How to Use Warm-Up Sets For Big Lifts

Last week I talked about liberating myself from self-imposed, rigid mandates that have bogged down my blog. So I’m kicking off my more relaxed approach with a topic you don’t read about very often: Using warm-up sets to your advantage, instead of letting them ruin your progress.

Recently, I was checking in with one of my long-time online clients (who is a badass woman lifter, I might add). While reviewing her workout logs, I noticed that she wasn’t exactly sticking to the repetitions I’d assigned.

warm-up-sets-for-better-resultsNow, this gal is about my size, in her thirties, and squats 1-1/2 times her body weight. But since she wants to keep getting even stronger and build an even better booty, she graciously listens to my feedback.

I noticed that during her big lifts, she used several sets to warm up, and then did only a few sets of the prescribed sets.

For example, if I assigned four sets of bench presses at 3-4 reps, her sets looked like this:

Bench Press

  • 10 reps x 45 lbs
  • 8 reps x 65 lbs 
  • 5 reps x 75 lbs 
  • 3 reps x 80 lbs 

I’m impressed that she warmed up so nicely and tracked her sets so accurately, but I need to see four sets of 3-4 reps, not one. Why?

Paying Attention to Volume and Intensity

Progressively building more muscle and strength is a result of volume and intensity.

In this example, the purpose of the lift is to build strength. To do this, you need to stay in a low rep range (1-5).

If you’re using two of your sets as warmups, you’re only doing two sets in the low, strength-building range. Over time, this seemingly minor error could lead to a plateau or at the very least, slower gainz.

Using Warm-up Sets Properly

Warm-up sets are critical to preparing for heavy lifting. You can use them for any exercise, but they are especially important for heavier sets of deadlifts, squats, bench presses, and pull-ups.

I require my clients to do 2-3 warm-up sets before any heavy lift. Not lubing and warming up joints and muscles could result in dysfunctional movement as your body tries to “work around” stiffness. That can lead directly to pulled, strained, or torn muscles and ligaments.

We don’t want that, do we?

But we also don’t want to get too tired out before our working sets. So to warm up effectively, do your normal pre-workout warmup, but also a few light sets before your big lifts.

There are a lot of different ways to go about figuring out how much weight to use, but here’s one I like:

Warm-up Sets

Set 1 – 50% working load for 10 reps

Set 2 – 75% working load for 8 reps

Set 3 – 90% working load for 6 reps

So for example, let’s say you want to do 5 sets of squats at 5 reps. You know you squat 115 pounds last session, and you want to start off with 120 this week. (It’s great if you can increase the weight, as long as you can still do the prescribed sets and reps.)

In practice, your warmup might look like this:

Set 1 – 60 lbs for 10 reps

Set 2 – 90 lbs for 8 reps

Set 3 – 108 lbs for 6 reps

Then, you’ll carry on with 120 pounds as your first “real” (working) set for five reps, and you’ll do that for five sets.

If you can’t do the prescribed number of sets and reps after your warmup, you’re either going too heavy or need to work up to that level of volume. In other words, drop the weight or number of sets.

You can also do four warm-up sets if you so desire, using smaller increments but still ending up at 90% of your working set.

Now you’re primed to start going ballistic on dem weights. Go and get your grunt on.

This article originally appeared on

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