Warming up - How much weight to use? - Progressing sets and reps

I realize one of the things I don't think I've ever talked about is how to go about warming up for a weight training workout and how to monitor how much load you use on sets and reps. First I want to talk about warming up.

Warming Up

A proper weight training warm-up should warm-up the muscles and joints and also get your CNS fired up to move some weight. There are basically 2 messages you want to send your body while your warming up:

1. Ingrain the movement pattern.

2. Let your body know the weight is going to get heavier.

Your warm-up shouldn't be so short that you risk exposing yourself to injury, but it also shouldn't be so extensive that you drain yourself before you've even started on your work sets. Most people tend to do too few warm-up sets and they use too many reps for the ones that they do. For example, let's say your routine calls for a set of 5 on your first work set and you know you want it to be with 225 pounds.

Most people tend to do something like this:

85 x 12

135 x 10

185 x 10

225 x 5 (first work set)

In reality, this person has already begun to exhaust himself before he's even done his first work set.

A proper warm-up should look more like this:

Bar x 12

95 x 5

135 x 3

185 x 3

205 x 1

225 x 5 workset

As the weight on your warmups gets heavier keep the reps low so you don't burn yourself out.

A good rule of thumb is to have one warm-up set for each 45 pound plate that is on the bar and always start out with the empty bar. You CAN get by with less, but try doing a longer warm-up while keeping your reps low and you'll probably be pleasantly surprised by how much more you can lift.

Here is a warm-up for a 405 pound lift:

45 x 10

135 x 3

185 x 3

225 x 3

275 x 1

315 x 1

365 x 1

405 x 1

Bare Bones Warm-up

If that sounds s bit too complicated, confusing, and time intensive, at LEAST do 3 warmup sets for your first exercise of each workout. It should look like this:

5 reps with 50% of starting weight of 1st workset
4 reps at 70%
2 reps at 90%

So, if your first work set is 200 pounds for 8 reps you'd do 100 x 5, 140 x 3, and 180 x 2.

Building Up To Max Attempts

Here is how to build up to a 1rm max lift: Simply warmup and keep doing singles in 5 to 50 lb increments until you either get a weight that you feel is a true max attempt or until you take take a weight you miss. As the weight gets heavier make sure you keep the weight increase per set smaller.

Here is an example for a lifter that can squat 350-400.

45 x 10

135 x 3

185 x 3

225 x 3

275 x 1

315 x 1

330 x 1

350 x 1

360 x 1

370 x 1

If warming up for a 5 rep max you'd do sets of 3 until the weight starts feeling somewhat heavy, add a bit, and then go for 5. If you do a couple of reps and can tell you'll be able to get 5 easily, STOP the set, rest 3-5 minutes, add weight and try again.

If figuring a 10 rep max do sets of 5 until the weight feels heavy then go for 10. The important thing when going for repetition maxes (more than 1 rep), is that you don't burn yourself out needlessly. If you're going for a 3, 5, 10 (or whatever) rep max, and you're halfway through a set and you know you'll be able to get the reps easy, it's best to just rack the weight and increase the load. No sense wasting a set and creating unnecessary fatigue if you know it's not really gonna be a max set.

Potentiation Tricks

One other thing you can do for max attempts is use a little neural potentiation trick that'll trick your nervous system into lifting more weight than normal.

When going for a max single or triple get well warmed up and do a couple of relatively easy singles. Next, take a load about 20-50 pounds more than what you think you can lift, unrack the weight, and simply hold it for 5 seconds. Rest 3-5 minutes, strip some weight off, and do your single or triple.

When going for a max set of 10 or higher reps first work up and do a heavy single, rest 3-5 minutes, and come back down and do your rep max.

How much weight to use per set?

I get a lot of questions along the lines of, "how much weight should I use for my sets?"

