Weight training is about more than just unrolling your yoga mat, lifting some weights, and calling it a day. In order to achieve your fitness goals, you need to make time for a proper warm-up (including warm-up sets) before jumping into your weight training program.

But what exactly is a warm-up set? How is it done correctly? And what are all the considerations you need to take into account to get the most out of your workout?

We’ll cover all of that and more in this complete guide to warm-up sets.

Let’s begin.

What Is a Warm-up and What Is Its Purpose?

A warm-up is a form of movement that’s done before exercise or activity as a way to “warm up” your muscles and prepare them for exertion. Warm-ups prepare your muscles for exercise by elevating your heart rate, increasing circulation and blood flow to the muscles, loosening up the joints, waking up your nervous system, and activating your muscle fibers.

Warm-ups are important before exercise because they help decrease the risk of injury, increase your performance, and reduce muscle soreness afterward.

A warm-up can take many forms, including:

  • Stretching: Stretching increases blood flow to the muscles and warms them up. The best type of stretching before a workout is dynamic stretching. Dynamic stretching (also known as active stretching) is a form of warming up the muscles for a workout. Unlike static stretching, dynamic stretching doesn’t require you to hold the stretch but rather stretch while performing gentle movements. Examples of dynamic stretching include arm circles, trunk rotations, and leg swings.
  • Foam rolling: Foam rolling increases circulation and your joints’ range of motion. It can be done before or after a workout, but many use it as a way to warm up beforehand.
  • Cardiovascular activity: Low-intensity cardio such as going for a walk or light jog, marching in place, jump rope, and jumping jacks are great ways to warm up before a workout, as they elevate your core body temperature and increase blood flow to the muscles.

What Is a Warm-up Set?

A warm-up set, sometimes referred to as warm-up reps, is a series of movements you perform with low resistance or weight before introducing your working weight into a weight training session. Your working weight is the weight you use during the main “working” part of your workout—thus the name.

Warm-up sets are especially important in weight training because they allow your muscles to progress to heavier weight ranges as opposed to jumping straight from a cardio warm-up with zero resistance to challenging weight lifting repetitions. 

What’s More Important: A Warm Up or a Warm-Up Set?

It should be noted that both a general warm-up and a movement-specific warm-up set can be incorporated into your workout. General warm-ups are a great way to get your whole body warmed up and ready for a workout, while warm-up sets are perfect for further isolating specific muscles to work up to your working weight. If you’re short on time, warm-up sets can replace a general warm-up; however, it’s ideal to do both.

What's the Difference Between a Warm-up Set and a Working Set?

We already know what a warm-up set is, but what exactly is a working set? Working set is the set in which you’ll be lifting the most volume, and doing most of the hard work, hence the name. A working set will usually push you until failure or close to it. 

The difference between a warm-up set and a working set is the resistance and the reps. In a warm-up set, your resistance will be light (either bodyweight or light weight). Depending on the goal of your working set (strength or hypertrophy), your warm-up set’s rep range will vary. For example, a warm-up set for a hypertrophic working set could include lower reps, while a warm-up set for a strength-based working set could include higher reps. The main differentiator is that the weight you’re working with is always lighter than your working set.  

Here are some examples of what a warm-up set could look like for a strength workout and for a hypertrophy workout:

Strength

Warm-up set

  • Resistance: Bodyweight or light weight
  • Reps: 8-15 

Working set

  • Resistance: Heavy
  • Reps: 1-5 

Hypertrophy

Warm-up set

  • Resistance: Bodyweight or light weight
  • Reps: 5-15 

Working set

  • Resistance: Heavy
  • Reps: 8-12 

It should be noted that your warm-up set doesn’t count towards your working sets. Unless your workout plan specifically states that one of the sets is a warm-up set, these are something you’ll have to do separately from the workout before you get started. For example, if a workout asks you to perform three sets, you’ll first do your warm-up set and then the three working-weight sets.

How Do Warm-up Sets Work?

Warm-up sets work by progressively recruiting muscle fibers as you move your body and add more load or resistance. The more load or resistance you add to a warm-up set, the more muscle fibers are recruited to assist with the movement. So as you warm up and move your way towards your working weight, your warm-up sets gently prepare your muscles for more work. 

What Should a Warm-up Set Be?

A warm-up set should be around four to five reps of movement at a low intensity of resistance. Anything past five reps can cause unnecessary fatigue and gets you closer to “work” than “warm-up.” 

