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How Do You Warm Up For A Weightlifting Exercise?
Greg Everett
November 13 2017

At this point, I can usually answer questions by pasting a link to an article or video of mine. Every once in a while, I get surprised that I don’t have something to send because the question is so obviously necessary to answer, and is asked so much. This is one of them—how do you warm up for an exercise?
The first question you have to ask is what exercise and what circumstances. You don’t follow the exact same process to warm up for your competition snatch and a few sets of 4 in the back squat. So I’m going to break this into four categories, but first let’s cover some general practices that apply to all situations.
Universal Practices
For any exercise, intensity and rep scheme, the basic procedure is starting with an empty bar and then spending a few sets on your first warm-up weight (the first weight you load after the bar—how much this is will depend a bit on the exercise. Something like a snatch will be the least weight, a clean & jerk a bit more, and a back squat even more—probably around 30-40% of your max single). Get warm and consistent with the movement here before moving up.
To work up, take progressively smaller weight increases as you approach the heaviest lift for the day. The actual size of the increases again will depend on the lift—you can and should take considerably larger increases in a squat than in the snatch. You can start with more reps and work to fewer depending on what you need to get warm—I’ll talk more on that below.
As an example, if you’re doing some sets in the back squat at 80%, you might take weight jumps like:
Obviously these are approximate—no need to use weird numbers like 72, 94, 101kg to hit exact percentages, which are just guidelines anyway—round to the nearest 5 or 10kg when you can to make life simple. When it comes to snatches and clean & jerks, you’ll more likely need to drop to increments below 5kg eventually unless you lift huge weights, which would likely make you someone not reading this article.
Max Snatch, Clean or Jerk Single
We still have two situations here in which we may do things a little differently—training and competition. In training, we obviously want to get as heavy as possible, but we may also want to spend more sets getting there, either for the physical training or to be more prepared mentally by taking smaller weight increases. In competition, generally we want to get up to our opener with as few sets as possible to minimize fatigue.
My basic procedure is as follows: Drills with the empty bar to both loosen up and practice what needs to be practiced. An example sequence would be something like 5 reps each of:
  • Snatch high-pull from below knee
  • Tall muscle snatch
  • Snatch press
  • Drop snatch
  • Overhead squat
  • Snatch from power position
Again, what exactly you do should both warm you up and focus on your problem areas. Maybe you add some good mornings to that sequence, or do press in snatch instead of snatch press, for example. You may then do some actual snatches with the empty bar, but typically it makes more sense to move to your first warm-up weight to be able to do the complete movement from the floor.
Start with doubles or triples or even a complex that addresses your weaknesses, and spend 2-5 sets here really making sure you’re warm. One of the biggest mistakes people make is rushing their warm-up and never quite feeling “warm” even at the top weights of the day. This will get you warm without wearing you out better than taking more lifts at heavier weights.
Work up from this first weight with progressively smaller jumps as described previously, ending with increments as small as you need physically and mentally. In the snatch, that could be as little as 2kg.
In competition, a minimalist warm-up for the snatch might look like this (See this article for more on warming up for competition):
Bar Series
35% x 2 x 3
48% x 2
62% x 1
76% x 1
83% x 1
90% x 1
94% x 1
97% x 1
In training if you need to get some more work on the way up, just reduce the sizes of the increases—start around 10% and move down to 5% or less as the weights move up. This will give you a few more singles, which shouldn’t tire you out too much, but will give you some more work and potentially get you better prepared mentally.
Multiple Rep-Max
When working to a rep max, e.g. the heaviest set of 5 you can do, there are two approaches—full volume and pure test mode. Full volume is simple—you just do the full number of reps on every warm-up set until you reach your max, using progressively smaller weight increases as usual. You can and usually should still spend a few sets at the lightest weight before moving up, but it won’t be quite as necessary because you’re doing considerably more reps with each set as it is—it’s more important to do with competition lifts than strength lifts.
When strictly looking to test a rep max, i.e. all you care about is doing the heaviest possible weight and how much volume you do in the session doesn’t matter, you can reduce the number of reps in your warm-up sets as you’re working up to allow you to get warm but minimize fatigue and save your energy for the maximal set(s). With our 5RM example, this might mean doing 1-2 sets of 5, then sets of 3 and 2 until getting to your 5 rep weight. Use the same progressively smaller weight increases that you would otherwise.
With this approach, the trick is knowing when to start doing the full number of reps—and not everyone is very good at that. Some will start too soon and end up doing multiple full-rep sets, and others will get greedy and wait too long, failing to complete the full number of reps when they try. If you have an existing rep max at this number, use that as a guideline so you at least know approximately where you’ll end up. If you’re new or have never tested a rep max at this number, you have to rely on feel and maybe some very loose idea based on percentages (e.g. you might expect to be able to do 85% or so for 5 reps depending on the exercise and how you’ve historically performed with reps vs intensity).
General Working Weight Sets
Again, two approaches—if you need to pick up more volume for conditioning or practice reasons, do the full number of reps on all of your warm-up sets until reaching your working weight(s). You may even start with higher reps and work down if you really need to get in shape, e.g. 10-8-6 then your working sets at 5. Otherwise, like above, you can do fewer reps on your way up as long as you’re warm enough by the time you get to your working sets. Use the same progressively smaller weight increases on the way up that you do in any other warm-up.
Specific Needs
Sometimes you’ll want to warm up differently for a specific purpose other than actually getting warm enough. That is, you’re using the warm-up to work on other goals than simply preparing to do the working sets of the exercise.
With the competition lifts, this will usually be for the sake of practice to improve technique and consistency—taking more sets, maybe even more reps per set, means more practice and faster skill development. For strength exercises, this will usually be to accumulate more volume during a preparatory phase for either conditioning or to encourage some hypertrophy.
Using complexes in the warm-up is another way to achieve this need for more practice while also accomplishing the actual warm-up well. Snatch pull + snatch, or push press + jerk, are examples of complexes you might use to warm up for the snatch or jerk.

Barbell Warm-ups for the Olympic Lifts

These are examples of good bar warm-ups for each lift: