An often overlooked component of strength training is the stuff you do prior to lifting a heavy barbell: your warm-up before lifting weights. Even though the benefits of a warm-up are oftentimes underrated, it’s not necessary to spend 20+ minutes doing all types of stretches and cardiovascular exercises. The main goal of a warm-up is to prepare you to lift heavy weights, not fatigue you. So your warm-up shouldn’t feel like a workout in itself.
Fundamentally, a warm-up should be short and to the point so that you can achieve all the benefits of a proper warm-up while preserving your energy for lifting heavy weights.
If we look at the current body of literature, we see three main benefits of using an effective warm-up routine:
In this article, we will cover how you should warm-up before lifting so that you can achieve these benefits and get the most out of your workouts. The way we are going to tackle this is by dividing the warm-up routine into three distinct phases: the general warm-up, dynamic warm-up, and the sport-specific warm-up.
The General Warm-up
Once you step into the gym, your body temperature is generally still low. When the goal is to maximize your strength potential in training, one of the first things we should seek to do is increase body temperature.
An increased body temperature has several benefits that are particularly useful for strength training. A higher body temperature results in increased muscle blood flow. This increases the oxygen availability and nutrient delivery to muscles, which basically helps your muscles generate more energy during exercise.
This helps explain why research shows that the rate at which your muscles contract increases when your body temperature is increased.
The most efficient way to increase your body temperature is through aerobic exercise. There’s no need to complicate this. Something as simple as going for a short run on the treadmill or cycling on the stationary bike at a moderate-intensity is effective.
Now, it’s worth mentioning again that a warm-up should not to fatigue you. So keep this phase as short as needed for you to perceive a change in body temperature and mental readiness to train. Considering a warm-up should be short and that we have two warm-up phases to go, doing only 3-5 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise should be sufficient.
After the general warm-up, it’s useful to incorporate a few minutes of relatively explosive dynamic stretching. Dynamic stretches are stretches that involve movement to improve your range of motion. Think about stretches like arm swings and leg kicks.
Dynamic stretches are particularly useful for strength training because they help improve your mobility without negatively influencing your performance. The opposite applies to static stretching, a multitude of studies show static stretching before training negatively influences strength performance.
The main reason dynamic stretches have no negative effect on strength performance is that dynamic stretches are specific to the strength exercises you will be performing shortly after your warm-up. During a dynamic stretch, you go through the motions explosively, similar to the way you produce force during strength training.
Static stretches have more of a relaxing effect on a muscle. After static stretching, the elastic energy of a muscle decreases and its stretch-reflex is compromised (basically, the muscle contracts less forcefully).
Now, this is not to say you can’t do any static stretches. If your static stretches are shorter than 30 seconds, performance is minimally affected. Also, if you wait 10 minutes after doing a static stretch, strength performance recovers again for the most part. So if you feel the need to do static stretching, you can still incorporate it if you consider these points.
But if possible, it’s likely beneficial if you only perform a few dynamic stretches during your dynamic warm-up. In the table below, you can see an example full-body dynamic warm-up.
If you feel like you need more mobility work after your dynamic stretching, consider additional foam rolling. Foam rolling a tight muscle group can increase the range of motion of that muscle without impairing performance.
When it comes to strength training, a sport-specific warm-up essentially refers to your warm-up sets.
For example, say you plan on performing 3 sets of 8 reps on the bench press. Instead of immediately loading the bar to your max weight after your dynamic stretches, it’s generally a good idea to have 2-3 warm-up sets. During these 2-3 warm-up sets, you gradually build up to your working weight and practice the movement that you will perform.
Generally, I’d only use a warm-up set on the first one or two exercises you perform since that’s when you need the physical and mental preparation for lifting heavy loads the most. Also during the sport-specific warm-up, it’s important you do not fatigue yourself. Below you can see a simple warm-up structure I use with most of my clients.
Once you’ve finished your sport-specific warm-up, it’s time to shift your focus on the training program you have and performing at your best.
If we take all three warm-up phases into consideration, your warm-up will likely last around 5-10 minutes in total. There’s generally no need to spend much more time in your warm-up before lifting.
Key Takeaways + Example Warm-Up Routine
- A warm-up has specific performance and injury prevention benefits for strength trainees.
- A warm-up should be divided into three distinct phases: a general, dynamic, and sport-specific warm-up.
- Keep each warm-up phase short and to the point. A warm-up should prep your for training, not fatigue you. Aim for 5-10 min for your complete warm-up.
Based on this article, you can design your own warm-up routine before lifting that suits your needs and preferences best. If you would like to have a complete example warm-up routine, subscribe to my weekly mailing list and I’ll send it to you!