The Science Of The Weightlifting Warm Up

erik ledin warm upHere’s a question I get all the time: Is there one single good way to warm up for weightlifting, or does it not really matter? While the answer is somewhat complicated, in general I would say yes, there’s a right way and a wrong way to go about warming up.

I’m going to describe a theoretical warm up–see if it sounds like you. After some stretches, you get on the bike or treadmill and do five to ten minutes of cardio to get your heart rate up. Then you do a high number of light weight reps (20 reps with just the bar, 15 with a couple waits, 10 with a couple more weights, etc.) before moving on to your work sets. Is this okay? Sure, I guess. Is it what I would recommend? No. Why? I’ll tell you.

Let’s stop for a moment to think about what the purpose of a warm up is, in regards to weightlifting. In this context, the warm up serves two functions:

  1. A neuromuscular rehearsal of the upcoming lift.
  2. An exercise which gets your body used to heavier and heavier loads.

Remember, the more motor units you recruit/activate in a warm up, the more force production will be possible when it’s time for work sets. But high rep warm ups get in your way and prevent maximum strength performance in two ways. First, they cause residual fatigue. Second, they produce lactic acid, reducing the pH of your blood  (increasing acidity) and impairing motor unit recruitment. So while light weight high reps provide a rehearsal for the lift you’re about to do, they tire you out quickly and reduce your maximal strength. What you really want to do is recruit/activate as many motor units as quickly as possible, and the best way to go about doing that is actually heavy weight low rep sets.

What does this look like? Well, say you’re benching 250 pounds. You’d start with 5 reps of 95 pounds, then five reps of 135 pounds, then 3 reps of 185 pounds, then one 225-pound rep, and then start your work set. This way, you accomplish the two purposes of warm ups while simultaneously avoiding the drawbacks of high-rep sets.

If you’re interested in going in this direction, I recommend taking it one step further and using this simple trick: instead of that last 225-pound single rep, try a single that’s even heavier than your work sets. So again, if you’re benching 250 pounds, try a single rep of 275 next time to potentiate your nervous system. Then, when you come back down to 250, you’ll find you have more motor units activated and you’ll be stronger throughout the work sets.