The million dollar question, how to warm up before lifting weights.
Should you sit and do some arm circles or slap hug yourself with your hands?
What about spending 30 minute foam rolling every inch of your body? (Well.. maybe not EVERY inch…).
Or maybe you just don’t warm up at all and say f*ck it?!
Don’t worry, in the article, you will learn everything you need to know about warming up before you lift front to back.
Well, you will know if you stick around for the whole article that is.. If you leave half way through (yea, I’m talking to you) then you won’t.
So for the sake of you actually learning how to warm up before lifting weights and for the sake of me not writing this article for no reason..
Stick around for the whole thing, mkay?
How To Warm Up Before Lifting Weights
Main Modalities Of Warming Up
Before we dive into exactly what you should do the warm up, let me first cover the 4 main modalities of warming up in my professional opinion.
- Foam Rolling
- Stretching ( Static vs Dynamic )
- Warm Up Sets
As a bonus at the end, I will also talk about doing cardio as a warm up before your lifting.
Let’s break them down piece by piece.
If you have ever been into a commercial gym you have for sure witnessed the foam rollers.
They sit there, sometimes on their phone, laying back on a foam roller “rolling their back out, bro!”.
Kinda looks like you’re taking a nap and texting to me, bro.. But..
Now, I joke, not all people who foam roll are like that.
You will also have the guy who foam rolls his right glute medius (only his right.. Not even the left yet..) for 26 minutes before he goes and does one set of squats.
Okay, I joke a little bit more, but let’s really talk about foam rolling.
Is It Beneficial?
Yes and no.
It may be beneficial for two main reasons, both which people don’t usually think about when they think about foam rolling.
When someone thinks about foam rolling, they think you are sitting there breaking up your muscle tissue with this oversized foam cylinder.
That’s not really what happens.
According to this systematic review and Meta Analysis HERE , foam rolling changes come primarily from
- Increases soft tissue elasticity
- Increases pain threshold
- Stretch tolerance
What does this mean?
This means no real structural adaptations or changes occur, aka, your muscles aren’t getting “less stiff”, you are just in the short term changing your Range Of Motion (ROM) for that ONE particular workout session.
Also, long term differences in pain perception are noticed through longer duration foam rolling (4+ weeks) which can also lead to changes in ROM.
Which, in my opinion, can be a good or bad thing.
Okay, so foam rolling may give you a larger range of motion…
But, for that workout, do you ACTUALLY have that range of motion? Or… Do you artificially have that range of motion because you foam rolled before hand.
A lot of people will need to foam roll for 10 15 20 minutes to “get loose enough” to do a certain exercise or lift a certain weight on a certain exercise.
Let me break something to you.
If you need to foam roll for 20 minutes to hit 200lbs on your squat, you need to not be squatting 200lbs.
You need to work on improving your mobility / stability from other exercises, fix your form, or lift less weight.
Therefore in my opinion foam rolling as a tool to go lift heavy weight or gain a new range of motion so that you can overload the muscle with high intensity I think can actually do more harm than good.
If you are overloading your body with heavy weights in a range of motion you don’t ACTUALLY have, you only artificially have for a brief period of time because of foam rolling, that can lead to injury.
Your body doesn’t actually have that range of motion so for you to go there with heavy loads, usually it backfires.
Now, on the flip side, if let’s say you foam roll as a tool to gain that new range of motion and pick a weight that is appropriate for that exercise / new range of motion, I think that is a different story.
For example, foam rolling your quads to be able to get down into a front foot elevated split squat ( If you don’t know what that is, you can click HERE ) with either bodyweight or “light weight”, whatever that is for you, to strengthen your body in that new range of motion in a safe way?
Now you’re talking.
Therefore, I don’t think foam rolling is either “good” or “bad”. I think it is merely a tool that if used correctly, can help.
If used incorrectly though, can cause harm.
My Two Cents
I think foam rolling could potentially be a useful tool if you are someone who simply enjoys doing it or it “makes you feel better”.
If it makes you feel better, who the hell am I to tell you to not do it.
I would say though, I would spend at max no more than 5 minutes foam rolling. That’s for your entire body, not just one muscle group.
So maybe 30-60 seconds on your glutes, 30-60 seconds on your quads, and 30-60 seconds on your hamstrings, and 30-60 seconds of calves.
Cool, then get into your lower body workout. 2-5 minutes of foam rolling is more than enough.
There is just not enough evidence behind it for me to suggest you do anything more than that.
