Warm Up Sets – Warming Up For Weight Training Exercises

One of the most overlooked aspects of a workout routine is the warm up.

In terms of weight training, there’s primarily 2 different forms of warming up that people tend to neglect or just screw up altogether:

  1. The General Pre-Workout Warm Up
    This refers to the overall warm up that takes place before the workout actually begins. For example, this may include cardio/aerobic activity, stretching (statically and/or dynamically), foam rolling and/or various forms of mobility work.
  2. The Specific Pre-Exercise Warm up
    This refers to the warm up sets being done before the weight training exercises themselves. For example, if you were going to bench press 200lbs, you’d typically do warm up sets using progressively heavier weight as you work your way up to 200lbs.

While both are definitely important for different reasons, today I want to focus specifically on the second item on that list: warm up sets.

Let’s figure out their purpose and goals, how many sets to do, how much weight to use, and which weight training exercises do and do not actually need warm up sets in the first place.

Why Do I Need To Do Warm Up Sets?

In order to properly understand the purpose of warm up sets, there’s a recommendation you need to hear first.

And that is, for the majority of the population, the first real work set of every exercise you do should always be with your heaviest weight.

What that means is, I recommend that most people either use straight sets (where you use the same weight for all of your sets of an exercise), or a reverse pyramid/descending ramp (where you start with your heaviest weight and then reduce the weight from set to set).

In either scenario, your first set still ends up being as heavy as you will be going on that specific exercise.

What I don’t recommend however is a traditional pyramid set structure (where you start with something like 100lbs, then go to 110lbs, then 120lbs, etc.), where you essentially use your real work sets as warm up sets.

There are exceptions of course, but for most people, this is a completely idiotic and counterproductive way to train. More about that here: Pyramid Sets vs Reverse Pyramid Training vs Straight Sets

Now back to my point…

Since most of us will always be starting off each exercise with our heaviest working weight, there won’t be any lighter work sets leading up to our heavier/heaviest work sets… we will just be jumping right in from the very first set.

For this reason, a proper warm up set sequence is absolutely crucial.

The Goals Of Warm Up Sets

Now, here is where people start to screw things up. They understand the reason for warming up, they just don’t understand the goals… and that leads to all sorts of dumb stuff being done.

Specifically, the goals of warm up sets are as follows:

  • To allow us to prepare the target muscle(s).
  • To allow us to prepare the joints being used.
  • To allow us to prepare our central nervous system.
  • To allow us to prepare mentally.
  • To accomplish all of the above WITHOUT creating unnecessary fatigue.

With all of that in mind, the most common recommendation for optimally accomplishing everything on that list is to:

Perform a series of progressively heavier sets that will get pretty close to our actual working weight, while using fewer and fewer reps as we go to avoid fatiguing ourselves before we even begin.

Most people grasp the “progressively heavier sets” part of that, but they miss the second part about avoiding fatigue.

That’s why one of the most common stupid things people do when warming up is perform a bunch of sets of anywhere from 10-20 reps per set.

What they are primarily doing here is just tiring themselves out with warm up sets and creating a ton of unnecessary fatigue (which is why traditional pyramid sets suck for most people) while at the same time doing little to actually accomplish what we are hoping to accomplish by warming up.

I’ve personally been there and done that myself back in the day, where I basically turned my warm up sequence into a full on workout by doing a bunch of sets of 10-12.

By the time I got to my first actual work set, I was (unknowingly) significantly fatigued and my performance (unknowingly) suffered for it.

The Proper Warm Up Sequence

What eventually happened in my case is that I instinctively started experimenting with my warm up sets to try to find something better, and I ended up coming upon a sequence that I later realized was extremely close to what a lot of experts recommend.

What is that warm up sequence, you ask?

Well, for most of the people, most of the time, it should go something along the lines of this:

  1. Start off with 1 VERY light set of 10-15 reps. For this set you’d usually use just the bar (with no weight on it) or some VERY light dumbbells if it was a dumbbell exercise. If it’s a machine exercise, you’d put on some equally light and easy/insignificant amount of weight.
  2. The next set, do 8 reps using 55-60% of the actual weight you will be using during your actual work sets for this exercise. So, if your first work set was going to be with 200lbs, you’d use 110-120lbs for this set.
  3. The next set, do 5 reps using 70-75% of the actual weight you will be using during your actual work sets for this exercise. So again, if your first work set was going to be with 200lbs, you’d use 140-150lbs for this set.
  4. The set after that, do 3 reps using 80-85% of the actual weight you will be using during your actual work sets for this exercise. So once again, if your first work set was going to be with 200lbs, you’d use 160-170lbs for this set.
  5. And for your final warm up set, do just 1 rep using 90-95% of the actual weight you will be using during your actual work sets for this exercise. So, using the same example, if your first work set was going to be with 200lbs, you’d use 180-190lbs for this set.
  6. You’d then rest for whatever the prescribed amount of rest time is for that exercise, and then begin your first work set.

