Lifting is about as simple as an exercise gets: You pick the thing up, and you put the thing down. But that doesn’t mean you’re going to walk into the gym and just pick the thing up. A proper warmup can help you to be ready for your big lift, so let’s talk about how to build your best lifting warmup routine.
But first, let’s talk about expectations. People often talk about warmups as if they will magically prevent injury, or that skipping one will result in some other disaster. That’s not necessarily true. They also won’t really do much for your chances of suffering from soreness (or not) after the workout. If you feel comfortable walking straight from the front door to the squat rack, you don’t need to add a warmup.
Why do one at all? Well, think of the warmup as preparing you for the job of lifting. Your muscles will work better when they’re warm (like, literally at a higher temperature). You’ll also want to be ready to move in all of the ways that the lift requires. If your ankles are stiff, for example, getting them moving will help them to be able to flex more during your squat.
You should choose the components of your warmup based on what help you need in getting ready to do your lift. So let’s discuss some of the options and when you might use them.
Cardio warms you up and gets you ready for work
Before lifting, a lot of folks like to hop on the treadmill or rower for 5-10 minutes, or perhaps do some jumping jacks. A cardio warmup like one of these offers a few benefits:
- It physically warms up your muscles
- It gets at least some of your muscles and joints moving
- It gets your energy systems in the groove of supplying extra power to your muscles
Remember how, when you run, the first mile (or the first 10 minutes or so) feels sluggish? That’s because your body is ramping up those energy systems so you can use them more efficiently during the rest of your workout. If your lifting will involve short rest periods—like a Crossfit-style WOD—this cardio warmup is essential for making the rest of the workout not suck.
If you’re just going to be lifting at your own pace, cardio isn’t essential, but the warmth and movement may still help you feel better and serve as a mental and physical introduction to the work you’re about to do.
Mobility work gets you ready to move
We’re not (just) talking about stretching here. If you want to work on your flexibility by doing long, deep static stretches, that’s best saved for after the workout. As you’re getting ready to lift, you may want to instead do some mobility work.
Mobility, in this context, means being able to move in the ways that your workout requires. If you’re going to do some squats, and your calves and ankles tend to be stiff, and this stiffness prevents you from getting as deep into the squat as you’d like, then you should spend some time before doing your squats working on your ankle mobility. (We have some specific suggestions for that here.)
Apply this same principle to whatever exercise you’re planning. If you have a hard time arching your back in the bench press, do some upper back mobility work first (I like to lie on my back on top of a foam roller). If you’re going to do snatches or overhead squats, you may want to do some shoulder exercises, like the one where you pass a bar over your head and behind your back with straight arms. If you’re going to do power cleans or front squats, you may want to stretch out your lats.
This stage is where foam rolling and dynamic stretching can come in. Foam rolling can help loosen up a muscle, like a little massage. And dynamic stretches are warmup movements that take your joints through whatever range of motion you will be asking them to do later. Google “mobility work for ___” and you’ll get plenty of ideas.
Ultimately, what you use in this section of the warmup should be whatever will best help you be successful later in the workout. Experiment with adding things in or taking them out.
Activation exercises prepare your muscles
Sometimes it’s nice to do an exercise that uses whatever muscles you’ll be using in the main workout, but with lighter weights or even via a totally different movement. For example, banded glute bridges could help you get ready for a workout where the focus is squats or hip thrusts.
To be totally clear, you don’t need to “activate” muscles to be able to use them later, even though purveyors of booty bands will try to convince you this is an essential step. These exercises just give your muscles a preview of what they’ll be doing in the main event, and can help you get through your warmup sets of the main lift (see below) a bit more quickly.
Technique drills help you perfect your skills
If you’re doing a lift that requires precise technique, you may want to practice drills that help with that specific lift. For example, before I do snatches, I like to do drills with just the bar: maybe some hang snatches, or overhead squats, or tall snatches. Again, select exercises for this stage based on what technique work you need to practice.
Finally: Your warmup sets
Now we’re actually doing the lift! Let’s say you’re going to do squats at 200 pounds today. Just because you’ve warmed up doesn’t mean you should load 200 pounds on the bar and go for it.
Everything above was optional. The warmup sets, most athletes and coaches would agree, are mandatory. They can actually replace most of the above steps (for many people, for many lifts), because if you do enough warmup sets, you’ll be getting your body warm, moving through the necessary motions, activating your muscles, and practicing the technique of the lift you’re about to do.
Start by doing a set of the same number of reps you will do for your working sets, or more. So if you’re going to do 5 reps at 200 pounds, start with a set of 5–10 reps with only a bar.
Then add some weight, and then add some more, and then some more, until you get to the target weight for your first working set of the day. The exact jumps in weight aren’t important so long as you have several stops on your way to the working set for the day. So for our 200-pound example, I might do 95 pounds, then 135, then 155, then 185, and then finally start working with 200. And I’d probably do 5 reps for each, except that at the lighter weights I might prefer to do more, like 10.
Putting it all together
I like to think about warming up for lifting as combining my warmup sets (as described in the section above) plus whatever I need that my warmup sets don’t adequately cover.
So if you feel like you need more mobility work than warmup sets alone will give you, you might walk in the gym, do five minutes on the treadmill to warm up your legs, and then do some foam rolling and ankle stretches before you start squatting. You haven’t done any technique or activation work, but that’s fine if you don’t feel you need it.
Or if your mobility is fine but you’re planning on doing a circuit-style workout and you hate that you’re always getting out of breath between lifts, you might benefit from a more thorough cardio warmup to make sure you’re ready for the fast pace of the workout.
It’s fine for your warmup to be different for each workout, or for it to change over time. Older athletes often find they need more warmup time than they did when they were younger, and we all might need more of a warmup in cold weather than when it’s hot out. Figure out what makes sense for you, and build your warmup accordingly.