I know this article is about how to warm up before lifting but let me just say this.
Foam rolling I think could potentially be a useful tool for AFTER your workout.
This is because, as somewhat mentioned above, foam rolling can trigger your PNS (Parasympathetic nervous system ).
Basically this is your “rest and digest” nervous system. This helps get you out of fight or flight.
When you are working out, you are in fight or flight mode. Once you are DONE working out, you want to get out of that as quickly as possible to be able to start the recovery process from that workout.
Throwing in some again short duration foam rolling can be a way to potentially kick on your PNS, start that recovery process, and help you maximize recovery post workout.
Personally, I don’t foam roll post workout because well I’m lazy.. But I do think there is more merit to it POST workout than pre for this reason.
Stretching ( Static Vs Dynamic )
One of the most common questions I get asked is WHAT ABOUT STRETCHING?
Yes, in all caps, because that’s how people ask me.
Let me first break down stretching into the two forms, passive and active.
Passive or “Static” Stretching
Passive stretching is the form of stretching where you really aren’t actively using your muscles to stretch. You are using some sort of tool to help you stretch.
For example, if you are lying on your back, you bring your leg to your chest, and you pull on it with your arm.
This is passive stretching because you aren’t actively contracting your muscles to move the joint, you are using an apparatus to help aid you.
For this article, this can also be referred to as your “passive range of motion”. How far can you move your joint passively.
Active Stretching would be the opposite of passive. You are actively using your muscles to move your joint through a range of motion.
For example, lying on your back and moving your leg towards your chest as much as you can WITHOUT any help.
This is also referred to as your active range of motion.
Notice how in these two pictures, the passive stretching, I am getting my leg much farther when I pull on it vs when I don’t?
That’s the difference between my passive vs active range of motion.
Remember when I said foam rolling can in the short term increase your range of motion, somewhat artificially.
This is what I meant. You are using an aid to increase the range of motion, but do you actively have control over that range of motion? Those two things are different things.
Anywho, back to stretching.
Passive Vs Dynamic
To piggy back right off of this, there are two main forms of stretching.
Static vs Dynamic.
Static is pretty self explanatory. This is your standard hamstring stretch I showed you above where you are pulling your leg up, or laying on your back pulling your knee to your chest.
The second form of stretching is dynamic stretching.
This is where you are taking your joints through your active full range of motion instead.
An example may be something like a sprinter starter, here below!
One is stationary, the other is moving, to keep things quite simple.
My Two Cents
Now that we know the difference in stretching, when it comes to how to warm up before lifting weights, I would stick with Dynamic Stretching.
The reason is because you are taking your joints through an active full range of motion.
Passive stretching is cool and all, but again, you don’t actually have that range of motion you are working on.
So even if you can pull your leg back farther, that doesn’t mean you can control that range of motion.
You don’t want more range of motion just to have more range of motion. You want more range of motion that you can control.
Getting lower in a squat is of no use if you can’t control it. You will just end up rounding your lower back, caving in your knees, or compensating one of any number of ways.
You want to actively control the range of motion, therefore, dynamic stretching is going to take your joints and muscles through that active range of motion.
Again, I wouldn’t spend much time on this here either (this will be a common theme, so stay tuned haha).
I would maybe once again spend 2-5 minutes MAX dynamic stretching, if you are going to do it at all.
You don’t need much when it comes to “getting your joints and muscles ready to go”. Most people way overdo their dynamic stretching.
Now, is this a MASSIVE deal? Not sure, maybe. If you are a gen pop person, maybe it isn’t a massive deal. But if you are someone who takes your workouts very serious, then this can make or break some PR’s that day.
And overall, it just isn’t the most optimal. Therefore, I’d stick to mainly dynamic stretching if you are going to do it.
Yet personally.. I wouldn’t work in a ton of dynamic stretching work. Mainly because of what we are going to talk about in the next section. Keep reading.
The next thing we can touch on when it comes to how to warm up before lifting weights is what I call “activation”.
Well, really, I didn’t come up with this term, many other people did before me.
I also use it in quotations because there is like stigma around “activating” your muscles.
Heard of “glute activation” before? This craze you need to “activate” your glutes or else they won’t work?!
Yea, no, not true.
Your muscles are always working. Especially your glutes. If your glutes weren’t working, you wouldn’t be able to stand up from a chair and walk around.
So, your glutes are fine.