To make that even clearer, here’s a pretty chart…

The Proper Weight Training Warm Up Sequence

Set Weight Reps Rest
#1 Just the bar/very light dumbbells. 10-15 45-60 seconds
#2 55-60% of the weight you will be using for this exercise. 8 45-60 seconds
#3 70-75% of the weight you will be using for this exercise. 5 45-60 seconds
#4 80-85% of the weight you will be using for this exercise. 3 45-60 seconds
#5 90-95% of the weight you will be using for this exercise. 1 Full Amount

As you can see, you’d typically take about 45-60 seconds between each warm up set. There’s really no special set amount of time, but usually the time it takes to casually change the weight, catch your breath (if it needs to be caught) and get into position will last about 45-60 seconds anyway, so something similar to that would be perfectly sufficient.

Really, as long as you’re not rushing or taking forever you’ll be fine.

And then, after your final warm up set, you should rest for whatever that exercise’s regularly prescribed rest time is, and then begin your first work set.

Why Is This Warm Up Sequence So Ideal?

Because it allows us to accomplish everything that needs to be accomplished. Simple as that.

We get to warm up the muscles and joints being used, and we get to prepare the nervous system for the stress it’s about to be under (which basically prevents the first work set from feeling surprisingly heavy).

We also do enough to get a really good feel and groove (both physically and mentally) for the exercise we are about to perform, and we do it all with low reps so we never come close to causing unnecessary fatigue.

Sounds pretty ideal to me.

Is This The EXACT Way EVERYONE Should ALWAYS Warm Up?

While the overall structuring of this warm up sequence is pretty close to ideal in most cases, there are some notes and exceptions.

Here are the main ones that come to mind:

  • Strength Levels. The heavier the weight being lifted for a given exercise, the more warm up sets you’ll typically need. The opposite is true as well (the lighter the weight, the less warming up you’ll need). Meaning, someone bench pressing 275lbs would need more warm up sets than someone bench pressing 135lbs. Or, if you want to look at it from the other point of view, the person bench pressing 135lbs just doesn’t need as many warm up sets to work up to their lesser weight.
  • Experience Levels. This goes hand-in-hand with the first item on this list, but it’s worth giving a separate mention. Beginners are typically weaker than intermediate and advanced trainees. Therefore, beginners wouldn’t need as many of the heavier warm up sets as someone more advanced would. (So for example, sets #4 and/or #5 in the warm up sequence outlined above might not be as necessary for a beginner.)
  • Rep Range and Training Intensity. Warm up sets may also need to be adjusted based on the rep range and level of weight training intensity being used. Meaning, if you’re bench pressing for 4 sets of 6 reps, you’ll be using a heavier weight than you would if you were bench pressing for 3 sets of 12 reps, and more or less warming up may be needed or preferred in comparison.
  • Specific Exercises. The type of exercise being done might also warrant changes to how you warm up. For example, a harder/more technical exercise like barbell squats might require a more thorough warm up sequence than something like leg presses.

Really, warm up sets are not an exact science where one method is universally perfect for everyone on all weight training exercises and at every level of strength and experience.

Some people benefit from more sets, some from less. Some from heavier weight, some from lighter. Feel free to experiment (if needed) to find exactly what feels best for you.

For the majority of the population however, something similar to what I described above is what’s most ideal and most often recommend.

Should I Be Warming Up Like This For EVERY Exercise?

Nope, you should NOT warm up like this for every single exercise. It wouldn’t be bad… it just wouldn’t be needed.

A full warm up sequence like this is only needed when doing the first direct or indirect exercise for a given muscle group or movement pattern during that workout. After that, you are already warmed up for various other exercises that target the same muscle(s) and movement patterns.

So, for example, if you are doing more than 1 chest exercise in a workout, you’d only need to warm up like this on the first chest exercise being done that day. Any chest exercises done after that would require little to no warm up sequence of any kind.

The same applies to the other bigger muscle groups too (back, shoulders, quads, hamstrings).

The exception here is biceps and triceps, which rarely ever need any sort of warm up (unless you’re doing an arm-only workout, which is pretty dumb in the first place).

Biceps and/or triceps will almost always (and SHOULD always) be done after more important stuff like chest, back and/or shoulders. And, since chest and shoulder exercises train the triceps secondarily and back exercises train the biceps secondarily, your biceps and triceps are already warmed up sufficiently by the time you get to them.