Only you can really determine that. If in doubt warm-up and put a weight on the bar you think is about right. If you can't get the reps the weight is too heavy. If it is obvious you'll easily be able to get the reps, stop lifting, add some weight, and try again.

If you're a beginner add weight and do your reps until your form starts to break down then stick with that weight for the remainder of your sets.

Also, realize you don't always need to hit the reps perfectly on each and every set. If the routine called for 3 x 8 and you did 2 x 8 and could only get 6 reps the last set that doesn't mean the workout was wasted. I have actually had people do that and write me asking if they should go back the next day and make up the set! In many workouts you'll probably be a rep or 2 off for some of your sets. No big deal.

Load, Reps and Perceived exertion each set

Now I want to talk about how to lift when you're doing normal sets on a routine and not working up to a max attempt. Say a routine calls for you to do 4 sets of 5 reps, or 3 sets of 8 reps, or 5 sets of 5 reps. These are all work sets done AFTER your warm-up I described above. Does that mean each and every set you do should be done with as much weight as humanly possible? No. Unless your program calls for you to work up to a max set, or do only one set to failure, (such as the "money set" method I talk about in The Ultimate Split), I generally recommend only your last one (or sometimes 2 sets) be really "all out" and ideally should stop about one rep short of failure. What that means is you knew if you tried another rep you probably wouldn't be able to get it.

There are a couple of ways to perform your sets and reps. You can do all your work sets with the same weight and let each subsequent set get more difficult as fatigue accumulates, or you can start with a lighter load and add weight each set, "ramping up" to a hard effort for your last one or 2 sets.

Here's an example of the "same weight" method. Say your routine calls for you to do 4 sets of 5 reps and after your warm-up you want to get around 200 pounds all 4 sets of 5. So your work sets might look like this.

200 x 5

200 x 5

200 x 4

200 x 3

Oops...You didn't get all 5 reps on the last 2 sets. Does that mean this entire workout is a waste? No - with this method that's to be expected. As soon as you can get 5 reps with 200 on all your sets you increase the weight. Just make sure you can get at least 3 reps on each and every set otherwise the weight is too heavy.

Now, here's an example of how you might add weight each set. Let's say your program again calls for you to do 4 sets of 5 reps and you "think" or "hope" you can get 205 for 5. Your sets and reps might look like this:

135 x 5

165 x 5

175 x 5

190 x 5

205 x 5

The next workout you'd bump the weight up to 210 or 215 for your top set.

Combining Both Methods

Instead of staying with the same weight each set or adding weight through all sets, most of the time I recommend you combine them both. I typically recommend you increase the weight for the first 3 sets and leave it the same for each set thereafter. So a 5 x 5 with a top set of 200 would look like this:

135 x 5

175 x 5

200 x 5

200 x 5

200 x 5

Many times I'll write routines that have a rep "range" written into them. Like sets of 8-10, 6-8, 4-6, or 3-5. With this method, your top sets should be with a load that falls within that range or close to that range. Say your program calls for sets of 8-10 and on your first workout your heaviest set is with 100 pounds for 8 reps. The next workout you'd try to get 10 reps with that same weight. As soon as you got 10 reps you'd bump the weight up 2.5 to 5% the next workout and start back at 8 reps.

If your work-outs, nutrition, and recovery are set-up properly you should see weight or rep increases pretty much every time you hit the gym.

One other thing to point out is that with smaller lifts like lateral raises it can be difficult to increase the weight regularly, so on exercises like these you might want to allow yourself a greater rep increase than you normally would. Say you do a 20 pound lateral raise for 10 reps. You want to make a jump up in weight, but you also want to be able to get at least 8 reps per set. But the next size dumbell in most gyms is 25 pounds. That represents nearly a 20% jump in load which is a bit much. So you might want to keep working with that 20 pound dumbell until you can get 15 or even 20 reps with it. Alternatively you can buy some Platemates which are magnetic plates that will allow ½ to 2 lb increases. www.theplatemate.com