Now, with that being said, I actually personally do think there is some merit to “activating” your muscles before a workout.
“Activation”, More So “Contraction”
As opposed to calling it “activating” your muscles, I like to just simply think of it as doing exercises to contract your muscles through a full range of motion.
This does a few things
- It maps the motor pattern from your brain to your muscles to get those muscles “firing” correctly for the workout ahead
- It gets some blood flow to the areas you are looking to work
- You can not only take your joints through a full range of motion before your workout, but you can do it in a fashion while you are also contracting your muscles with some light resistance
All of these things can lead to..
- Decreased risk of injury
- Increased workout performance (ie more weight lifted, more reps done, etc)
- Increased active range of motion
Therefore, this is my personal favorite way on how to warm up before lifting weights.
Let’s go over some more in depth examples below.
My Two Cents
This is the main modality of “warming up” I would do before your workout.
I think this is the most effective, most time efficient, and best bang for your buck way to warm up before a workout.
I usually split this up into two sections of the body. Lower and upper.
I will cover some examples of warm up exercises for both lower and upper body.
There are a main few muscles you should be looking to warm up before lower body are going to be..
- MAYBE Hamstrings
I put hamstring as a maybe because most people usually can get away with just focusing on the first 2.
Adding in core here because when you think about lower body exercises.. Squats, deadlifts, lunges, RDL’s, etc.
That usually involves a lot of core bracing and strength, right?
Activating your core before a lower body workout can be a great way you can not only be stronger, but also keep your lower back safe and injury free.
What are some ways you could warm up each of these?
So glad you asked, I can link some examples below.
A simple glute bridge is a GREAT way to warm up your glutes before a lower body workout.
This may be somewhat of a “dynamic stretch”, but you are adding resistance with the band. One of my fav glute warm ups.
This exercise is a great way to add in some stabilization component to your glute bridge.
For these exercises, 2 sets of 6-10 reps would work just fine.
Many exercises can work here for core, but I like working in some anti movement exercises like these plank transfers
The pallof press is another favorite of mine.
You could even work in some reverse crunches as a way to get your core “firing” before your lift.
For these exercises, 2 sets of 5-8 reps would work great.
As I said, most people will be golden with glutes and core, but the elevated hamstring bridge is a great way to get some contractions of your hamstrings.
This can be a great warm up (or even a great regular exercise, LOL!)
For these exercises, 2 sets of 6-8 reps would work great.
I put 2 sets of 6-10 reps for most of those exercises.
Remember, this is a WARM UP.
The whole point of how to warm up before lifting weights is to get READY for the workout, not start the workout!
You aren’t supposed to be killing yourself with super high intensity here. You are supposed to be simply WARMING UP your body for the upcoming intensity.
Yet you don’t want to burn yourself out by spending too much time in your warm up exercises.
Sample Warm Up
Therefore a very simple warm up could be
Glute bridge 2 sets of 8 reps
Pallof Press 2 sets of 8 reps each side
That would take you maybe 5 minutes max.
That’s about how much time I’d spend on a warm up before your workout. Your time spent during your workout should be spent working out, not, warming up.
Upper Body Warm Up
For how to warm up before lifting weights for your upper body, here are the main muscle groups I would look to.
- Upper back (traps, rhomboids, scapula as a whole )
- Shoulder joint complex (simply moving your shoulder joint through a full range of motion)
- Core ( maybe)
I wrote core in there because you could in fact add in core if you wanted to as well. I won’t create a separate tab for these as the examples are above.
Some examples of each would be…
For each exercise, 2 sets of 6-8 reps would be plenty.
Remember, the important part here is you are not trying to “tax” your muscles. Simply contract and be controlled with your moves.
For each exercise, 2 sets of 5-8 reps is more than enough.
For each exercise, 2 sets of 6-10 reps is more than enough.
Upper Body Warm Up
A very easy and quick upper body workout could look like..
1a. Band Face Pull 2×8
1b. Band Up & Over 2×6
1c. Tall Kneeling lat pullover 2×8
That rounds as the “Activation” section of the warm ups.
If you do that for each of your lower and upper body workouts, you will be setting yourself up for some major success.
Now, onto the other very important part I like to include in my “warm ups” for myself and my clients.
Warm Up Sets
Another critical piece of how to warm up before lifting weights is to be sure you include warm up sets into your training.
If you aren’t familiar, there is a difference between a working set vs a warm up set.
( I wrote about this in depth on THIS ARTICLE HERE if you want to give it a read ).
