Warm If Not Fuzzy

I have dozens of fitness books on my shelves, and I frequently consult six or seven of them for my articles and books. These books tell you everything you'd ever want to know about how muscles are built, how exercises should be performed, and how those muscles and exercises can be used to become a better athlete.

Most of them, though, don't say squat about warm-ups. I mean nothing. Not even a mention in the index.

And when they do talk about warming up, it tends to be stuff you probably already know. Take, for example, Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning. It's the official textbook of the National Strength and Conditioning Association. You have to practically memorize the thing to become certified as a trainer by the N.S.C.A., as Alwyn and I are. In a twenty-two-page chapter titled "Stretching and Warm-Up," Essentials expends less than half a page on warming up.


No, just indicative of how boring a subject this is, even for academics who write textbooks, a specific breed of infogeek that ordinarily displays a nearly bottomless well of tedium tolerance. I mean, there's a reason why the majority of studies I mention in this chapter took place before most of us were born. All the important questions had already been answered.

So I'll make this quick.

Let's assume there are three types of warm-up exercise:

GENERAL WARM-UPS are things like walking, jogging, and bike-riding. They're low-intensity, and they help you get the creaks out of your joints. (Joints are naturally lubricated by a bodily secretion called synovial fluid. As you warm up, the fluid spreads over the joint, acting as a lubricant to decrease friction.) But if you overdo them, you end up burning off energy supplies that could be better used during the actual workout. Rule of thumb? Five to ten minutes, tops, for a general warm-up. More than that, and you're probably wasting time and energy.

SEMI-SPECIFIC WARM-UPS (a term I believe I just made up) include exercises like the ones Alwyn recommends later in this chapter. In Core Performance, Mark Verstegen calls this category of exercise "movement prep." The idea is to put your muscles through a series of drills that challenge them to stretch and contract. Even though these preparatory movements don't precisely mimic weight-lifting exercises, they do wake up the muscles and nerves so they'll be better at those exercises when you get to them.

SPECIFIC WARM-UPS involve practicing the exercises you're going to do right before you do them. So the squat is a specific warm-up for . . . the squat.

The amount of weight you use in a specific warm-up, and the number of repetitions, is really a matter of your own comfort and training style. If there's a rule that applies in every case, I haven't seen it. But here's a general guideline Alwyn uses with his clients (and which I've used for years without knowing anyone else did it that way):

Do one warm-up set for every fifty pounds of weight you want to lift in your first work set. (In the New Rules workouts, starting on page 202, we don't list warm-up sets. So every set on the chart is a "work" set.)

As for repetitions, you want to start with roughly half the number you'll do in that first work set, and then reduce a repetition in every subsequent warm-up set.

Let's say you're going to do a set of ten squats with 150 pounds. Here's how you'd warm up:

You don't have to hit these precise numbers. An Olympic barbell weighs forty-five pounds, so you could simply use the unloaded bar for five reps for the first warm-up set. For the second, you could use ninety-five, since that's easy to set up—it's just the forty-five-pound bar, plus a twenty-five-pound weight plate on each side.

You may wonder why you don't do a set of ten reps to warm up for a set of ten reps. The answer: You want your muscles to practice the movement, but you don't want to exhaust them. And high repetitions, even with light weights, do expend some of the fuel in your muscles, which can be better used in the work sets. (Fun fact: It takes about eight minutes to restore 97 percent of the phosphocreatine in your muscles; this is the material that produces energy for short, intense efforts, including most weight-lifting sets. I'm not saying that lifting light weights will burn off significant amounts of phosphocreatine, but it does illustrate how carefully you have to guard it.)

Now let's say you're an advanced lifter, and you're warming up for multiple sets of three reps with 300 pounds. Your strategy is similar. In this case, I'm going to use the "real" weights that someone would actually load on the bar, using twenty-five-and forty-five-pound plates, separately and in combination:

3. Warm-up set #3: 135 pounds, 3 reps (that's the bar, plus a 45-pound plate on each side)

5. Warm-up set #5: 225 pounds, 1 rep (that's the bar with two 45s on each side)

You don't have to rest any specified amount of time between warm-up sets. Alwyn says that the time it takes to change the weights and drink from your water bottle is plenty.

After the final warm-up set, take about two to three minutes, then tear into your work sets. And believe me, when you get to the point where you need to do six warm-up sets, you won't be in any mood to screw around. You'll make those inert hunks of iron pay for your annoyance.

Another question: Do you have to warm up like this for every exercise? I'll confess I don't. I'll warm up thoroughly and meticulously for lower-body exercises, like squats and deadlifts. By my standards, that means about five minutes of general warm-up, about five minutes of semi-specific exercises, and whatever it takes for my specific warm-up. Once I'm finished with my heavy lifts, I'll go straight to medium- or high-rep work sets without any more warm-up. I figure my joints are lubricated, my muscles are warm and primed for work, and any sets I do at that point should be results-oriented. (I can't remember the last time I hurt myself lifting, so I have to think it's working.)

For upper-body lifts, like bench presses, I follow the same protocol for specific warm-ups, but I don't do much in the way of general or semi-specific drills. During the winter, when I'm walking into the gym from the cold, I'll do a few minutes of general warm-up. But in the other three seasons, I usually go straight to the semi-specific and specific warm-ups.

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