Your warm-up set resistance can come from:

Wherever your resistance comes from, make sure that you’re choosing a warm-up resistance (or warm-up weight) that isn’t too challenging. Your warm-up set weight shouldn’t make you break a sweat. 

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How to Choose Your Warm-up Resistance

When choosing your warm-up weight, use RPE (Rating of Perceived Exertion) as your guide. RPE is the measurement of how you feel at the end of a set and how many more reps you could have done before failure. RPE is subjective and specific to how you feel; therefore, one person’s warm-up weight will be different from the next person. A person’s warm-up weight will vary based on their fitness level and should be selected intuitively. 

Your warm-up RPE should never exceed 5.

How to Rate Your Perceived Exertion

RPE is measured on varying scales depending on where you look, but the easiest way to measure RPE is on a rating scale from 1 to 10, 1being the easiest and 10 being the hardest. 

Here’s a specific breakdown:

  • RPE 1 - Minimal effort: This is the lowest amount of effort you could possibly put forth and could easily continue with it all day.
  • RPE 2 - Light effort: The amount of effort needed feels gentle and easy. You’re not even close to breaking a sweat and could continue for hours.
  • RPE 3 - Comfortable pace: Working at a pace where you can maintain a conversation without becoming out of breath and your form is nowhere near being compromised.
  • RPE 4 - Leisurely pace: You’re feeling a slight “push” at this stage but you can speak a few sentences without struggling and your proper form is still easily intact.
  • RPE 5 - Progressive activity: You’re at 50% of your maximum effort and starting to breathe deeply. You’re starting to push yourself but can still hold a conversation. You could easily do four to six more repetitions with good form.
  • RPE 6 - Moderate activity: You’re working and breathing deeply but can still maintain this level of activity for an extended period of time. At RPE 6, you’ll be able to finish your intended set but could have easily done three to five more reps with proper form.
  • RPE 7 - Hard work: You’re really working. Short sentences are becoming uncomfortable and maintaining this pace requires constant effort. At RPE 7, you have enough energy to finish your intended set but could have done two to five more reps with proper form.
  • RPE 8 - Vigorous work: You’re putting in a lot of effort and it feels like really tough work. You have enough energy to finish your intended set and could have done two to three more reps with proper form.
  • RPE 9 - Very hard work: The work you’re doing feels extremely challenging. You have enough energy to finish your intended set and could have done one to two more reps with proper form.
  • RPE 10 - Maximum work: You’re exerting your maximum possible effort. After your intended set, there’s nothing left in the tank and you couldn’t possibly do one more rep.

When measuring your RPE for a weight training session, do this at the end of each set, as soon as you finish. That way you can gauge the overall intensity of the entire set as opposed to assigning a measurement during (which may feel more intense while you’re in it).

How to Do a Warm-up Set

When performing warm-up sets before a weight training session, you should use the same movement as the movement or exercise you’re about to do with your working weight. For example, if your workout includes weighted squats, your warm-up set would be bodyweight squats or squats with a weight that’s lighter than you intend to use during the working set squats. The goal of a warm-up set is to warm up the muscle fibers of the muscles you’ll be using for your workout.

You should always do fewer warm-up sets than working sets. For example, doing a warm-up set before a bent-over row would look something like this:

Warm-up set:

  • Weight: 10 lbs
  • Reps: 4-5 (or until an RPE of 5

Working set:

  • Weight: 20 lbs
  • Reps: 8-10

Repeat: 2-3 times

You may also choose to do more than one warm-up set to progress your load in an ascending fashion. Here is an example:

Warm-up set #1:

  • Weight: Bodyweight
  • Reps: 4-5 (or until an RPE of 5)

Warm-up set #2:

  • Weight: 10 lbs
  • Reps: 4-5 (or until an RPE of 5)

Warm-up set #3:

  • Weight: 20 lbs
  • Reps: 4-5 (or until an RPE of 5)

Working set:

  • Weight: 30 lbs
  • Reps: 8-10

Repeat: 2-3 times

This type of warm-up sequence would work for exercises like squats, lunges, and deadlifts for the lower body and chest presses, rows, and overhead presses for the upper body, as these are the main lifts you’ll want to perform to the best of your ability.

At home, an example of a warm-up set would be using a light set of dumbbells to perform a movement that you’ll be focusing on during your workout (e.g. four to five reps of a bicep curl with the low weight when you know later on in the workout you’ll be doing bicep curls with medium to heavy weights). 