Essentially let’s say you are supposed to 3×6 reps on your squats.
That is three WORKING Sets you are supposed to be completing with your workouts.
A working set is a set you take 1-3 reps shy of failure. This is a very hard, challenging, and almost grueling set.
Yes, that is every working set, not just the last set of that 3×6.. If it says 3×6, that is 3 working sets taken very close to failure.
That is what a working set should be.
But, I don’t expect or want you to head into your 3×6 doing that right away.
That’s a great way to get injured.
If you are doing let’s say 200lbs for 6 reps on squats and that is what you want to be your WORKING weight…
You will do some warm up sets BEFORE getting to that weight.
It might look like…
Set 1 – WARM UP SET – the bar for 5 reps
Set 2 – WARM UP SET – 100lbs for 4 reps
Set 3 – WARM UP SET 150lbs for 3 reps
Set 4 – 1st WORKING SET – 200lbs for 6 reps
So, your “set 4” would actually be set 1 of your 3 sets of 6 reps on squats.
Yet, you did warm up sets to work up to that working set.
You should be doing this for your exercises as well and that is worked into your “warm up”.
This is a great way to get your body warmed up and used to the movement you are doing to once again..
- Stay injury free
- Lift more weight
- Do more reps
- Work the right muscles
& on and on.
Warm up sets are something you should work into your training as a part of your warm up.
How Many Warm Up Sets Should You Do?
Well, this somewhat depends.
This depends on your..
- How much weight you are lifting
There are 3 main forms of exercises. Compound, accessory, and isolation.
Compound movements are your bigger movements like squats, deadlifts, bench press, etc.
Accessory movements are movements like lunges, RDL’s, lat pulldowns, rows, etc.
Isolation movements are moves like bicep curls, tricep extensions, leg curls, etc.
For your compound movements, you will probably have 2-5 warm up sets depending on how much weight you are lifting.
The more weight you lift, the more warm up sets you will have.
For accessory movements, I would have 1-2 warm up sets.
For isolation movements, I would typically just stick to 1 warm up set and get into your working sets rather quickly.
If you need help with compound, accessory, and isolation moves, you can listen to this podcast I did HERE that goes over all of this in depth as well.
How To Warm Up Before Lifting Weights : Cardio As A Warm Up?
As promised, the last part I will talk about for how to warm up before lifting weights is speaking on cardio.
People will ask me if I think they should do cardio as a warm up before their workout.
Here is what I will say.
If you like doing 5-10 minutes of cardio on the treadmill or bike before your lift, mozeltov, go get em.
Do I think you need to do it? No, not really. I think the activation work and warm up sets are usually more than enough.
Yet if you like doing cardio beforehand, then perfect, go for it.
I wouldn’t typically recommend you doing more than 10-15 minutes though because you don’t want to burn up too much fuel or glycogen before your workout to where it is going to hinder your performance.
You lifting weights take a lot more physical and mental stress than walking on the treadmill or doing the bike does.
Therefore you want to be as fresh as you can heading into that workout. Doing 30 40 60 minutes of cardio before hand is inherently going to take away from that workout, which means your performance decreases.
If your performance decreases, then you lift less weight.. Do less reps.. Have worse form..
All of this then leads to less results and an increased risk of injury in the long run.
To avoid all of this, and to optimize your training, I would usually leave the cardio for AFTER the workout if you want to do that.
Again, 5 or 10 minutes of low intensity cardio before hand just to get some blood flowing or what not is one thing.
But any sort of longer duration or high intensity cardio work I would leave for AFTER the workout.
How To Warm Up Before Lifting Weights: Extra Note
You just learned my preferred way of warming up is through “activation” exercises and warm up sets.
Now, I will say, this I am writing this article for the general population of people.
The information in this article is what I believe a LARGE majority of people would benefit from following.
Though I am not naive that of course some individuals may need some slight extra direct work to specific joints.
For example, if someone has had a hip injury, they might add in an extra hip mobility exercise.
Or, if someone has had a shoulder issue, they may work in an extra shoulder mobility exercise.
I am not writing an article for a specific individual, I am writing an article for the masses to consume.
Yet even with this being said, I still do not believe that you need to be spending more than 5-10 minutes max total warming up.
How To Warm Up Before Lifting Weights : That’s It!
That was a lot.
If you stuck around for the whole thing, you should be damn proud of yourself. I hope you learned a ton from this article.
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