As coaches, there are a lot of things we sometimes take for granted. During the process of training new students, so much focus is put on the fundamentals of movement instruction that some of the other subtleties of training can end up falling by the wayside. One of those is often the simple process of warming up a lift.
Most coaches end up in our roles, because we are ourselves training junkies. We came to our knowledge either through obsessive research or by being brought up and educated in the systems of other coaches. Quite often, we have spent several years, maybe even a decade or more, in the gym, before we begin our coaching career. In that time, some of the casual minutiae of training, like gym etiquette or warming up a lift, can get lost to the habituated knowledge of “that’s just how you do it”, and we can’t imagine the possibility of doing it any other way.
I was hit full in the face with this realization many years ago. After leading a class through their drills in preparation for the day’s Snatch singles, then releasing them to begin putting weight on the bar and start their lifts, a student in the class came to me and complained of being unable to complete her first lift. This individual was not a new student, and seemed fairly certain that she should be able to perform the weight she had loaded. After a brief line of questioning, I discovered that, with an existing max of 95lb, she had gone straight from the empty bar drills to a weight of 85lb, with no intermittent warm-up sets.
As an experienced lifter, I was dumbfounded; I couldn’t comprehend why she would think she could just put a weight on the bar that was nearly 90% of her best recorded single, and expect to just lift it. By the same token, she seemed to be equally shocked by the notion that she shouldn’t be able to just put that weight on the bar and do it, since it was still 10lb shy of her personal best. It was then that I realized the conceptual process of warming up a lift may not be quite as self evident as I considered it to be.
Part of the disconnect I think comes from the fact that many new students will have to spend a not insignificant amount of time practicing certain movements with lighter weights, before they achieve enough competence to move on to weights that actually challenge their physical capacities. This is more commonly true with movements like the Snatch, Clean, and Jerk variations, which require greater development of power and coordination than simpler movements, like basic squatting and pressing variations. Quite often, new students may spend an entire lifting session working with the first weight they place on the bar, because their primary focus is still mastering the fundamental aspects of the movement pattern. They have not yet experienced working with a weight that needs to be “ramped up” to, or is heavy enough to expose physical weaknesses, or impact their balance during the movement.
We often say that, “We do not train weights; we train movements. The weights are just there to challenge your ability to perform the movement properly.” During the beginner phase of training, we are still just focusing on the actually learning of doing the movement properly, so we have not even begun to use weights that challenge that ability. Once we take that next step, that added challenge needs to be added progressively within workouts, as wells as between them.
Why do we warm up?
Anyone who’s ever rolled out of bed in the morning feeling a little creaky and sore should understand the need to warm up the body before exercise. That’s why we start every workout with some general movement prep. Elevating the heart rate and increasing the rate of breathing helps increase the flow of blood to the muscles, bringing with it a fresh supply of nutrients and oxygen. We also incorporate movement patterns similar to those we’ll be using in the workout, to wake up your central nervous system (CNS), and get your brain ready for the movements you’re getting ready to perform.
Think about the tasks you perform in your daily life. The more familiar you are with a task, either at work or home, the less thought you have to put into it. Things you’ve done for years you can do quickly and easily, with little to no thought; they’ve become almost automatic. With tasks that are new, or that you perform infrequently, you probably have to think about them a little more, and you may be a little slower in doing them. To some extent, each time you perform one of these tasks, you have to go through a brief process of reminding yourself how to do the task, and possibly learning how to do it a little better as you go.
It’s the same way with lifting weights. When you are new to a lift, each time you perform it, you will have to go through a process of reminding yourself how to do the lift. As you repeat this process over and over, you become more competent with the movement, and this process will go a little faster; however, as you increase weights, you may discover new challenges in the movement. This may be the result of strength imbalances, which will then need to be dealt with, or flaws in your movement that had not yet been exposed.
This is why, after our general warm up, we start most lifting sessions with some specific movement drills. Usually, these drills entail breaking the movement down into some of its base components, so we can focus on various aspects of the movement in isolation, then progressing on to the full movement itself. We do this to begin the process of reminding you how to the movement properly, and possibly learning how to do it a little better.
Once the drills are complete, this process must be continued. Someone who has been lifting for years has performed thousands of repetitions of the lifts at lower weights. They know exactly how to perform the movements, and they know exactly how those lower weights feel. They will move very quickly through these weights, but as they reach weights that begin to approach their maximum effort, they will begin to move more slowly up the ladder. The reason for this is they are beginning to perform weights with which they have less experience, they are reaching weights with which they have now only performed hundreds, dozens, or perhaps even only a few repetitions in their lifetime. They don’t have as clear an idea how these weights feel, so they need to take the time to remind themselves, and make sure they have their movements and positions dialed in. They pay attention to the imbalances and imperfections these weights expose, so they can work on improving them.
So how do I warm up my lift?
First, to understand the process, we need to go back to our fundamental lifting mindset. “We don’t train weights; we train movements. The weights are just there to challenge you ability to perform the movement properly.” As you warm up a lift, your first job is to pay attention to your movement, and make sure you are doing it properly. If you’re not sure, ask your coach. They’ll give you a yay or nay, and possibly give you one or two things to focus on during your lifting session.
