I’ve received a lot of requests for an “Unf*ck Your Warmup” addition to UYP, and I’m glad, because warming up is an extraordinarily important component of a good training plan. Warming up improves performance, reduces risk of injury, and it only takes a few minutes.
In fact, warming up is so important, that I don’t think it’s fair to only share my advice in the full course. So, I’m going to give y’all a freebie: an adaptable, widely-applicable warmup template to prepare you for whatever type of strength training you’ve got lined up. In exchange, I just ask that if you find this helpful, you share it with a friend or on social media.
Before we get started, I want to make on thing very clear: unless you’re struggling with an acute injury, a good warmup need never take longer than 15 minutes (not including your actual warmup sets of whatever exercise you’re doing). With that in mind, watch the video explaining my own warmup, and then we’ll move on to finding the right warmup for you, your body, and your goals.
Phase 1: Increase Core Body Temperature.
The absolute most important part of your warmup is also the easiest. You need to be doing at least a few minutes of general cardiovascular work before you ever touch a barbell! Your goal here is just to raise your core temperature enough to break a light sweat, which will greatly reduce the risk of soft-tissue injury.
You have lots of options here (and they’re all listed in detail at the bottom of this article), but I strongly recommend that you choose a low-impact activity. Running in particular I think is a terrible choice for lifters. Some people are naturally blessed with the right structure to run, but for many others, that’s a heck of a lot of pounding on the hips, knees, and ankles.
Generally, 3-5 minutes of light cardio is enough here. If it’s very cold, you can stretch this a bit, but I’d prefer you just bundle up with more layers and keep the cardio to a minimum.
Phase 2: Mobilize Key Areas.
Once you’re increased your core body temperature, you can try a little mobility work. (In fact, you should always do a little light cardio before stretching or working on mobility, regardless of whether it’s before a workout or not).
Your mobility warmup should be active and involve moving joints through a full range of motion. Activities like static stretching and foam rolling, when performed before lifting, can actually decrease performance and even increase the risk of injury, so you should avoid those entirely, or use them very, very carefully. It’s usually a better idea to save these for after your workout, or on your off days.
Instead, use dynamic stretching or joint distraction for your pre-workout mobiliation. Leg swings, arm circles, and walking lunges are a good place to start, but you can include dynamic stretches for any problem area. Again, you don’t want to overdo this! There are, of course, hundreds of variations of these types of movements, but you should focus on the ones that are most applicable to you: areas where you’ve suffered past injury, areas that are chronically tight, and areas that you’re training that day. I’ve included a list of my favorite movements at the bottom of this article, and you can check out the exact dynamic stretches I do in this video:
Phase 3: Activate Target Muscles.
I actually don’t like the term “muscle activation,” because I think it’s become one of those buzzwords that has been used so often, and in so many different ways, that it’s not very well defined. Unfortunately, I don’t have a better term to use. Instead, I’ll try to explain what I mean by it:
Muscle activation involves light, moderately-high rep resistance exercise for specific muscles, and the goal of muscle activation is to more effectively recruit those muscles in your compound movements. This doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with neurological efficiency – I think the scientific jury is still out on that one. But everyone develops habits in their lifts, and oftentimes, those habits are inefficient. Muscle activation can help to correct these sorts of bad habits.
For example, if you’re a very quad-dominant squatter who has a tough time keeping your knees out in the hole, you’re probably not actively thinking about squeezing the glutes to help initiate that ascent. While it will take a lot of actual squat practice to undo this bad habit, you can speed up the process. Doing a few sets of monster walks or banded glute bridges before you squat can help get a bit of a glute pump (as silly as that sounds) and help you remember to perform the same type of motion as you come out of the hole.
The trick, of course, is figuring out exactly which muscles you need to focus on, and finding the right exercises to help you activate those muscles. The first part is entirely individual. But to help you out with the second, I’ve included a list of my favorite activation exercises at the bottom of this page. You can pick some that sound appealing, or you can use a trial-and-error process to find the ones that feel the most natural to you.
Finally, keep in mind that no matter what exercises you use, muscle activation is not the same as pre-exhausting. While pre-exhausting can help to bring up weak points, our goal is to improve performance of the compound lifts, and if you’re tiring yourself out during your warmup, you’re doing it wrong. Make sure to use light weights (or no weight at all) for your activation exercises, and do just enough work so that you feel comfortable with the movement pattern involved.