What’s that you say? You’re still a little confused about which exercises need warm ups and which don’t?

Alright then, here’s a complete real world example…

An Example Of Which Weight Training Exercises To Warm Up For

Have you seen The Muscle Building Workout Routine? It’s the workout program that I recommend to intermediate/advanced trainees looking to build muscle or improve the way their body looks in any capacity.

Well, here’s a full break down of exactly which exercises in this program do and do not need a full warm up sequence:

  • In the Upper Body A workout, you’d only need to warm up like this for bench press and rows. Incline dumbbell presses (warmed up from benching), lat pull-downs (warmed up from rowing), lateral raises (warmed up from both bench pressing and incline pressing), and the biceps and triceps stuff (warmed up from all of the chest and back work thus far) would not require a warm up sequence anywhere near as thorough as this (or really, none at all).
  • In the Lower Body A workout, you’d do this warm up sequence for Romanian deadlifts and leg presses, and maybe calves too (or more likely just half of this warm up sequence).
  • In the Upper Body B workout, you’d only use this warm up sequence for pull-ups and shoulder presses, and maybe dumbbell presses as well (or again just half of this warm up sequence). Nothing else.
  • In the Lower Body B workout, you’d really only need to do this warm up sequence with squats, and maybe just half of this sequence for leg curls and calves.
  • However, for all of the exercises that DON’T need a full warm up sequence, you can still throw in 1 VERY light set of 5-8 reps just to prepare yourself for the actual movement and get into a good groove. I personally like doing this for certain exercises (usually only compound exercises), but don’t seem to need it at all for others (such as most isolation exercises). Just a personal preference. Nothing more than that, though. And make sure it’s VERY light and easy if you decide to do it.

Now Go Try It Out

So, that’s pretty much everything you need to know about how your warm up set sequence should look for various exercises and why it’s so important and beneficial in the first place. In fact, this is the protocol I recommend for the majority of the workouts I’ve included in The Best Workout Routines premium guide.

If you’ve been warming up in some other (dumber) way or just barely warming up at all, give this method (or something similar) a try and notice how much better your work sets feel.

For me, it was a big improvement over the silly stuff I was previously doing. It will probably be an equally big improvement for you too.

Try it and see for yourself.

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66 Comments

  1. steve says

    brilliant. ive been waiting for this one. thanks. as you say its a massively overlooked area that not many people seem to have a clue about. to be fair its hard to get good info like this article on warm sets elsewhere. you basically have to go to some bodybuilding forum and we know how useful they are. thanks again. i’ll be adjusting my warm-ups accordingly.

  2. steve says

    thought i’d give you some feedback on how the new warm up is going. have only been through half my weekly routine on it (i.e. lower b and upper a) but so far is working very well. my problem was not overdoing the warm up and fatigiung myself; rather it was underdoing it, mainly because of time contraints but also because i didnt know what to do. for me warming up is even more important because i go to the gym before work when it opens at 545am so i’m pretty much dead cold and still waking up. i always do 3 mins on the rower which gets me going tho. anyway, i previously found that on my second set i would feel much stronger and solid than the first, particularly on squats and the intial few reps. now that i have properly warmed up using your guidance, i’m strong from the first rep of first set. the warm up sequence doesn’t take too long at all either. i’m not a huge unit throwing around massive weights so in most cases i think i’ll be able to do #1 – #3 of the warm up sequence.

    • says

      @Steve: When the second set feels better than the first set, it’s an extremely common sign that your CNS is not warmed up. The first set ends up feeling surprisingly heavy and basically serves as an awkward warm up for the second set, which is why the second set feels a whole lot better.

      A sequence like this is designed specifically to prevent that, as you’ve noticed. Awesome to hear it worked!

    • says

      Necessary… maybe. Optimal for most people… definitely.

      It depends on goals, what kind of weights you’re lifting, and how hard you’re training. For most people training fairly hard and pushing for progress, warming up like this definitely helps.

      For those that don’t fit this description, warming up this thoroughly becomes less necessary.

  3. harish says

    I’m curious if I have to do this for each exercise in the beginner workout routine you put together because each exercise is different from each other and targeted different part of the body. For example, in the workout A, there’s squat, bench press and barbell bent over row (that’s legs, chest, and back). Warm-up sequence for each one?

    • says

      Yup, each of the 3 big compound lifts in the beginner routine’s A/B workouts warrant their own warm-up sequence. Although, since beginners are generally not very strong yet and are therefore usually not lifting too heavy, they won’t need as many warm-ups sets as someone stronger and more advanced would.

