What is the best way to warm up for barbell exercises?

Barbells can be intimidating.

Especially if you’re new to the gym, or the fitness game in general.

In this post, I want to dispel some of this intimidation by giving you some knowledge about how to safely warm up for lifting heavy weights. The heavy weights that will build strength and make daily life easier.

Because the more you feel like you know what you’re doing, the less intimidated and the more confident you’ll feel.

First, I want to clear up some jargon.

Basically, when I use the word “warm up” in this article I mean the things you do to specifically to prepare you for your heavy sets of barbell exercises.

I am not referring to the general warm you do at the very beginning of your workout (stretching, foam rolling, etc), which you should do in addition to what I discuss in this post.

Now that’s out of the way, let’s get into it.

Warm up sets vs. work sets

Ok, so you’re at the squat rack. Because you’re doing squats. Your workout says “3 sets of 5”. But first, you have to do your warm up sets.

But what does that mean exactly?

Those “3 sets of 5” written into your workout plan are called your work sets. The weight you use for your work sets is called your work weight. These are the sets that count, the sets that challenge your body enough to reap the benefits of heavy strength training.

However, your work sets of barbell exercises will be significantly heavier than what you can lift with other forms of free weights like dumbbells or kettlebells. Like, hundreds of pounds heavier. It’s just the nature of barbells, and what makes them such an effective tool.

You can’t just jump straight into lifting something so heavy because:

  1. It wouldn’t be safe
  2. You won’t be able to lift as heavy because your body and brain won’t be primed for it.

This is where warm up sets come in. In this case, warm up sets are light sets of squats that get progressively heavier until you reach your work weight. You build up to your work weight rather than just going straight into it. If your workout calls for 3 sets of 5, you will be doing more than 3 sets in total. But only the last 3 sets will be challenging.

Here’s how this works in practice

Still sticking with squats, you start off with a really light weight for a decent number of reps. This is to get you feeling comfortable and reacquainted with the movement. Usually this will be around 8 to 10 reps, but really you should keeping repping it out until the movement feels smooth.

Then, you add some weight to the bar, and do a few less reps.

Then, you add some more weight to the bar and do a few less reps than the last set.

Keep repeating this process until you’re doing sets of 1 rep. Then just add weight. Do a rep. Add weight. Do a rep. The closer you get to your work weight, the smaller the jumps in weight will be and the longer the rest time in between sets.

Do this until you reach your work weight. Then simply follow your workout as written.

Choosing the right weights for your warm up sets will take some practice, but the more time you spend working with barbells, the more you’ll know what your warm up sequence is.

Let’s have an example.

Here’s how this might look

I’m going to use a really heavy weight (315 lbs) as the work weight for this example because it means you get a more detailed look at how to warm up.

  • Warm up:
  • bar(45 lbs) x 10
  • 135 x 8
  • 225 x 5
  • 245 x 3
  • 265 x 1
  • 285 x 1
  • 295 x 1
  • 305 x 1
  • 310 x 1

  • Work sets:
  • 315 x 5
  • 315 x 5
  • 315 x 5

The stronger you get, the longer your warm ups will be

The heavier the weight you lift, the more sets you’ll need to ramp up to it.

Think about it. Somebody who squats 135 lbs won’t need as many warm up sets as someone who squats 315 lbs. This is simply because they don’t have as far to work up to. Plus, the heavier the weight is, the more taxing it is on the body. So it requires more reps for your body to get ready for it.

Let’s have another example to compare with the 315 lbs one above so you can see what I mean:

  • Warm up:
  • bar(45 lbs) x 10
  • 95 lbs x 8
  • 115 x 3

  • Work sets:
  • 135 x 5
  • 135 x 5
  • 135 x 5

That’s quite a big difference in how long each respective warm up takes.

You’ll also notice in the first example, there are some very large weight jumps at the beginning of the warm up.

This is because when you’re that strong those weights are considered “light” making such big jumps possible and efficient. Plus, the aim of the warm up is to prepare you, not tire you out. Doing 20 lbs jumps from 45 lbs all the way to 315 lbs would take for-e-ver and wear you out.

By the time you reached your work weight you’d already be fatigued. Not ideal.

The warm up serves another purpose I’ve only briefly mentioned up until now.

Mental preparation

The warm up is to get yourself mentally prepared to lift something really heavy.

If you skip the warm up and go straight into squatting your work weight, that thing is going to feel crazy heavy. You’re not going to be focused and you’ll be in your head a lot more. This isn’t going to be conducive to a good workout.

However, when you make small weight jumps working up to that heavy work weight, pscyhologically, the leap is a lot smaller. When you’ve already squatted 180 and it felt OK, making a small 5 lbs jump to 185 lbs doesn’t seem so bad. This in turn will make the lift go more smoothly and safely because you’ll be properly focused on your technique.

Replace “180” and “185” with any other numbers and the principle is still the same. The point is to take these examples and apply the principles behind them to wherever you are on your own strength journey.


Let’s condense this into some lovely little take away bullet points. Because everybody loves bullet points.

  • Before lifting something really heavy, you need to work up to it with a series of warm up sets.
  • The stronger you get the more important, and the more lengthy your warm up is.
  • Start with just the bar and do around 8 to 10 reps
  • Add weight and decrease the reps each set.
  • The closer you get to your work weight, the smaller the weight jumps should be
  • Repeat this process until you reach your work weight, then follow the reps and sets as written on your workout.
  • Proceed to crush your work sets.

Posted on Mar 13, 2019