Research review: best warm ups for strength training

2nd October 2020: Peak Performance looks at some new research on the best way to warm up for two key strength exercises

As subscribers to Peak Performance will already be aware, a very large and accumulating body of research has confirmed that sportsmen and women who strength train experience a number of significant benefits. These include:

  • Stronger and more resilient muscles, reducing the risk of injury – both those arising from inherent weaknesses and those of strength imbalances.
  • Increased sprint and power capability – required in nearly all sports, even in endurance sports (for example, a sprint for the finish line or a mid-race burst to break away from the pack).
  • Improved muscle efficiency – more technically known as ‘economy’ (ie less oxygen consumption required to sustain a given sub-maximal pace)

Although the principles of strength training have been well established for athletes (see this article for a thorough discussion), the best way to warm up for a strength session in the gym is still a topic of much debate. A widely-held belief is that lots of reps using light weights is sufficient for an effective warm up – but is this true?

Squat and bench press warm ups

To try and answer this, new research has investigated the use of movement-specific warm ups for boosting squat and bench press performance and reducing perceived effort [Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 2020, 17(18), 6882]. Researchers studied 40 resistance-trained males to explore the effects of three specific warm-ups on squat and bench press resistance training on three separate occasions. These were as follows:

  • 2 × 6 repetitions with 40% and 80% of the usual training load used in the first and second warm-up set respectively
  • 6 repetitions of 80% of the usual training load
  • 6 repetitions of 40% of the training load.

Following the different warm ups on each visit, the subjects then went onto to perform squats and bench presses using their normal loadings (ie 100%). The success or otherwise of the warm up procedure was determined by measuring the average propulsive velocity during both exercises, the peak velocity and velocity loss (as fatigue set in), the time to achieve peak velocity, power, work, heart rates, and ratings of perceived exertion. Lower perceived exertion, heart rates, velocity loss and time to peak velocity indicate better performance – as do higher peak and average velocity, power and work done.

Key results

The key results were as follows:

  • The best squat performance was achieved by warm-up squatting with just one set of 6 reps at 80% of training load.
  • The best bench press performance was achieved using a bench press warm up consisting of two sets of six bench pressing reps – firstly, one set at 40% followed by a second at 80% of the training load.
  • Using a warm up consisting of just one set of reps at 40% of training load resulted in the poorest performance.

The implications

These results suggest that the conventional approach of using lots of low-load reps for a warm up is NOT the best approach for a strength training session where athletes are seeking to develop higher levels of power and dynamic strength. Instead, the focus should be on fewer reps at a higher (80%) loading. Where the exercise involves the shoulder joint (one which is inherently unstable and needs a more prolonged warm up), a 40%/80% approach is likely to be preferable.

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