Do Warm-Up Sets Count?

A few days ago, my friend Max was visiting the gym and asked me to update an old program for him.  I’ve written a number of programs for Max over the past two years, and it’s nice to watch his progress in the weight room while I work to write better programs.  As I finalized the tweaks to Max’s program, I thought about an issue we had with one of his old programs.

During a certain phase of his programming, I programmed the classic 5 sets of 5 reps for Max to use while trap bar deadlifting.  As I checked in with Max to discuss his progress, I asked him what weight he was using for his work sets.  He told me that he was working up and that the last set was the heaviest.  “But Max,” I asked, “What about your warm-up sets?”

After an awkward moments of blank stares, we arrived at the age-old question:

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Last week I tried to cover the different segments of a workout, and today I’d like to discuss that magic that happens between your warm-up and your main movement.  The warm-up doesn’t end when lifting begins.  There should be a flow from one activity to the next, a seamless transition as you move from your movement prep activities into your first strength training exercise.  Warm-up sets provide the opportunity to acclimate to heavier loads, so you don’t move from an empty bar to a maximum effort set.  This allows the body to prepare for what’s to come, and helps your brain wake up before it has to work harder.  Think of it like foreplay for PR’s.  You can quote me on that.

Let’s use my sets of front squats from yesterday as an example.  My goal heading into the gym was performing 3 sets of 3 with a moderately heavy weight, maybe a 5RM.  I rolled, mobilized, movement prepped, and then started with several sets of lighter weight.  Here’s what it looked like:

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Workout tracked on Fitocracy, come say Hi.

Frequently, we use warm-up sets that are at the same rep range and intensity of what we’re planning to do our main sets in.  All too often it becomes a go-until-you-can’t-go-anymore approach.  The goal might be to take a 5 rep max, but all the warm-up sets are sets of 10, which isn’t the most appropriate.  The body and the brain will get tired, and you won’t be able to reach a true 5 rep max.

Let’s go back to Max’s 5×5 plan for the trap bar deadlift.  Assume his goal is to use 315lbs across all 25 reps.  It wouldn’t be wise to transition from his movement prep, which was a broad jump, to his first set with 315lbs.  It’s equally unwise to do sets of 5 at 135, 155, 175, 195, etc.  In this situation, it would be more appropriate to do a set of 3-5 with 135lbs, and sets of 1-3 with 225lbs, 275lbs, and 315lbs.  After those warm-up sets are complete, you’re better prepared for your work sets, without having done too many or too few reps.

The warm-up sets aren’t there to make you tired, they serve to give you energy to work hard.  The concept can be applied to a variety of exercises, from dumbbell rows to a body saw with the Swiss ball.  It’s highly dependent on what you’re doing, but here are some take away points:

  • Low reps are your friend.  It’s easier to focus on technique, and it helps excite your brain.
  • Take smooth jumps between weights.  If you’re a 200lb bench presser, going from 50lbs to 150lbs isn’t the best idea.  If you’re a 800lb squatter, it doesn’t really help to go from 275lbs to 300lbs.  The jumps should be appropriate.
  • These are warm-up sets.  You’re not going out to set a record.  The weights should move fast, and shouldn’t feel very hard until you approach the load you’re using for your work sets.

Do warm-up sets count?  You bet your ass they do, and they can seriously impact your training.  Too few, and you might set yourself up for sub-par lifting.  Too many, and you’re burnt out.  In both cases, you risk injury.  Include several appropriate warm-up sets as you approach your work sets, and you’ll feel stronger.  Tell a friend to do the same, and we all win.

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