The next step is to start collecting reps. If you’re new to a lift, you need to focus on gaining more experience at the weights you know you can do. Refamiliarize yourself with those weights and how they feel. As you gain more experience and confidence with those weights, and you know how they feel, you can progress up through those lighter weights at a faster rate, to weights that are more challenging, but we never exceed weights that allow us to perform the movement properly.
There’s this notion that’s become sexy over the last several years that training is supposed to be about pushing beyond your comfort zone. Excessive focus on pushing past your boundaries is a great way to get Instagram followers, but it in the gym, it’s a great way to get hurt. Intelligent training is about staying within the upper levels of your comfort zone, until the zone starts to naturally expand. You don’t want to try to push the line. All you have to do is flirt with it long enough, and the line will move on its own. You just have to be patient; I know that’s a big ask in this day and age.
Just give me the warm up, already!
You need to remember that warming up a lift is a process, but it’s not an exact science. Some days you’re going to need to warm up a little slower than others. Maybe it’s been a while, since you’ve done this particular lift; maybe you didn’t get a good night’s sleep, last night, or you were sitting in meetings all day. Other days, you’re going to feel great, and every rep is going to feel like magic. You’ll have to learn to adjust your warm up, based on how you’re feeling. It also helps if you have enough experience with the lift to have a good sense of what weight you’ll be working up to. If you don’t, just go slow, focus on collecting reps at weights you’re confident with, and only move up as you feel confident you’ll be able to do the next weight.
That being said, let’s go back to the woman from the class I talked about at the beginning, and I’ll walk you through how I might have her warm up that heavy Snatch single.
First, let’s assume she did her drills with an empty 15lg/35lb bar. With an existing personal record (PR) of 95lb, she’s already done her drills at 35% of 1RM. If she’d started with a 15lb bar for the drills, I might have her do a triple at 35lb, but we’ll start her with a triple at 45lb. Next, I’ll have her do another triple at 55lb. From here, I’d have her do doubles at 65, 70, and 75lb. So far, our warm-up progression would look like this:
2×65, 2×70, 2×75
For a more experienced lifter, I might let them get away with doing fewer reps along the way up, but at this stage of her progression, I want this athlete getting as many reps as she can, at weights she confident with, so she can get the movement dialed in, before we get to weights that will actually be challenging. During this process, if I see anything I don’t like, I might make her repeat a particular weight, until she fixes whatever is wrong. Remember, the ability to perform the movement properly is always the paramount focus of every training session.
Now, we’re ready to start our singles. I’ll have her performher first single at 77.5lb, which is just a hair over 80% of her PR. From here, she can progress at 2.5lb increments, until she reaches a point where she can no longer perform the movement with satisfactory quality. Never assume that you’ll be able to equal or beat a previous best in any training session. Game to get into the neighborhood, but always understand that it’s not going to be there every time you go heavy. Newer athletes often fall into this trap of believing that progression is almost automatic, because they are able to progress so quickly during the early stages of training. This rapid early progression is a result of learning to perform the movement more proficiently. During this phase, you are simply learning to use your existing potential to its fullest. It’s only once this phase of training is complete that the real work begins.
Let’s say this woman is feeling it today, and once properly warmed up, she manages a 5lb PR. Her singles would look like this:
1×77.5, 1×80, 1×82.5, 1×85, 1×87.5, 1×90, 1×92.5, 1×95, 1×97.5(PR), 1×100(PR)
This means the full lifting session, from the end of empty bar drills to that last PR single, looks like this:
2×65, 2×70, 2×75
1×77.5, 1×80, 1×82.5, 1×85, 1×87.5, 1×90, 1×92.5, 1×95, 1×97.5(PR), 1×100(PR)
Keep in mind, this whole lifting session, not including the drills, should take 20-30 minutes. There should be a lot of rest between attempts on that last line, when she’s performing her singles.
Even for a more experienced lifter, you’re still going to want a lot of reps on the way up to a heavy Snatch single. The reason is that the Snatch is a high skill movement, so it’s very CNS dependent. We need to make sure the movement itself is dialed in and feeling fluid, before we begin to challenge it with weight, and we need to add weight slowly, so that we make sure the movement stays dialed in, and doesn’t get altered, if any existing weaknesses start to come into play.
For lower skill movements, we can move up a little faster. Likewise, you will need fewer warm up sets for higher rep work, since you will not be going as heavy. I’ll give a couple examples below.
Working up to a heavy 5 rep Back Squat:
5×165, 5×195, 5×215, 5×235, 5×245, 5×255, 5×260, 5×265(PR)
Performing a 3×10 rep Overhead Press:
10xbar, 10×65, 10×85, 3x10x95
Respect the Process
In the end, it’s important to remember that strength is a capacity, but the movement specific expression of strength is a skill. Skills require practice. When you get under the bar, you are practicing a skill. The weight is just there to challenge your ability to perform that skill properly. Take your time, get your practice in, and the weight will come on its own.