Many people are confused about warming up. Rightfully so. There are many misconceptions stemming probably from movies, where they always seem to get warmed up by stretching for a couple of seconds. Although stretching is great, doing it cold as preparation for lifting is dangerous. Doing some cardio before lifting weights is a great start to warming up but it’s not enough by itself.
As a general rule, adequate warm-up consists of sets at 50%, 70%, and 85% of your 8 rep weight. The goal of warming up is to prepare the joints for heavy loads during a workout. This is why stretching before a workout is not an adequate warm-up for strength training.
If that does seem like a lot, don’t worry! There is no need to warm up for single every exercise of your workout plan. That would be a waste of time. Just choose the biggest compound exercise for the body parts you want to exercise that day and do the warm-up sets for those.
Exercises to use for warm-up sets
An isolation exercise (moving only 1 joint and mainly 1 muscle group) is not recommended as a warmup exercise. Compound exercises are much more suited to getting your body warmed up for heavy loads. Those are exercises where two or more joints are rotating at the same time, activating multiple muscle groups and stabilizing muscles.
Simply choose the “biggest” compound exercise matching the workout you need to warm up for. Just pick the one you can do the most weight on. For example, if you are doing a chest or push-type workout consisting of bench press, incline press, and dumbbell flys then use the bench press as the warmup exercise. If your chest workout is dumbbell press and dumbbell flys, then choose dumbbell press for your warmup. While bench press uses 2 joints (shoulder and elbows), flys only mobilize your shoulders.
For a pull-type workout (back & biceps) your go-to warm-up exercise will likely be lat pulldowns or rows, both using shoulders and elbows.
With leg day, the “biggest” exercise will be the one that works your quads. Squats, leg press, or lunges whichever you happen to be doing. What I have been doing for years now is get on a stationary bike for 5-10 minutes and increase the resistance gradually. By the end, my legs are burning and ready for some weights.
So, cycling is not only great cardio but also a great warm-up for leg day in the gym. You can even mount a regular saddle on a cardio bike for more comfort.
Warm-up for split workout plans
What if you are not doing a full-body workout? Now, if you are doing a split workout rather than a full-body workout just warm up the affected body parts. For example, to warm up for a “pull-workout” just do lat pulldowns. Similarly, for a push workout, just do bench presses or even push-ups to ease into bench pressing.
If you are doing a 5-day split with just one exercise per body part then your warmup will be a bit different, especially for arms. When you work out arms, it’s almost 100% isolation exercises so for that workout you will be using your primary isolation exercise for a warmup.
The goal of warming up is to keep you from getting injured while lifting. The older you get, the longer it takes to warm up properly for heavy lifting. Warming up is about preparing your muscles and your joints for the heavy loads they are about to experience. The older you are, the longer it takes to warm up. For an 18-year-old, a 2-3 minute warmup might be enough but for someone over 30 like myself, a much longer warmup is required.
Warming up for younger weight lifters (under 30)
If you are warming up to do a full-body workout then three warmup compound exercises will be all you need. Those could be bench press, lat pulldowns, and squats (for example). Do one set at 50% of your normal weight for 12-20 slow reps. This is also great for activation of the affected muscle groups. You can literally feel them come alive for those 20 reps. Next, go up to 70% of your normal weight and back down to 10-15 slow reps. No need to rest between warmup sets for any longer than it takes to change weights.
I would not recommend you do all the warmups at the beginning of the workout. That’s just not very time efficient. Rather warm up as you go. If you are starting your full-body workout with legs, only do the squats warm-up first. So all 3 sets of roughly 50%, 70%, and 85% back-to-back.
When it’s your turn to do your push exercises later in the workout, go to the bench press warm-up. That way you save a lot of racking and unracking of weights. And more importantly, you can go from warm-up straight into your workout for that body part.
If for some reason (feeling funky that day, colder temperatures, …) you feel not quite ready to push your 100% weight yet, don’t hesitate to put in another 1-3 sets at around 70% or 80% to shake off any doubt before going all in.
Warming up for older weight lifters (above 30)
Ok, now let’s talk about the old dudes (and dudettes) like myself. As I mentioned, the older you are, the longer it takes to warm up – especially the joints. It can take me 20 minutes or more to get my knees ready for a leg workout.
For older folks, doing 5-10 minutes of cardio is a great way to start – make sure to break a sweat, don’t just spin your legs while reading the paper – push it! Then start your warmup sets, same as for a younger person. The difference is that you don’t rush it, you start at a lower percentage of your max – say 25%. You also move up in weight slower and do more sets.
Let your joints be your guide. Don’t rush the warmup, wait till you feel good and ready before you hit that first heavy set. If it takes 30 minutes to get your legs and knees feeling like they can do your first set then that’s just the way it is. Rushing into your first heavy set before your body is ready for it will likely only get you hurt.