Warm Up Sets: For the Squat / Bench Press / and Deadlift

In all, Blog, Nutrition, Sports Science, Strength Training, Training, Warm-Up by Dave Scott-McDowell0 Comments

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The most overlooked aspects in training are the warm up sets.

Typically the main exercise of each workout, omitting the Olympic lifts is going to be a variation on the BIG 3. The Big 3 consists of the Bench Press, Back Squat, and Deadlift. Athletes and non-athletes will select exercises and their variations (incline bench, overhead press, RDLs, front squats, etc) in an effort to get bigger, stronger, and faster.

How you structure your warm up sets for the primary movement of the day has a huge impact on your performance. Each of the Big 3 movements should use a similar warm up prescription to maximise their performance. Thus this advice can be applied to these lifts, and their derivatives.

The way that we prepare to lift heavy weights, can make or break the workout that is about to take place. The average trainee, should perform 2 separate warm ups prior to training.

The General Warm Up

The general warm up is done prior to the training session to elicit a raise in body temperature, and activate the key joints and muscles that are going to be trained that day. One of my favourite systems for this warm up is the RAMP Systemwhich creates a great warm up every time.

The Specific Warm Up

After the general warm-up has been completed then move on to the specific warm up. The specific warm up is performed specifically for the movement being trained that day. For example,  a specific squat warm up may include specific hip warm up activities with a HIP CIRCLE or other squat specific drills. After these are completed then warm up sets with progressively heavier weight can be used. These sets will end when you reach the “working weight” for the day.

“Working Weight” – Refers to the weight you will be using for your sets that day.

Both of these warm ups are needed every training session. This ensures that the body has been generally warmed up, and specifically prepared for the movement patterns it is about to perform.

Why are Warm Up Sets Important?

The stronger an individual is, the higher the total amount of weight they are going to need to use in order to continually make progress. This means that for someone who can bench press 100lbs, they are going to need to work with heavier weights than a beginner who can only bench press 50lbs.

Now while the beginner may be able to come into the gym, put on their 35-40lbs on the bar and begin repping it out, as they progress to needing heavier weights they simply will not be able to do this and still have a good performance. The goal of performing warm up sets before the desired movements is to adequately prepare the body for the work it is about to perform. 

This Can Include:

  1. Activate, and prepare muscle that are about to be used
  2. Use joints through a range of motion similar to what they are about to experience
  3. Potentiate the nervous system
  4. Give time to prepare mental state
  5. Attempt to do this without creating fatigue.

The key point in the above list is that with all the preparation that we want to occur if not structured properly there will be fatigue created. Anytime that extra fatigue is created it will limit our ability to perform optimally.

Think of it this way, if you can perform 50 push ups consecutively, could you do it twice in a row with no break? What about three times?

Each time you performed the 50 push ups you would be creating fatigue, when you went to perform a second 50 this fatigue will limit your ability to complete all 50. This does not mean that you lost the ability to perform the push ups, simply that you were too fatigued to perform them at that time. 

This commonly happens to athletes who attempt some form of warming up, in an effort to feel prepared they over do it and end up limiting their performance potential by creating excessive fatigue. That is why using progressively heavier sets is often recommended. You will start with weights that are “light” and gradually progress to weights that are closer to the working weights for the day. As we progress through the warm up sequence however, in an effort to mitigate fatigue there is also a progressive drop the number of reps being performed.  

A Great Warm Up Set Structure

A great warm up set structure is imperative in having a great performance. I have used many warm up sequences in the past and the one that I have found to be most effective comes from Joe Kenn strength coach for the Carolina Panthers.

Joe Kenn Warm Up Structure:

  1. Warm Up Set #1 Perform 6-8 Reps with 60% of 1st Working Set Weight
  2. Warm Up Set #2 Perform 3-5 Reps with 65% of 1st Working Set Weight
  3. Warm Up Set #3 Perform 2-3 Reps with 80% of 1st Working Set Weight
  4. Final Warm Up Set Perform 1-3 Reps with 90% of 1st Working Set Weight.


This warm up set structure will work well for everyone, however stronger more experienced athletes, using heavier loads may need to add additional sets. Traditionally more than 4 warm up sets are performed for very strong athletes.


Set #

Reps Weight

Warm Up #1

6-8 180lbs

Warm Up #2

3-5 195lbs
Warm Up #3 2-3


Warm Up #4 1-2


Workout 5×5


Since implementing this system with my athletes, I have found that their performances are skyrocketing. This system allows for them to systematically warm up and insures that they are adequately prepared for upcoming training.

This system also uses heavy enough weights that their nervous system gets fired up in the process. The athletes I work with routinely report that they are over performing from how they thought they were feeling that day.

When is this warm up not appropriate?

As previously mentioned, this may not be the ideal number of warm up sets for athletes who are very strong. These athletes may want to add 2-4 additional progressive sets in the current structure. However, this current structure still will provide a good working model to start from.

Further this set structure is also not needed in full for a secondary exercise of the day. In this case performing another full warm up for any exercise after the primary movement would be adding unnecessary fatigue. Instead if you still feel that a warm up is needed for a secondary exercise, then a brief version of the above system may is more appropriate. Consider using sets 2 and 3 from the above warm up structure to craft a secondary warm up.

Finally, if the working sets for the primary movement are going to be performed in more hypertrophy or muscle-building rep ranges, then some athletes may not feel adequately prepared with sets of 2-3, and 1-2 as the final prep sets. In this case drop the percentages by 5-10% and double the reps of the prep sets.

Example Hypertrophy Warm Up Set Structure:

Set #

Reps Weight

Warm Up #1

10-12 55% of Working Weight

Warm Up #2

8-10 60% of Working Weight

Warm Up #3


70% of Working Weight

Warm Up #4 3-5

75-80% of Working Weight

Workout 3×10

@ Working Weight

The higher rep ranges in this example allow for a better feeling of preparation before higher rep sets.

Final Considerations

In addition to this warm up set structure, I often program other preparation, or pre-hab movements to be performed. Some examples of this type of work for squats could be HIP CIRCLE exercises, band stretches, mobility drills, an glute/posterior chain activation exercises.

Since beginning to use the HIP CIRCLE, and other Mini Band exercises in conjunction with the warm up set structure, the athletes that I work with have had remarkable improvements in performance. These extra drills work to improve the activation, and involvement of all the lower body muscles.

Do you use a similar warm up? Let me know in the comments below.

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