“How many warm-up sets should be performed before using heavy weights?” That’s a simple question, but the answer is very complex due to the many variables you need to consider.
If you’re training in Texas during the summer and you break into a full sweat walking from your car to the gym, you probably don’t need that many warm-up sets. In contrast, if you live in Alaska and it’s so cold that your sideburns break off when it’s windy, you might need a lot more warm-up sets. That being said, let me give you some suggestions that are a bit more practical.
First, the more reps you are performing during a set, the fewer warm-up sets you need to perform; that’s because the repetitions are providing a warm-up and the intensity of the sets are lower. For example, if you are performing sets of 15 on the bench press, then maybe only one set might be necessary. You’ll find that most of those so-called “high intensity” protocols usually call for higher reps; further, they usually don’t count warm-up sets. From a marketing standpoint, I guess it’s more impressive to say that you only perform 10 sets in a workout than to say you perform a total of 30 sets with 10 of these being performed to momentary muscular failure.
Another factor that determines the number of warm-up sets is the type of work you did on previous sets in the same workout. For example, if a weightlifter performs 10 sets of snatches, their shoulders are pretty warmed up, and they probably don’t need to perform many warm-up sets for jerks off the rack. Likewise, if a lifter just cleaned 300 pounds, they don’t need to start their front squats with 135 pounds.
Keeping on this theme, the performance of pre-exhaustion protocols reduces the number of sets required. If you perform several sets of heavy bent-over rows, you could probably go right into a set of heavy biceps curls because the biceps would already be warmed up and it’s not a technically complex movement (such as a power clean). By the way, one of the most impressive examples of pre-exhaustion protocols was performed by Casey Viator, who at age 19 became the youngest competitor to win the AAU Mr. America. He accomplished this feat in 1971 and later went on to place third in the 1982 Mr. Olympia. In one training session, Viator performed 20 reps in the leg press with 750 pounds, followed immediately by 20 reps in the leg extension with 225 pounds, followed by 13 full squats with 502 pounds!
It’s also important to note that when you’re performing a relatively complex exercise using large muscle mass, such as a squat or bench press, it’s not necessary to pyramid down from higher reps – in fact, it is often better to do exactly the opposite. For example, if your goal is to bench press 300 pounds for 5 sets of 5 reps, a common warm-up protocol might look like this: 135 x 10, 185 x 8, 225 x 5, 255 x 5, 275 x 5 and then 300 for 5 x 5. The problem with this type of approach is that you wear yourself out performing all those reps – in this example, 33 reps!
Paul Dumais, a Canadian junior weightlifting champion who competes at 85 kilos bodyweight, shown performing two reps in the back squat with 200 kilos. Preparing for such a set requires numerous warm-up sets.
A better approach is to use just enough reps to “jazz up” the nervous system to prepare for the heavy working sets, as follows: 135 x 5, 205 x 2, 225 x 1, 255 x 1, 275 x 1, 300 x 1 (or even 300 x 1 and then 315 x 1, so the following working sets feel lighter), then 300 x 5 x 5 sets. Doing the math, you would perform one third fewer reps compared to the conventional method just mentioned (33 versus 11). As a result, you might be able to lift even more weight in that 300 x 5 x 5 scenario.
Although it would be great to give you a simple answer to the question about how many warm-up sets are needed, hopefully you can see that it is a question that has many answers.