      For example, someone benching 135lbs needs less warm-up sets than someone benching 250lbs.

  4. Joe says

    Hi

    Excellent blog, like the tone and the no BS. Probably the best I’ve read that covers diet and exercise to build lean muscle. One question though, other blogs mention that your main 3 sets you should aim to fail and they normally talk about 4-6 reps and not 10 to 12??

    regards

    Joe

  5. Jake says

    This is a very effective method of warming up, the acclimation sets make a HUGE difference to your lifts. I recently started utilising a method very very similar to what is outlined here and increased my deadlift from 150kg to 165kg in one session just due to the superior neurological warmup.

  6. Mathieu says

    Love it, been searching so long for a guide like this and now finally i found it and it helps a lot! Thanks a lot!!!!

    Only one question to this guide, at which point does warm up set 4 and 5 should be done? Is there any point, like “when you can benchpress your bodyweight” or something like that?

    Other question is, is there an article to the general pre workout warm up? Or for the rotator cuff?

  7. Mikel says

    I’m a little confused by this because I like to do straight sets. For example, on the bench, 5 sets of 6 at 175lbs. I’m thinking of adding in a warmup of 135lbs before doing my main sets as I increase my weight, but your method here will reduce the overall volume I’m doing.

    What you’re recommending here is a full warm-up routine UP TO your intended weight (in my case 175lbs), however, I wish to use my intended weight for each set. Am I correct in thinking that I should do just 1 warm-up set and then continue with my straight set routine?

      • Mikel says

        So that would be a total of 10 sets correct? 5 sets of warm-up and then 5 sets of my actual work out. Seems a bit much…

        • says

          The heavier the weight you’re using in your work sets, the more warm up sets you’ll need to properly work up to it. The lighter the weight, the fewer warm up sets you’ll need.

          But, assuming you’ll need a few (let’s say 5 like in my example), and you’ll be doing 5 work sets, then yes… 10 sets total if you want to add them all together for whatever reason.

          On paper that might seem like a lot, but when one of them is just a quick light set with just the bar, and another is just 3 reps, and another is just 1 rep… it’s really not that much at all.

  8. Patrick says

    are the the calves considered to be warmed up by squats and Deadlifts or do they need a warmup of their own?

  9. salma hod says

    LOVE LOVE LOVE!
    ive read the how to “warm up” article and it makes complete sense to do what you have said and because of YOU, I now got a whole new plan on how to warm up before i perform straight sets and so thank you so much for posting this. i do have a question though, is it necessary to do a dynamic warmup before doing warmup sets?

  10. Paul says

    I was always confused as to where warm ups came in all of the workout routines. This is basic but really good information man. Thanks. Maybe you should include this one in The Ultimate Guide? To save confused souls like my self.

    • says

      Yeah, one of these days I need to go back through that guide and add some links to stuff (like this article) that was written some time after the guide was put together.

  11. Wènis says

    Could you say anything about ‘the General Pre-Workout Warm Up’, as you call it? Various gym-trainers just say “do the treadmill or Elliptical trainer for 10-12 minutes”. Does it matter what machine you use and for how long?

    • says

      A few minutes of light cardio is fine as part of your overall warm-up, and the exact type of cardio you do (treadmill, bike, jump rope… whatever) doesn’t really matter all that much. Pick your favorite.

  12. Ehsan says

    Thank you very much for this article, definitely I shall put it into practice.
    A question: Does these warm up sets manipulate in terms such as volume or total Reps ,…?

  13. Matt says

    Hi Jay, I was wondering if i needed to do a different type of warm up or use the one here if i were to try to do a 1RM (1 rep max) of an exercise such as a regular bench press.

    On the other side i’d also like to know your thoughts about doing 1RM once in a while, do you think its useful method to test your strength gains or is it unnecesary?

    Thanks

    PS: this post was extremelly useful, thanks a lot!

    • says

      Yeah, there would definitely be some differences in how to warm up for normal sets vs a 1 rep max. It’s not something I do much, so I don’t really have specific recommendations. But, there should typically be progressively heavier sets of 1 leading up to the top attempt.

      As for the importance of testing your 1RM, it depends on goals. If it’s strength or competition or improving your !RM or something like that, it’s definitely important. If you’re just a typical person trying to build muscle/lose fat/look great naked, it’s not really needed at all.

  14. Randy says

    At the start of the article you mentioned the general Pre-workout warm up which includes light cardio and stretching etc. I was wondering what your recommendation course of action for this is. At the moment I just do 5 minutes of light cardio and some stretching. Would this suffice?

