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Scenario: you’re late to the gym, you perform a poor warm-up and get straight to the bench press.
Isn’t it funny that your shoulders get really sore after a workout? What a coincidence.
In most cases, people warm-up – but not the right way, and it’s underestimated.
Most bodybuilders don’t give their warm-ups the time they deserve. It’s not exciting, but it does give you more time in the game and better joint health, it helps control your response to exercise, and it’s a great way to practice movement. That means better results over time.
Today we’re covering the basics of warming up – specifically for physique and bodybuilding training where you’re trying to build muscle. We’re not covering anything outlandish like crazy training styles or exercises, but the theory and practical use of warm-ups.
After this article, I hope you will appreciate your warm-ups more, see how they fit into your long-term development, and make them an everyday habit for your workouts.
1- Why warming up is important (real warm ups!)
Warming up is your friend and helps you build muscle consistently and effectively over time. It’s somewhere between a great way of handling the negative impacts of exercise and improving the positive ones in the long-run.
Most people see warm-up as a chore. “I’ve got to warm up (sigh…)”.
Would you view warming up the same way if I told you it made you better at those important movements? Wouldn’t you be happier to warm-up?
It’s not that warming up helps you build muscle directly, but it helps you build muscle better: a good warm-up helps you perform a better session, meaning you maximise your stimulus and build more muscle.
It also takes the edge off of your recovery and DOMS to move effectively through full ranges. This can really add up from session to session and improve your repeated performances – the key to real gains.
Warming up gradually helps you assess how you feel on a certain day, it gives you time to think about your training and movement and offers more time to practice technique.
It also prevents you from getting injured, from getting chronic pain in the long term, which also means building more muscle in the long term – since you won’t have to stop lifting because of injuries or any other issues. It’s not just about good workouts – it’s about consistent series’ of good workouts with good recovery.
When you start your working sets – the heavy ones – you will perform much better when you have warmed up than when you haven’t. This also extends out to other types of warm ups like mobility, isometric, and explosive drills to help improve control and force-output.
These are the main two things we will want to remember from this article:
- warming up helps you perform better during your workouts, and
- warming up helps you reduce injury risk in the long term
Crucially, you can split warming up into two distinct parts that help you get the most of it…
2) Warming up: two sides of it
Warm-up comes down to more than just warming up physically before you start your session.
Warming up ”mentally” also prepares your mindset through a process of self-talk and visualization. It offers a chance to reflect on the things you need to work and the key changes that will define a good session.
Most people neglect the mental benefits of the warm-up and will often reduce it to just stretching the muscles and helping the joints.
Here, I want to make your warm-up process more interesting, because one of the main reasons people don’t warm up is because they don’t like it, “it’s boring”. They simply don’t fully understand the benefits behind good warm-ups or – perhaps – how to do it right.
If I can highlight those now, I’m sure you could change your mind and actually start implementing great warm-ups and enjoy their process!
a) Warming up physically
At a physical level, warming up is about improving movement freedom in the joints and muscles.
It prepares them to move better by activating them and increasing efficiency through practice. Your nervous system and muscles work better together after some movement, while joints are protected by increased movement of synovial fluid.
You’re certainly lifting heavier weights and performing better once you have warmed up than not. You’d need a warm-up for things like sprinting, for football, or for tennis – and weight training is no different.
Warming up physically will come to taking physical action using the same tools (weights, resistance, etc.) as you will use for your working sets. The difference is taking your time with them to practice the movement and shake off the stiffness at the start of an exercise.
You will want to warm up the muscle groups you’re using and others that assist them. For example, you’d warm up the shoulders, chest, and upper back for a bench press – with shoulder circles and band pull-aparts.
If you don’t give yourself enough time to warm up properly, then you’re not serious about your training. You don’t need to do cardio before a session – just move the appropriate muscles and practice the movement.
While you’re warming up physically, something you can do meanwhile is to warm up mentally, starting to raise your awareness of the session you’re about to do…
b) Warming up mentally
There probably aren’t many other articles out there talking about warming up mentally but it’s something real athletes take seriously.
When you start preparing yourself mentally for a gym session and become actively aware of the risk of injury, you help reduce your personal risk. This realisation has helped me a lot in my own journey, so I wanted to share it with you.
Most people we can see who have suffered injuries in the past have said it comes in the moments you least expect it or when you’re “going through the motions”.
You are tired after work, you walk into the gym on autopilot and jump straight to heavyweights. This is where you start feeling tight, stiff, and a little uncoordinated and, before you know it, you hear a pop or pull a muscle.
