How to Warm Up For Squats (Stretching, Mobility, Activation)

What is a Warm-Up Set?

A warm-up set is a set of an exercise that doesn’t “count” towards your prescribed workload. It counts in the sense that it’s important to do, but it shouldn’t count towards what you see written in an resistance training program.

Especially when you start working with relatively heavy weights – or even more technical or speed-oriented compound lifts too.

To do 3 sets of 5 with a “decent” weight (see the example below), you likely want to do anywhere from 2-8 sets of incremental warm-up sets. Towards the higher end of that spectrum when the intensity (Read: rep range you’re working in = lower) is higher and possibly even zero or only one warm-up set if you’re using high rep (12-15+), low intensity training.

Don’t worry, I’ll explain the details…

These sets help you “work up to” the weight you’re actually going to use for all 3 sets. Or at least a threshold for what “counts” as a true work set. They prepare you.

Depending on how you warm-up best, this means some (but not necessarily all) of the 3×5 resistance training exercises in your training session could actually be more like 5-11 sets of 5. 😲

I know right? But the program said 3×5!??!!???!

Beginners especially find this concept of (*implied) additional sets leading into your actual work sets challenging. How do you do them? When? Why?

That’s what I hope to clear up by the end of this article.

*They often lurk in the background of your program, implied but without specific instructions for how they should be done.

Let’s make sure you know what they are first. Most commonly you’ll see programs online written out like:

  • 3×5 Back Squat
  • 3×5 Barbell Bench Press
  • 1×5 Deadlift
  • 3xMax Chin-Ups

Or something like that…

Very rarely will you ever see:

  • 3×5 Back Squat (2 warm-up sets with 50% and 75% of your anticipated working weight)
  • 3×5 Barbell Bench Press (2 warm-up sets with 50% and 75% of your anticipated working weight)
  • 1×5 Deadlift (3 warm-up sets with 60%, 70% and 80% of your anticipated working weight)
  • 3xMax Chin-Ups (no warm-up needed)

Catch all that? I doubt it.

Not only does that take too long to write, it’s also much harder to read. And it can’t account for how you as an individual best warms up for certain exercises or certain rep ranges.

How you warm-up up should be pretty individualized, making it hard to pre-determine coaching instructions even within the notes of a program. This is a nuanced skill that almost defines the jump from ‘beginner’ to ‘intermediate.’

Warming up is a concept I spend a ton of initial time sorting out with new clients. A ton. The workouts themselves even initially look like what warm-ups will look like in a few months time.

What you should be trying to do in your first few months of training is figure out how to best use warm-up sets to maximize your training performances.

It’s a fairly individualized trial and error process. Everyone’s a little bit different but there are some trends I’ll highlight.

Exhibit A

Let’s say you were prescribed the first workout above.

And let’s say you can physically handle for one good clean set:

  • 5 back squats with 245 lbs (110 kg)
  • 5 bench presses with 195 lbs (90 kg)
  • 5 deadlifts with 335 lbs (150 kg)
  • And however many chin-ups…

Decent intermediate weights for a fairly average sized young adult male with a year or two (maybe more) of relatively serious training under their belt.

Clean merely implies that technique was sound for all 5 reps. No grinding or forced reps. This person is not training to complete muscle failure (AKA Absolute Failure or Concentric Muscle Failure) and they could do a few more reps if you held a gun to their head.

What I might call Technical Failure or a rep or two shy of form failure.

Should they throw 4×45 lbs plates and 2×10 lbs on a barbell and start their squats? Peal those off, down to 2×45 lbs, 2×25 lbs, 2x5lbs plates and do their bench press? Then put the bar on the floor with 6×45 lbs and 2×10 lbs plates and see how it goes on the deadlifts?

Probably not…

These are all big fairly complicated or technical compound lifts using relatively heavy weights that exceed the likely bodyweight of a fairly average active young adult male. Roughly 170 lbs (75kg) assuming an average height of 5’9″ (175 cm).

You likely want to gauge these lifts a little before you jump into the deep end of the pool. And you can do that by practicing the movement a little bit in advance using lighter weights.

Video

Kneeling Glute Mobilization

Getting to the appropriate depth can be a challenge for many lifters, especially if they haven’t warmed up properly. This exercise increases mobility in the hips to help you achieve greater squatting depth while still maintaining proper form with your upper body. If the initial movement is too difficult to do right away, try placing the foot of the flexed leg on your calf instead of in front of your knee.