  15. Brad says

    Hey, another awesome article again man. Could you roll off a few dynamic exercise names you do for upper body an a few for lower body? Is the general warm up a subject you plan on covering in the next while or is it further down the list? Thanks a lot

  16. Anton says

    Great article.But I never do warm up sets. I prefer dynamic stretching. It also improves my joints mobility. What do you think?

  17. sinan says

    This website is brilliant. I can’t believe that I haven’t discovered this before .Thanks for putting all these together!

  18. Maarten V says

    I love this website. You make very clear and to the point guides.
    I’ve recently restarted my workouts after a lengthy break from having to move apartments and train for a new job, but I’m as determined as ever to regain what I’ve lost and add a lot more to it. This website was a great find amongst the tons and tons of unclear, contradicting pile of chaos out there. I’ll assume you know what you are talking about and am following your advice.

  19. A. J. Killer says

    Hey!
    1) In the push day I have the following: Bench Press, Dumbbell Flyes, Shoulder Press. How much warm up would you recommend for shoulders here?
    2) How about post workout stretching? I am a dead man walking the day after doing legs so would like to ease the pain if possible.

    Thank you!

    • says

      1. Depends on the person. With something like this I’d personally do 1 easy warm-up set of about 8 reps for shoulder presses. In this case it would be less about actually warming up (chest stuff already took care of that) and more about just getting in one practice set to drill the movement itself.

      2. Needs a full article. But if you feel like you need it and find it helps, go nuts.

  20. Derek says

    Amazing site man! Quick question regarding a warm-up routine for pull-ups. How exactly would these warm-ups be done? I’m assuming it’s not the normal 5 sets; 10-15, 8, 5, 3, 1?

    Cheers!

    • says

      If you’re doing weighted pull-ups with enough weight, it can work out that body weight pull-ups and weighted sets with less weight can serve as perfect warm-ups sets. But if the added weight is too little or more commonly you’re only doing body weight pull-ups, that’s when some type of assisted pull-up can become an ideal warm-up.

  21. Martin zury says

    Hi, just came across your website and read a few amazing articles, you the real king. Thanks a ton specially for this one as i was always confused on the warm ups. Anyways i was hoping if you could elaborate more on the weight percentage breakdown if a person who is doing just 3 sets.
    like i am a beginner and i would just bench press 80-100 lbs for my main sets, hence if i have to do 3 warm up sets then whats the percentage breakdown?
    I assume the first warm up set to be just the barbell but then for my second warm up set should i go 50% or directly 70%?

  22. Aad says

    Found a lot of sensible stuff here and looks like a solid plan. After been training for years in low gear and on HST program for last two year ( where I gained quite a bit on muscle and motivation ) I am gonna give this plan a try, it surely looks like a well structured method. Thanks a lot

  23. Melvin says

    Hey,

    Looking at your routine I like and do something close to it. I would like to switch back to this program since my goals and focus have changed. I really like to dead lift. Could I substitute conventional dead lifts with RDL’s? I don’t want to screw up an already great program, but would love to dead lift.

  24. Michael says

    How does warming up apply to beginners since i don’t know what my max is. I’m literally going in there starting with a bar (bench press for example) and adding just 5 lbs(the smallest increment) because i’m working on form and finding my ‘correct’ weight. So would warming up be for a beginner be using the bar and lifting it 10-15 reps over 3-4 sets and doing some light walking. I’m starting your beginner’s program.

    • says

      During those first few workouts, it’s not really anything you need to worry about since you’re basically (and purposely) using warm-up weight to learn the exercises.

      Once you start progressing a little and there is now some actual lighter weight that exists for you to warm-up with, that’s when you can start adding in some warm-up sets.

    • says

      No universal answer to that. 3×5 with 185lbs might not need this many warm-up sets. 3×5 with 400lbs might need more. Something in the middle would need something in the middle.

      Basically, experiment and see what suits you best.

  25. luca says

    For the upperbody lowerbody split, would it be ok if instead of taking a rest on wednesday we did an upperbody workout instead but a lower volume then the monday upperbody and then friday do the same higher volume as monday?

  26. Dave says

    I’ve been doing the beginner routine for a couple of months now (so far, so good btw) and I’ve started warming up as follows: 8 reps at around 50% weight, 5 reps at 75 – 80% and then, if I achieved full reps last time, one or two reps at that weight before adding another 5lbs. And after reading this again, I’ll add a set with just the bar first as well.

    Does this sound OK? I’m a beginner and so far only squats and deadlifts are into triple figures weight wise.

    • says

      There really is no universal perfect warm-up protocol. This is more of a general outline that tends to suit a lot of people, so you’re welcome to experiment with it a little and figure out what feels most right for you.

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