Warming Up with Weights

Warm-ups that get the body moving are great—especially ones that start on the ground and progress to the feet. They prepare the body for a wide range of movements and build movement skills that carry us through life. And, they actually get us warm. But, when it comes to warming up for strength training, they are only one piece of the puzzle. We need to warm-up with weights as well—we can’t just jump into our strength training sets without acclimating ourselves to the movements and how they load our bodies.

So, let’s chat about that. Below you’ll find five reasons why you need to warm-up with weights before going full bore into your training.

Reason #1: Weight Warm-ups Prep The Nervous System

Ever notice how the same weight feels “lighter” after a few sets with it? That’s because your nervous system acclimated to the work it was being asked to do. But that first set—it feels sluggish, doesn’t it? Well, warming up with a few lighter sets, and gradually increasing the weight, before jumping in with your working weight helps prep your nervous system and gradually prepares it to move the weight.

Reason #2: Weight Warm-ups Prepare Our Tissues

Muscles, tendons, and ligaments work to move and support our bones—but if they aren’t ready to do their jobs, and they’re given more work than they’re prepared for, they aren’t very efficient. This means our joints might not be as stable—potentially leading to an injury—and that our muscles won’t be able to “fire” as hard, meaning that your body won’t perform as well as it could have. Muscles that aren’t prepared for the stress of heavy weights also can work disproportionately hard, causing them to pull or twinge.

 Reason #3: Weight Warm-ups Improve Performance

This reason is a combination of the first two—warming up with weights before getting into your actual sets helps you perform better during your sets. The nervous system, the muscles, the joints—they’re all better prepared for the work. And they reward you with improved performance for your warm-up efforts.

Reason #4: Weight Warm-ups Help You Pick The Day’s Training Weights

On any given day at Prodigy, our members will train using weights based on something called Rate of Perceived Exertion—or, as it’s listed in their program, RPE (more on RPE later). Essentially, they ask themselves, how hard did that weight make me work?

RPE in action: Let’s say the program calls for a 7-8 RPE. At the completion of a set, we ask our members to simply ask themselves:

“Hey self, on a scale of 1-10, how did that weight feel?”

And then they answer themselves (we recommend doing this in their head):

“That was about a 7.”

Great! Looks like they could potentially add a little more to the next set, finding an 8, if they’re up for a little challenge today.

But it’s tough to get an accurate depiction of their RPE if they  jump into their sets without any warm-ups because everything is going to feel heavier than it should. Remember all that nervous system prep stuff we talked about? That’s why. Warm-ups change their perception of the weights that they’re using because their body, like we said before, acclimates. So, they can more accurately judge how a certain amount of weight is affecting their body.

Warm-ups also give them a heads up when they shouldn’t be lifting heavy that day. If they choose a warm-up weight that normally feels relatively light, and it feels like 3 tons of bricks, then it’s probably a good day to dial things back in the name of recovery.

 Reason #5: Weight Warm-ups Help Us Choose The Right Exercise

Let’s say that they start warming up.  They choose a weight that’s normally a good starting point, but as they start moving with it they realize that they can’t maintain good form. Their body just feels “off.” This is a good indication that they need to choose an “easier” exercise that day. 


It Begins with RPE

Earlier, I gave a brief description of RPE, or Rate of Perceived Exertion which, basically, measures how hard you feel like you’re working.

 We use a scale influenced by powerlifting coach Mike Tuchscherer. It begins at six and ends at ten. Check it out:

@6 = weight moves fast with minimal effort (more than 5 reps left in the tank)

@7 = weight moves fast with maximal effort (about 4-5 reps left in the tank)

@8 = 2-3 reps left in the tank

@9= 1-2 reps left in the tank

@10 = absolute maximum—couldn’t have done anymore reps with this weight

Most of our members’ training will be done between 6 and 8—with the occasional 9 splashed in when necessary and applicabl0-e to someone’s goals. The RPE for each training set is listed in their program—helping to guide them in selecting the right training weights depending on how they feel on a given day.

Knowing the daily RPE gives them a destination that guides the weighted warm-up process. If, hypothetically, the day’s deadlift sets are to take place 7-8, we know that our warm-up stops when weights start feeling like 7.

A Warm-up Example

Ok, let’s outline a weighted warm-up, from start to finish, using the deadlift as an example. Let’s say that we’re deadlifting for sets of 5 reps and our working RPE is 8—and that 8 happens to be 225 pounds.

Here goes:

Warm Up Set 1 – 135 x 3-5.  Rest 30 seconds to 1 minute

Warm Up Set 2 – 155 x 3.  Rest 30 seconds to 1 minute

Warm Up Set 3 – 185 x 1-2.  Rest 30 seconds to 1 minute

Working Set 1 – 225 x 5  *At this point, the fire is burning and they’re getting after it!*

Alright, so you have questions—why did we do it this way?

First, starting light and gradually adding weight at small increments allows the body to “wake up” and acclimate to the movement and to the weight it’s being asked to move. This gradual awakening preps the nervous system to perform and the body’s tissues (muscles, tendons, ligaments) to handle the stress of heavier weights.

Notice, also, that we only want them to do a few reps at each weight—and never more than what you’re going to do for your training sets. That’s to avoid fatigue. Warm-ups are supposed to prime them to do work, not wear them out, and many times folks do too many reps during their warm-ups. They just need enough work to charge them up, then they get after it!  Don’t do a ton of warm-up reps.