To perform this warm-up exercise correctly, keep your chest tall and engage your abdominals. Avoid rounding or overextending your back. At the bottom of the movement, push the hip of the affected side down and out for a brief moment to accentuate the stretch.

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Whats the Best Way to Warm Up?

How to Improve Your Technique With Drills

Another popular way of warming up before lifting weights is to do drills. These drills have a variety of purposes. Perhaps you have a hard time keeping your spinal neutral when doing your front squats, so you warm up with some dead bugs to remind you how to properly engage your core. Or maybe you have a hard time keeping a neutral spine when doing deadlifts, so you do a breathing drill to remind you how to brace your belly.

These drills are all optional, and you should use the ones that benefit you personally. Here are some that we’ve found incredibly useful for helping people do their compound lifts with better technique:

  • Planks, to teach people how to maintain a neutral spine by engaging their abs and obliques.
  • Dead bugs, to teach people how to keep their core braced while moving at the shoulders and hips, as is needed for the overhead press, squat, and deadlift.
  • Bird dogs, to teach people how to keep their lower back in the correct position while moving at the hips, as is needed for the squat and deadlift.
  • 90/90 hip lift, to teach people how to keep their pelvis in a neutral position while lifting, allowing them to squat and deadlift with a much deeper range of motion.
  • Goblet squats, to teach people how to sink deep into a squat while keeping an upright torso. These work great before doing heavier sets of front squats.
  • Romanian deadlifts, to teach people how to hinge at the hips without bending at the back. These work great before doing conventional deadlifts.

What’s interesting about these drills is that Marco learned them while working as a strength coach for college, professional, and Olympic athletes. Later, we realized that they’re also incredibly popular among high-level powerlifters, such as Chad Wesley Smith. There’s very little research proving a benefit, but in practice, they seem to do a great job of improving lifting technique.

How to Do Warm-Up Sets With Weights

By far the most important part of warming up is to gradually ease up to your working loads, giving your joints, tendons, and muscles some time to prepare for the heavy lifting.

The other important part of warming up is to get i

The other important part of warming up is to get in some quality practice. Every warm-up rep should be as perfect as you can make it. Lift with gusto, put in real effort, brace hard, lift explosively, and don’t rush through it.

Here’s how to do your warm-up sets:

  • 10 easy reps. Start with a weight that you can do for around 20 reps, and do an easy set of 10 reps with it. The weight should feel light and you’ll be stopping 10 reps away from failure, so focus on using a deep range of motion and doing the lift correctly.
  • Add a bit of weight, drop the reps. After your light warm-up set, start increasing the load. There’s no specific amount that you need to increase the weight by, but the idea is to work up to some easy sets with heavier weights. Maybe you do 5–8 reps with a weight you can do for 15 reps.
  • If you’re doing heavy sets, do extra warm-up sets. If you’re doing sets of 8–20 reps on smaller lifts that you’re good at, then you don’t need very many warm-up sets. But if you’re doing sets of 3–7 on the squat, bench press, or deadlift, it helps to gradually work your way up. So maybe you do a set of 3 reps with your 8-rep max.
  • Warm up past your working weight (post-activation potentiation). If you want to improve your performance on your working sets, some research shows a benefit to warming up with a set that’s around 5–10% heavier than your working sets. For example, if your workout routine has you doing 10 reps on the bench press with 185 pounds on the bar, you might want to lift 205 pounds for 2–3 reps as your final warm-up set. After that, the 185-pounds sets will feel lighter, and you might be able to eke out more repetitions.

So that’s the general idea, but depending on how strong you are and what kind of lifting you’re doing, your warm-up routine can change quite a bit. Let’s go over some examples.

Warming up for a 20-rep set of bodyweight push-ups. In this case, the exercise is light, the risk of injury is low, and you’re doing plenty of reps on your working sets. To warm-up, then, all you need to do is make sure that you’re using a full range of motion and aren’t feeling too stiff. Your warm-ups might look like this:

  • 10-rep set of push-ups, focusing on going deep and using good technique.
  • Working sets: aiming for 20 reps.

Warming up for a 10-rep set of bench press with 185 pounds. In this case, the rep range is a bit lower, but the lift is still fairly light and simple, and the risk of injury is low. So to warm up, all you need to do is grease the groove a little bit, warming up your elbows and practicing your technique.

  • 10 reps with 135 pounds.
  • 5 reps with 165 pounds.
  • 2–3 reps with 205 pounds (optional).
  • Working sets: 10 reps with 185 pounds.

Warming up for a 3-rep set of deadlifts with 405 pounds. In this case, we have a big compound lift done in a low rep range with a lot of weight. This is where we want to use a copious amount of warm-up sets.

