep, more rest between sets or time spent getting your girlfriend off….of the treadmill.

So, what is the best way to get ready for your work set?

You can start with up to 5 minutes on a bike or a rowing machine, to “get the juices flowing” or if you’re feeling cold. Choose these pieces of equipment over others, such as a treadmill or elliptical, as the range of motion better mimics that of the squats you’re about to do.

Then, rather than stretching for 30 minutes, get under an empty bar and squat it for a set of 5. Foam roll or take a lacrosse ball to nagging areas for just a couple minutes if it makes you feel happier, then take the bar for another set of 5. If you are older, creakier, or more injured, repeat this for up to 3 more sets. The range of motion may not be there for these empty bar sets, but assuming you have proper form and coaching, a loaded bar will change that.

After the empty bar, take 3-5 more sets to warm-up and get to your work weight. Choose reasonable jumps all the way up so that you are not squatting something really close to your work weight. For example, if you are going to squat 275x5x3 for your work set today, 260x5 for your last warm-up is not a good choice as it could rob some of the energy you need to complete 275x5x3.

For the same reason, there is no need to do more than 5 reps during a set. Don’t blow your load with 135x10. It’s not a first date – you actually do want to save something for later.

A novice early on in training would benefit by warming-up with sets of 5 up to the work set, as it further reinforces motor pathways, but beyond that, tapering the reps over 3-5 sets to a double or single as a last warm-up is suggested. The more advanced you are and the heavier the weight gets, the more sets (with more taper) you’ll take to get up to your work set. But in few cases are more than 5 sets after the empty bar necessary or productive. 

Let’s use our 275x5x3 Squat as an example for a suggested warm-up:

  • Erg for 3 minutes
  • EB (Empty Bar) x5
  • Foam roll legs because it feels nice
  • EBx5
  • 95x5
  • 145x3
  • 190x2
  • 235x2
  • Work set - 275x5x3

Notice that the jumps in weight between the earlier warm-up sets are slightly higher than at the end. The difference between 275lbs and 45lbs is 230, and across 5 jumps, that’s 46lbs. We’ve slightly front-loaded the weight distribution between the difference of the work weight and that of the empty bar so that you’re not taking a large jump between your last warm-up and first work set.

The bench and the press will follow a similar protocol, beginning with 1 or more sets on the empty bar and relatively even increases up to the work set while tapering the reps down.

However, the deadlift will be a little different because we don’t start with an empty bar. At this point in your session you are already warm and do not need multiple sets to get you ready. Also, we want to warm the deadlift up with plates on the bar. If you use an empty bar, you are effectively doing a different exercise by changing the range of motion to something too much or too little, and instead of pulling from a dead stop, like you do with plates on, you are starting with an eccentric contraction in the primary movers.

If your work set is less than 135x5, your first warm-up should be 65x5. When your work set is 185x5, make your first warm-up 95x5. In both of these cases, you will need full-diameter plates lighter than the 45lb/20kg plates, like bumper plates or plastic training plates. When you are pulling above 225 for your work set, start with 135x5.

No need to do multiple sets of our “empty bar” here. Make even jumps with tapered reps up to your work set. For example, say you are deadlifting 335x5 today, your warm-up would look like this:

  • 135x5
  • 185x5
  • 235x3
  • 285x2
  • 335x5

Use warm-ups to get ready for the work set. Treat each rep like the work set in terms of focus and practice. Do not carelessly plow through them, but rather use them to refine your lift and utilize cues from your coach. And be sure to plan your jumps and reps so you have enough battery left for your work sets – the reps that make you stronger.

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