Phase 4: Get Under the Bar.
The first three phases of your warmup should take about 15 minutes. If you’re dealing with a minor but nagging injury; if you’re over the age of 40; or if you’re gearing up for a really heavy session, you might want to stretch that out to 20 minutes or so, but if your warmups are taking any longer than that, there’s something wrong. I’ve seriously seen guys (and girls) spending 45 minutes or more “warming up,” and that’s not only unnecessary – it’s almost always counterproductive.
After you’ve warmed up, you’re ready to get your hands on a barbell, but you should never jump straight into your working weights, even on a light day. Even if your body feels capable of getting straight to it, there’s a lot of value in easing into your main lifts. For example:
- Light warmup sets are a great opportunity to practice perfect technique and reinforce good movement patterns.
- Heavier warmup sets give you time to adjust to the feeling of a significant weight in your hands or on your back, which can often make it seem lighter and move better.
- Warmup sets allow you to better gauge how you’re feeling on a give day, so that you can identify any possible issues like tight muscles or painful joints, and reduce your scheduled workload if necessary.
Just as with the other steps, there’s no one right answer for how to do your exercise-specific warmups, but I always recommend starting with the bar (yes, even for deadlifts). I squat and deadlift over 800 pounds and I still do my first warmup with an empty bar, for the reasons listed above. It doesn’t really matter how many reps you take here – just do enough to feel comfortable, whether that means one or 20.
Then you can begin to work up in pretty moderate jumps until you reach roughly 60% of your working weight. Obviously, the exact number of jumps will depend on what exactly your working weight is: getting up to 405 for a working set at 800 will take more sets than getting to 225 for a working set at 450. However, I do recommend that you try to adhere to the following two points:
- Don’t go up in more than 1-plate jumps (90-110 pounds, depending on what kind of plates you’re using). Unless you’re Ray Williams, you probably won’t get enough total warmup sets if you’re taking bigger jumps than that.
- You should do a total of about 10-20 warmup reps, not including the reps you took with just the bar, by the time you get to 60% of your working sets.
So, if you’re warming up for a 500-pound work set, your warmups to 60% (roughly 300 pounds) might look something like this:
- 315x2 (18 total reps)
If you’re warming up for a 100-pound work set, obviously, you’ll want smaller jumps. Your warmup might be the bar for a set of 10-20, and then 60 pounds for a set of 5-8.
Once you reach about 60% of your working weight for the day, I recommend the following warmups:
Remember: these are percentages of your working weight, not of your 1RM!
If one of your warmup sets feels a little bit off, don’t be afraid to retake it. Better to be cautious so that you’re prepared and confident for the sets that really count than to rush and underperform.
Putting It All Together
Choose one cardio exercise from the list, and perform it for 3-5 minutes.
- Stationary Cycling
- Incline Walking (on a treadmill)
- Stair Stepping
- Any other low-impact aerobic activity
Choose one or several dynamic stretching or mobilization techniques to address problem areas.
Mobilization (these can be applied to any problem area)
- Banded Distraction
- Banded Flossing
- Voodoo Flossing
- Contract/Relax Stretching (5 second intervals)
- Avoid foam rolling and smashing techniques prior to a training session.
- Neck Rolls
- Arm Circles
- Cross-Body Arm Swings
- Leg Swings (4 directions)
- High Kicks
- Torso Twists
- Cat-Camel Stretch
- Twisting Hip Stretch
Choose one or several movements to activate target muscles.
- Walking Lunge
- Monster Walk
- Glute Bridge
- Banded Flye
- Band Pull-Apart
- Straight-Arm Pulldown
- Serratus Dip
- Unilateral Tate Press
Make sure to perform specific warmup sets for your compound movements as described above.
- Moderate jumps to 60% of working weight (not 1RM).
- 70-75% x1-3 reps
- 84-86% x1 rep
- 90-93% x1 rep
Wrapping Up the Warmup
No matter what, your warmup cannot compensate for a poor training plan. So, if you haven't already, sign up for the free intermediate program so that you can get a feel for simple, straightforward programming that you can tailor to fit your body and your goals. If you want to go the extra step and enroll in the full program, you can use the promo code WARMUP for 20% the full price. You'll get access to 28 weeks of programming, plus exclusive updates (including the coming-soon expansion on peaking, with 12 more weeks of programming).