  • 10-rep set of deadlifts with 135 pounds.
  • 8 reps with 225 pounds.
  • 5 reps with 315 pounds.
  • 1 reps with 365 pounds.
  • Working set: 3 reps with 405 pounds.

So, overall, there are no strict rules. The purpose is simply to start with a weight that’s very light, pumping out a bunch of reps to practice your technique and warm up your muscles, tendons, and joints. From there, gradually add weight to the bar until you get to your working weight.

Should You Warm-Up for Resistance Training?

You probably know that you should warm-up before training, but the how and why eludes you. Here’s why you should do it. An intro to how. 9 min read

General Guides to Specific Warm-ups

Luckily, planning strength training warm-up sets can be a very simple process. It’s important to realize that warm-ups are not set in stone. They serve a specific purpose but will change a little depending on you, your training goals for the day, and the lift you are performing. There is only one hard-fast rule: warm-ups should never be overly fatiguing in either volume or intensity. They should serve the above functions without being so heavy or performed for so many reps that they cross the threshold into “work” (or, more accurately, training stress). Once they do, the warm-up starts to undermine your ability to complete your main effort. (“Too much of a good thing.”) This means perform the least number of sets and reps necessary to reliably prepare for your work-sets, and set your final warm-up no closer than 10-20 pounds from your first work-set weight. Stronger lifters might complete their final warm-up set as much as 10% less than their first work set, depending on the lift in question and their personal need for acclimation.

Every lift starts with the lightest weight possible, determined by your available equipment. For most lifts, use the empty bar for your first warm-up set. Some lifters may need an empty bar that weighs less than the standard 45 lb. (or 20 kg) barbell. The deadlift requires the bar to be the proper height from the floor, making the most common starting weight 135 lb., since the height of the bar is determined by the standard diameter of 45 lb. plates. If your deadlift work set is less than 200 lb., you will benefit from loading the bar with lighter (standard diameter) bumper plates, hard plastic “technique” plates, or a lighter barbell.

You will typically perform one or two sets at this weight, depending on how cold and creaky you are. Experience will inform you here. Between these initial sets and the first work-set, you should perform three to five additional warm-up sets. The most common and effective approach tends to follow this basic pattern of increasing weight and decreasing repetitions: e.g. one set of five reps (1×5); 1×3; 1×2; 1×1—each of these at evenly increased jumps in weights. Round up or down to the nearest 5 lb. where it’s more convenient for loading. And, if you can’t easily make the jumps even, take larger jumps during the first few sets and smaller ones when nearing the work-sets. This takes some minor calculations the first few times, but soon, you will have the system down.

Other Considerations and Post-Novice Training

It is rare that a lifter will have a mobility limitation that can’t be addressed by simply performing the barbell movements themselves, but an exception to this sometimes is shoulder flexibility for squatting. It can be helpful to take a few minutes before beginning squats to stretch the shoulders. Taking your normal grip on the bar (or slightly wider) and “pushing” the shoulders under the bar—holding that position for several seconds—can help make the beginning squat sets more manageable. Some lifters benefit from using a broomstick or similar object to perform the (inaccurately named) “shoulder dislocate” stretches for the same effect.

Beyond the basics above, a few more points can be made as programming progresses. If deadlifts are performed first in a session, a few more warm-ups are probably a good idea to make sure the body is generally prepared for activity. If you are on a four-day split, the lower body won’t have much demanded of it on an upper-body day, so simply performing the benching and pressing warm-ups will probably be sufficient on those days. If you find it isn’t for you, start those days with a couple of empty-bar sets of squats—or you could utilize an exercise bike or rower before the lifts. Just make sure it is light activity for a few minutes, enough to slightly elevate the heart rate and heat your body up. This can also be very helpful for some older lifters that find they need a little extra activity to feel prepared before lifting.

As a lifter gets stronger and begins lifting larger absolute amounts of weight, more warm-up sets will be required. The same rules apply, but more steps will have to be taken to get to heavier working loads, and larger initial jumps. For example, a strong deadlifter with a working set of 1×3 @ 525 might have warm-ups that look like this:

1×5 @ 135

1×5 @ 225

1×3 @ 315

1×2 @ 405

1×1 @ 455

1×1 @ 485

1×1 @ 505

References

Racinais S, Oksa J. 2010. “Temperature and neuromuscular function.” Scand J Med Sci Sports. 20 Suppl 3:1-18 (Oct). https://doi: 10.1111/j.1600-0838.2010.01204.x.

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