This is a common question we get. Like many of our answers we encourage athletes to use the information given to them and customize it to their needs and likes. Much of what I cover will give you the basics and then I will tell you how to customize the basics to your needs and likes. I also offer two videos where I’ve covered this in the past.
I don’t do or recommend a whole lot of stretching prior to weight training. There is a lot of evidence that excessive static stretching will reduce your strength potential if done immediately prior to lifting. That does not mean however that stretching should not be included in your program. There is however a time and place for it and just prior to your session is not the place for it unless it’s a brief stretch to help with mobility to complete the ensuing lift. For example, I do calf stretches before my squats to help with my lagging ankle mobility. To accomplish this I simply do calf raises with a hold at the fully stretched portion of the movement. All other stretching, I do at home many hours prior to, or after my session.
Warm up for weight training should look somewhat like the training you are about to do. If you are preparing to squat or do legs, a portion of your dynamic warm up should be body weight squats, leg kicks, high knees etc. If you are preparing to do an overhead press session a portion of your dynamic warm up should be very light, maybe just your arms, overhead presses, even jumping jacks. If you are preparing to do a bench session a portion of your dynamic warm up should be air push-ups, regular push-ups, or even those giant back slaps like Michael Phelps has made famous. You might do all of these together or have different movements depending on your needs and preferences. The important thing is that you get your body temperature up, prepare the joints for movement in nearly a full range of motion (or at least fuller than you have been using up to your workout) and getting blood to the muscles which are be stretched and forcefully contracted in a submaximal/preparatory fashion. For an in-depth video on the science of warming up check out this video by my colleague Eric Helms:
When doing movement prep your efforts should be on the concentric portion of the movement. Do that portion with force, just like your weight lifting.
A link to a video of me putting these principles into action can be found here. Example of Movement Prep starts at 7:40 in the video.
Ascending Warm Up Sets
This is where the bulk of my time will be spent. Again, the information should be put into your context and customized to you, because these ascending warm up sets will need to be altered depending on your focus and rep target for any particular session. That being said, if you are doing a hypertrophy session where your rep targets are 12 to 15 reps. You may not need to do very many ascending warm up sets as the weight won’t be very heavy (less to build up to). Likewise if your focus is a strength session and your rep targets are 2 to 6 reps, you will probably have to do many ascending warm up sets. Then of course you have everything in between.
If your focus is strength and your rep targets are low, a good place to start ascending warm up sets would be roughly 40 to 50% of the load you are planning to work on for that day. Do this set for roughly the same amount of reps you will be doing on that day for your working sets. Then keep moving up the ladder in fairly equal increments. Move from 50 to 60% for the next warm up set. Then 60 to 70% of the next and so on. Stop at roughly 85 to 90% of the load you plan to use for that day for 1 or 2 reps at most and you should be ready to go for that first working set.
To put this a bit more into context, I’ll use myself as an example for a bench press session where my rep target for the day is 3. My 1RM for bench is roughly 325lbs. On any given day, thus, where my rep target is 3 I could use anywhere from 275 to 285lbs. After I’ve completed the dynamic warm up I outlined above, I start with roughly 135lbs and do a set of 3 or 4. Then 200lbs for a set of 3, then 240lbs for a set of 3, and finally a set of 260 to 270lbs for a set of 2 or 3. Again for a bit more context and variety as I customize this protocol to my needs, I offer a video demonstrating my ascending warm up sets on a particular squat session.
The question might be now, how would this procedure look if you are scheduled to perform a higher rep target like 10 reps? In my case obviously I would not be using a working weight of 275 to 285lbs. With a rep target of 10 I would probably be using a load of roughly 225 to 240lbs. So the ascending warm up procedure would look like an abbreviated version of what I gave above with more reps per set. It does not have to be perfect, but I would guess a good place to start, once my dynamic warm up is complete of course, would be 115lbs for a set of 8 to 10. Then roughly 135lbs and do a set of 8 or 10, then 180lbs for a set of 8, then 210lbs for a short set of 3.
Many of us do whole body sessions or a fair amount of bodybuilding work after our big barbell work. In this case, one dynamic warm up at the beginning of the session may or may not be the best. In my case I typically do one dynamic warm up at the beginning of the session, then move to either squat or deadlift where I do my ascending warm up sets and all my working sets. Then I move to bench press or seal rows where I typically start the ascending warm up procedure again. At this point however, it might be necessary for someone to do another dynamic warm up for the upper body and that is fine. Then as you move to your bodybuilding or secondary work, you typically will not need to redo any ascending warm up sets or a dynamic warm up. You should be able to just get right to your required working sets for the day.
So long as you meet the requirements of elevating your body temperature, preparing your muscles for the contractions to come, and finally acclimating to the working loads, you are good to go. Again, it’s important to know there is no right or wrong way to accomplish the material I’ve provided here. What’s important, is that you accomplish it all the while safely maximizing your potential performance in the gym.