Warming Up For Strength (1-6 reps)
When referring to strength I choose the traditional definition of absolute strength meaning to move the most weight possible, regardless of time or any other factor. Wanna bench press 350lbs? Pay Attention! Wanna do a pull-up with a Buick strapped to your waist? Listen up! I see this one screwed up every time I go to the gym. A bit of physiology is necessary to understand the implications of a proper (or improper) strength warm up. First off maximal strength is a product of the size and number of Type IIB muscle fibers, and the ability of your nervous system to activate them. These are the most sensitive of all of your fibers and are referred to as "high threshold". Think of them as that significant other you used to have that would cry and slam doors every time you said something wrong. Treat these fibers wrong, even for a second and they'll surely slam the door in your face causing you to lose strength.
Mistake #1: High Rep Warm Ups- High reps (10 and above) will cause your body to release lactic acid into the blood stream which significantly impairs the nervous system's ability to activate high threshold (think strength) motor units. WHAM!! The door just slammed, and an inspirational picture of your goal physique fell of the wall. Keep the reps in your warm up sets at six or below (see examples below).
Mistake #2: Low Set Warm Ups- Knock out 10 reps with the bar, 10 reps with plates on each side, and hit it…right? Wrong! Let your nervous system know what's coming for God's sake! Don't send a soldier into battle with pepper spray! The closer you are working to your one rep max during your real sets, the more warm up sets you need. I recommend about 3-5 warm up sets, each with progressively heavier weight, but never excessively fatiguing yourself for your real sets.
Mistake #3: Stretching- Before you turn the page muttering about heresy, hear me out. Healthy muscles remain at optimum contraction length in a resting position. When you stretch them, you cause them to go into a suboptimal contraction length, hence weakening the fibers (temporarily). Don't get me wrong, stretching is great, just not before you are going to call upon a muscle to perform at peak output levels. So save your stretching for after your workout, or better yet…stretch the antagonist (opposite) to the muscle you are going to use. Benching heavy- stretch the lats! Squatting heavy- stretch the hip flexors! You will find that this can enhance the effects of the stretch shortening cycle (that's a very good thing) and make your bench press/squat stronger! Exceptions do exist, however; if the muscle you are about to train is chronically tight, by all means stretch it first, because it is probably at a suboptimal contraction length at the other end of the spectrum. I am not going to discuss specifics, but for those of you familiar with PNF stretching, studies have shown it to cause short-term gains in strength, so feel free to give it a try pre-workout.
Mistake #4: General Warm Ups- The nervous system picks up patterns, and running on the treadmill, or pedal pushing for 5-10min to "get the blood flowing" or whatever rationale you use does nothing to prepare the C.N.S. for a highly specific task like benching, squatting, rows or any other exercise for that matter (other than running or biking). So do your body a favor and don't waste your glycogen (stored energy) on something that isn't going to help your body complete the task at hand. If you're going to squat, warm up by squatting, stay away from the treadmill. In fact, walk a wide path around it as I've seen those things leach glycogen from people's livers osmoticaly from three feet away. You wouldn't warm up your car for a trip to the grocery store by hopping on the highway would you?
Example Warm Up Routines:
Keep a constant moderate tempo on all reps, about 3 seconds down, 3 seconds up (3030)
Only perform warm up sets for the 1st exercise per cold muscle group
Rest only as long as it takes to change the weights between warm up sets
6 > 4 > 2:
Planned Work Sets- 4 sets of 6 reps @ 225lbs
Warm up set 1: 50% 6RM =110lbs x 6 reps
Warm up set 2: 70% 6RM =160lbs x 4 reps
Warm up set 3: 90% 6RM =205lbs x 2 reps
4 > 3 > 2 > 1:
Planned Work Sets- 5 sets of 3 reps @ 275lbs
Warm up set 1: 50% 3RM =135lbs x 4 reps
Warm up set 2: 75% 3RM =205lbs x 3 reps
Warm up set 3: 90% 3RM =245lbs x 2 reps
Warm up set 4: 95% 3RM =260lbs x 1 rep