Why Warm Up?
The ultimate goal of a warm-up is simple. We want to prepare for our lift by increasing blood flow, activating the muscles, and testing proper positioning. Ideally, we want to keep our warm-up short and sweet.
We never want to arrive at the gym and jump right into our lift. To start, it’s never a bad idea to quite literally “get warm” to kick off your workout. Try starting with 3-5 minutes of cardio and a few minutes of stretching. A little goes a long way here! As long as we get our heart rate up and we’re feeling warm, we’re probably ready to start our actual workout.
The Optimal Balance
Excessively warming up or doing too much mobility or stretching can actually create unnecessary fatigue that may negatively impact your workout. Too much stretching could also make our joints a little unstable and may decrease our power or force output during the lift. We’re really looking for an optimal balance between getting warm, getting in proper positions, and tending to any specific restrictions you might have due to an injury or other limitation.
How to Pick Your Weights
There are tons of programs out there that use a percentage-based system to determine how much weight should be lifted for a specific movement (i.e. use 70% of your 1-rep max for this set of 5 bench press reps). Unfortunately, this method doesn’t always align with our body’s needs on that specific day. Because percentage work doesn’t account for how we feel, what are we supposed to do when life inevitably happens and we feel beat down? Using this method isn’t going to be very forgiving in our training.
Now, let’s say we’re lifting based on how we feel and proper form. We’ll see much better outcomes if we pick our weights according to our body’s needs and the stimulus we aim to reach with that lift. With this in mind, we recommend choosing weights based on Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) or Repetitions in Reserve (RIR).
Let’s Break This Down
Think of RPE as a spectrum where 10 = maximum effort, lifting to failure. That means RPE 1 = little to no effort required to move the weight. In most programs, we’re likely aiming to hit an RPE between 7-8, meaning the weights are challenging but not so challenging that we have to compromise speed, technique, and/or form to move it.
Now, if we want to use RIR instead, we might look at this differently. RIR can also be thought of as “repetitions until failure.” For example, if we’re looking for a stimulus that’s 2-3 RIR, or 2-3 reps from failure, this means we shouldn’t be red-lining or buckling under the weight and failing (that’s more like 0-1 RIR). Using 2-3 RIR should feel challenging, but overall form and movement patterns should be strong. Thought another way: at the end of our set, we miiiight have been able to squeeze out a rep or two more. This is the sweet spot we are looking for as we progress in our workout program (:
Warm-Up Sets vs Working Sets
We never want to walk into the gym, throw the day’s working weight on the bar, and knock out our back squat reps. Instead, we want to start with a few sets and reps to get us to our working weight for the day.
Warm-up sets are exactly what you think they are. We want to slowly increase our weights from body weight to our working weight (i.e. the sets that are RPE 7-8 or 2-3 RIR). It’s important to note that warm-up sets are often not prescribed in the actual workout programming. That means warming up properly requires some discipline. If you’re in a hurry, it may be tempting to bang out our working sets without a proper warm-up. If you’re staying light, this might be okay. However, going heavy without moving some light weight first can easily lead to injury.
Our warm-up sets allow us to estimate the proper working weight and feel the proper positioning for the specific lift. Now, as we said earlier, we don’t want to be doing too many warm-up sets. We want to avoid feeling too fatigued to hit that challenging working weight when we get there. As a general rule of thumb, try to get between 2-4 warm-up sets that increase in weight.
When reading your workout for the day, you will see a list of sets and reps for various lifts. For example, you might see a workout prescribing 3 sets of 10-12 reps for bench press. These sets would be considered the “working sets” for that lift. That means we are completing these working sets AFTER we do some reps and sets at our progressive warm-up weights. These working sets are the sets where we want to hit RPE 7-8 or 2-3 RIR.
Does All of This Still Sound Confusing?
Let’s see a little visualization of what this might look like when put into practice.
Disclaimer: as with any fitness advice, the best warm-up is the one that works best for your body and your workout. Just because someone has a sexy warm-up routine doesn’t mean that’s the best routine for you. Test a few different options until you find one that fits your needs. Also, don’t be afraid to switch things up depending on the workout!