To illustrate my point about warming-up mentally, it’s just like when you focus yourself before attempting a PB. Everyone likes to close their eyes and take a minute to prepare, but why are you only trying with the top weights?
The best athletes treat every single rep and every single set like the heaviest, most challenging. They give them the seriousness they deserve because the way you practice is the way you perform when the pressure is on.
The goal isn’t to be anxious and worry all the time you could be injured. The goal is to be minimally aware of it – to understand what you should be doing and give yourself the right practice.
You get injured more when you’re on auto-pilot, so make sure to warm your mind up and get in the ‘zone’ when you’re warming up!
Here is how you can implement some of the mental habits of warming up:
- Think about your gym session as you travel in, remembering things you need to work on.
- Take 30 seconds to focus in between the sets to remind yourself you’re about to lift some heavy weights
- Talk yourself through the order of the workout and visualise the movements
- Think about which muscles are doing the work and feel the movement in yourself
You’ll be more aware and in the present moment which will help you prevent from doing silly mistakes leading to injuries. These add up over time and really offer a long-term ritual that helps you get training right more consistently and improve your mental game.
3) The biggest warm up mistakes even advanced lifters make
Let’s get into the nitty gritty details.
Just doing a warm-up doesn’t mean you’re using your warm-up properly to improve your performance. That just leads you to complacency and then you get injured because you were doing it wrong. That’s the main issue, when you think you’re doing it well but in fact not.
By the time you realise it, it’s usually too late, that’s the injury letting you know you’ve been doing things wrong for too long…
a- Not being gradual enough in your warm-up
The reason you’re injured or have chronic pains after years of training: you warm up, but not well. You’re impatient and rush through it.
For sure, there are so many factors responsible for injuries, so it’s not all about warming-up. But since we’re talking about warm-up, it’s important to focus on what you can do with a warm-up and the difference between good and bad.
From experience, for myself, and others that I’ve observed, I am almost sure that bad warm ups in the long term will result in chronic pain after a few years of training. This is the case mainly when people feel pain but can’t put their finger on where it came from, developing gradually over time.
Not being patient is the main issue why people don’t warm-up well. They go from cold to hot too fast and skip the best benefits of the warm-up.
When you multiply this behavior by hundreds of times, it’s easy to see why it can result in pain, particularly in the joints, articulations, like around the rotator cuff.
Elbows hurt, shoulders hurt…
There are a lot of people lifting extremely heavy weights but complaining about pain.
In my opinion, this is (in part) because they warm up too fast, hundreds of times over the years, and it adds up to cause issues. As we will see, being able to bench press 180kg doesn’t mean that you should jump from the bar to 120kg to 180kg.
It’s easy to see why a lot of advanced people feel chronic pain and do not know where it comes from. When almost every session they’ll under-practice during warm-ups and overlook these light weights because they’re “not heavy enough”.
A lot of people like to say not getting injured comes from lucky genes but that’s just not true. In reality, there is a chance that a good warm-up before each session will help you stay injury-free over the years, and it hasn’t got anything to do with genetics – that’s just an excuse. Which gene codes for being lazy?
b- Thinking they’ll be tired if they warm up too much (or gradually)
People will tell me, “don’t have 20 minutes to warm up when my session lasts 1h”.
But that’s just missing the point: you don’t need a 20-minute warm-up. You need to put a pace on a few sets of smart warm-ups like mobility and activation work.
I like to think of my warm-up as proportional to the duration of my workout. If I workout 3 hours I’ll warm up 20+ minutes, If I work out 1h I’ll try and warm up within 5-10 minutes.
With the techniques I will give you, you’ll be able to warm-up quickly and gradually at the same time! The perfect combo that people don’t think can go together, basically “slowly” and quickly” at the same time, interesting right?
That’s right, we’re making warm-ups interesting today.
c- Not thinking long term for longevity
Longevity is an important factor. This everyday habit will result in greater results. Paying attention to your warm-up everyday and doing it well means long-term gains and health.
People who don’t like warming-up feel like they’re wasting their time, and it’s easy to see why.
It’s hard to see the long term vision and stick to something which might not show benefits straight away. It’s easy to forget that this everyday micro work is important for the long term – it’s not about one warm-up, it’s about 100s over the course of years.
That’s why reframing that warming up is important is something you should do after reading this article. Because it actually has a direct effect on the quality of your workout right after, and this changes of how you think about your warm-up is a huge deal for the quality it brings to your training.