At the gym, an example of a warm-up set would be someone using an empty bar to perform a bench press for four to five reps (just the bar, no added weight). 

Note: If you’re strength training at home without equipment, this doesn’t require any form of warm-up sets. Instead, no equipment strength training workouts can use more general warm-up techniques such as cardio, foam rolling, or beginner bodyweight movements.

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At-Home Warm-up Sets

Whether you prefer to work out indoors or outdoors, we’ve put together our top warm-up set sequences you can do at home before a total-body workout, an upper-body workout, a lower-body workout, and a core workout.

Be sure to focus on your technique and your form. Remember, your warm-up sets shouldn’t cause you to break a sweat so take this time to check in with your mind and body and make sure you’re moving with proper form.

Also, the more time you have for your workout, the more warm-up sets you’ll be able to do. If you’re doing a quick 15-minute workout, you’ll naturally be doing fewer exercises and thus requiring fewer warm-up sets. For a 45-minute or hour-long workout, on the other hand, you’ll have more time and naturally more exercises to do warm-up sets for.

Total-Body Warm-Up Sequence 

Cat cow

  • Resistance: None
  • Reps: 4-5 (or until an RPE of 5)

Lateral bear crawl

  • Resistance: None
  • Reps: 4-5 (or until an RPE of 5)

Plank to alternating toe tap

  • Resistance: None
  • Reps: 4-5 (or until an RPE of 5) on each side

Squats 

  • Resistance: Body weight or with light weight 
  • Reps: 4-5 (or until an RPE of 5)

Alternating lunges 

  • Resistance: Body weight or with light weight 
  • Reps: 4-5 (or until an RPE of 5)

Chest press 

  • Resistance: Light weight (dumbbells or resistance band)
  • Reps: 4-5 (or until an RPE of 5)

Rows

  • Resistance: Light weight (dumbbells or resistance band)
  • Reps: 4-5 (or until an RPE of 5)

Check out lululemon Studio's elite-level total body weight training workout classes

Lower-Body Warm-Up Sequence 

Squats 

  • Resistance: Body weight or with light dumbbells or kettlebell
  • Reps: 4-5 (or until an RPE of 5)

Alternating lunges 

  • Resistance: Body weight or with light dumbbells or kettlebell
  • Reps: 4-5 (or until an RPE of 5)

Deadlifts 

  • Resistance: Light weight (dumbbells or resistance band)
  • Reps: 4-5 (or until an RPE of 5)

Check out lululemon Studio's lower-body weight training workout classes

Upper-Body Warm-Up Sequence 

Chest press 

  • Resistance: Light weight (dumbbells or resistance band)
  • Reps: 4-5 (or until an RPE of 5)

Rows

  • Resistance: Light weight (dumbbells or resistance band)
  • Reps: 4-5 (or until an RPE of 5)

Overhead press 

  • Resistance: Light weight (dumbbells or resistance band)
  • Reps: 4-5 (or until an RPE of 5)

Check out lululemon Studio's upper-body weight training workout classes

Core Workout Warm-Up Sequence 

Cat cow

  • Resistance: None
  • Reps: 4-5 (or until an RPE of 5)

Lateral bear crawl

  • Resistance: None
  • Reps: 4-5 (or until an RPE of 5)

Bird dogs

  • Resistance: None
  • Reps: 4-5 (or until an RPE of 5) on each side

Plank to alternating toe tap

  • Resistance: None
  • Reps: 4-5 (or until an RPE of 5) on each side

Check out lululemon Studio's expert-led core-specific weight training workout classes

What About Cool-Down Sets?

We’ve talked a lot about warm-up sets before a workout, but what about cool-down sets afterward? These are completely unnecessary. After a proper weight training session, you shouldn’t have anything left in the tank anyways. 

The best way to cool down after a heavy workout is to do some static stretching, foam rolling, and deep breathing. This will help reduce muscle tension, increase flexibility and range of motion, eliminate lactic acid, relax your sympathetic nervous system, bring your heart rate down, regulate your breathing, and more.

Warm Up and Weight Train With MIRROR

lululemon Studio's weight training classes are perfect for helping you incorporate warm-up sets into your workout routine. Our weight training classes encourage you to start with a lighter weight during your first set. This is the best approach to getting in a warm-up set based on your RPE and gauging how much weight you can progress to during the rest of your workout.

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