Is Your Warmup Preventing Progress?

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The substantive purpose of this article is to demonstrate the importance regarding the habits formed during the so-called “warm-up” sets. Any source of variation introduced during this period will ultimately detract from an athlete’s ability to perform following increases in weight-loads. From a long-term perspective, fixing these habits can be the differences between either the cessation or prolongment of athletic progress.

Now for a little lesson in the scientific research process. At its core, weight training is simply the replication of a previously successful experiment: in this case, our independent variable is the training program while the dependent variable is ability to apply force onto a barbell. In almost every case, it is not a failure of the independent variable to elicit a response in the dependent variable but instead introductions variation that detract from a training program’s capacity to cause increases in force application.

Some of these sources of variation may be unrelated to the actual training program: failing to consume a sufficient amount of calories, deficiencies in sleep activity, and abundances of stress can all be relatively uncontrollable sources of variation that can detract from a training program’s potential to elicit a favorable response. But, the good news is that not all sources of variation are out of our control. Our goal as weightlifters is to determine which factors are easily controllable and eliminate them.

The Warm-Up

Take a moment and imagine your last strength-training session: what do you remember? For most athletes, the images and memories that follow will likely involve the final set of the compound lift for the day. How heavy the weight felt, the feeling of adrenaline coursing through the body, the brief mental images that were captured during the lift – all of these are typical memories of a weightlifter because, for most athletes, these are the most critical moments of the day.

But, what about the time spent prior to the final set?: specifically, how did you warm-up? Did you walk into the weight-room, slap a couple kilos on the bar, and perform a couple half-assed repetitions? No worries, we’ve all been there: at some point in time, almost every weightlifter has been guilty of warming-up as though their maximum-effort sets involved strapping on floaties and hopping in the shallow end of an inflatable pool.

For the average weightlifter, the time spent prior to the final set is both marginal and forgettable: after all, this period is simply a “warm-up” for the more important work to be done. In the mind of these athletes, the true payoffs of training follow only from exemplary performance during the so-called “working-sets”. This couldn’t be any farther from the truth: exemplary performance in the working-sets is built upon the necessary perfection of the so-called warm-up. In essence, these sets are rehearsals for the main show: where poor performance will lead to a cessation of athletic progress. Any degree of variation introduced by poorly performed warm-up sets will almost certainly translate into failure during the working sets.

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Four Sources of Unacceptable Variation

  1. Fluctuating Concentric Contractions (Force = Mass x Acceleration)

Nothing pains me more than watching a seasoned athlete waltz into the gym and begin their initial sets as if weightlifting was a marathon: in its most basic form, weightlifting is simply a matter of applying the maximum amount of force required to move the weight-load through a given distance. Slow repetitions are an indication that the force applied to the barbell is approaching the force necessary move the load: a slow repetition with submaximal weight is equivalent to submaximal force application to the bar. Simply put, as weightlifters we do not want to train ourselves to apply submaximal force to the bar.

How to Fix It: Anytime you perform a lift, focus on accelerating the barbell as quickly as possible with proper form. As you warm-up, make it a goal to apply as much force onto the barbell each and every time. The barbell should only slow down as the weight on the bar increases: slow reps during submaximal weight-ranges are simply unacceptable.

  1. Irregular Variations in Form

Let’s just get one thing straight: there will be degradations in an athlete’s form and technique as the mass loaded on the bar approaches and/or surpasses their 1RM. It’s up to the athlete to decide where this process of degradation takes place: if your form is crap during your initial sets, then it’s only going to get crappier as the weight on the bar increases; if your form during the initial sets is pretty close to perfection then, despite increases in weight on the bar, it’ll likely still look fairly impeccable by the final set. Weightlifting is mostly a matter of understanding one’s weaknesses: athletic progress is only possible if I can diagnose and treat what was once a limiting factor in my training. If my cues are changing (or non-existent) during every warm-up set, how will I ever be in a position to diagnose a failed repetition on a max-effort lift?

How to Fix It: Pick no more than 3 cues each training session and emphasize them beginning with the very first warm-up set. Treat every warm-up set as if a PR-sufficient weight was loaded on the bar: submaximal percentages are no excuse for sloppy lifts. Your mindset prior to a warm-up set of 135lbs should be the same as though it was 765lbs loaded on the bar. Furthermore, if failure should occur on the final set – either from insufficient force application to the bar or breakdown in form: you’ll know why.

  1. Volatile Rest Times

You just finished your first set at 135lbs: now what? Are you going to talk to your friends for 10 minutes or check social media for 15 minutes? While there is nothing wrong with being social in the gym or looking up a couple cat memes in your spare time, you must understand that failing to have consistent rest times is going to have an impact on your training. Specifically, variable rest times will detract from the ability to ensure an anticipatory release in adrenaline prior to the final set: as a weightlifter, this feeling should be your best friend. If it’s taken me 15 minutes to begin my final set, it is an indication that in this period of time I’ve lost focus of my objective.

How to Fix It: I don’t care what your preferred rest scheme is: it could be 60 seconds between every set or 5 minutes depending on your relative goals. But, rest times should never be a factor whose variability leads to failure in the “max-effort” set. Pick a rest scheme, stick to it, and stay focused. In addition, you must train yourself to utilize the anticipatory adrenaline response: once you’re used to this so-called “nervous” feeling, it can only serve to benefit your performance. That nervous feeling you get when you look at the clock and know that, in 60 seconds, you’ll attempt to perform a previously impossible feat is a good thing: in that moment you’re in the best possible position to succeed.

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  1. Inconsistent Set-Ups

What do you do before a lift? What are the thoughts that run through your head? How do you approach the barbell? If you can’t answer these questions with certainty, than you should consider redefining your set-up in order to get rid of any potential inefficiencies. It is unacceptable to have variability in either the number of steps you take out of the squat rack, the distance between your grip on a bench press, or the distance between your feet on a deadlift. This habit of variability is formed beginning with the first warm-up set: changing this habit can be the difference between hitting or missing a lift – or worse, staying healthy or getting injured.

How to Fix It: Starting with the first set, try incorporating a routine prior to your lifts. It doesn’t have to be fancy and it doesn’t have to resemble an MMA-fighters entrance into an arena: it just has to be consistent. Run through a mental checklist – for a deadlift it would look like the following: check the distance between the feet, check the distance between the hands, check the hips relative to the shoulders, check the grip and GO! While it may seem like quite a bit to remember, after some time this checklist will become an unconscious habit.

Final Note

If you eliminate these sources of variation from your training you’ll likely be in a position to either succeed or otherwise quickly diagnose a failed lift. Our goal is to reach a point where the majority of the aforementioned fixes become unconscious. The more factors we can keep constant as weightlifters, the easier it will be to pinpoint which sources of variation are the likely causes of our failures: fixing the causes of our failures is the underlying basis of athletic progress.

  • Christian Bosse

    This is a really good article, encapsulating the small changes in effort and focus in a warm-up can yield high returns. Very well summarized!