4) Warming up properly
a. Easing into your working sets
Dedicating more time to an incremental warm-up is the best approach.
This needs to follow a few simple principles to make it effective:
- Never jump more than around 25% of your 1-rep-max
- Each jump in weight should be smaller than the one before – or the same size
- Make sure you’re using at least 3-4 sets to warm up for your working sets
- Use at least half as many reps in your warm-up as your working set (e.g. using sets of 3+ reps when warming up for a set of 6)
Experiment with adding pauses and slow movements to improve movement-feel
However in the long term, even if you do not train long hours, it can only be more beneficial and safer. If for example you hurt yourself due to not warming up properly, you will have to take much more time out of training to recover.
Having an efficient warm-up will strike a balance between preventing injury and optimizing your time in the gym. Just like that, a warm-up also has to provide a balance of gradual and quick – it has to be time-efficient without compromising on effects.
Here’s how we do tha
b- Get the feel of it
Another good reason to warming-up gradually: understanding how you feel and getting a better estimation of what you can do today.
By getting the feel of it, you can assess how you feel on a given day.
By warming up in a gradual way every time, you know what 100kg for 1 rep should feel like and then 110kg and so on. If one day, when you do your single 130kg rep warm-up on your way to 150kg and it feels tougher than usual, you can tell that you won’t be at your best. This allows you to autoregulate: changing your session as you need to get the best from it.
Based on this assessment you will not push yourself to go as heavy as usual, avoiding risks. If you warm-up with big jumps, from 0 to 60kg, then 60kg to 100kg, to 150kg, it is harder to judge how you are feeling on your way up to 150kg and you’re not going to have time to adjust to what will offer the best results on the day.
c- Warming up both gradually and quickly at the same time.
My approach to warming up is getting the blood in, activating the muscles with light weight and high reps – they don’t tire you before your working sets, then go heavier.
You don’t get the blood in with heavy weights, you do it with light weights. And you don’t stretch the muscle enough with light weight and keep building tension without increasing the load.
What does it mean?
Basically, that means light warm up sets for high reps and heavier weight for lower reps.
You will basically be very gradual in your warm up, jumping to additional 10kg using lower reps (around 50% of your working set) to warm up and improve overall workout volume.
You can take a minute to a minute and a half between your warm-up sets. And because you’re staying at low repetitions, you won’t tire yourself and a minute and a half rest is enough.
We’ll look at an example below.
d- An example in practice
This is an example of warming-up for benching. Imagine you are working your way up to a single 150kg repetition, here is what you could do:
3 x empty bar, 20 reps
(Lateral raises with 2kg plates)
1 x 40kg bar, 15 reps
(Lateral raises with 2kg plates)
1 x 60kg bar, 8 reps
(Lateral raises with 2kg plates)
1 x 80kg bar, 3 reps
(Lateral raises with 2kg plates)
1 x 90kg, 1 rep
(Lateral raises with 2kg plates)
1 x 100, 1 rep
1×110, 1 rep
1×120 1 rep
1x 130 1 rep
1×140 1 rep
150kg working set
Increasing each rep by 10kg: all the way up to 150kg. If you are in a hurry, you can cut out some increases. As long as you do the light but long sets and some of the heavier warming up sets, you’ll get a similar effect.
Don’t forget to prepare mentally at the same time you warm-up physically, and to focus on the working sets you’re about to do! You are assessing your mental and physical state with each increase – and each set needs to be deliberate.
As mentioned above, you are being very gradual, but not tiring yourself out because you are only doing 1 rep from 100kg onwards. You’re being gradual by increasing the weights slowly without tiring yourself.
By following a strict structure consistently, it also offers you a clear picture of your progress. If you would like to learn more about this, check out the article “Stick to your bodybuilding routine to avoid stagnation! Here’s why”
So next time you’re tempted to skip a decent warm-up, try to think of the direct benefits to your session and the long-term benefits!
Here are the most important lessons I want you to take home from this article:
- Get focused to perform well in your session
- Get your muscle physically prepared for your heavy lifts with light, efficient warm-ups
- Use your warm-up sets to assess how you feel and if you need to change your workout
- Warming up improves your life over the long-term, mostly, where it supports better recovery over hundreds of sessions over the years
- Warm-up sets are practice and deserve just as much attention as the heavy sets!
I hope this article was useful and, if it was, share it around – you might just save your friends joints!
You might also be interested in our article “How many reps to build muscle naturally?”
If you have any questions, let us know in the comments and we will make sure to answer!