Powerlifting, warming up

How to warm up for a new one rep max – the best way to prepare yourself for maximal performance.

Warming up gets a lot of attention in general if you punch “insert activity” warm up you will no doubt get a plethora of hits of varying quality from experts providing great advice to second-rate blogs posting nonsense for their search engine optimisation stratagem (SEO).  When it comes to warming up, in general, there are a few things you need to appreciate before we begin discussing the more specific nature of warming up for a maximal effort in a lifting movement.

This article will be mainly aimed at powerlifting or gym goers who are trying to produce a new 1 rep max or testing in the more basic exercises but a lot of the principals can be applied to sports like weightlifting where the main difference is the greater requirement for joint range and increased complexity of the task (which will be more or less attenuated if the lifter is of a sufficient skill level).

Warming up gives you a clue to the purpose of this activity, getting warm.

The sports science in this area is unfortunately not great but there are some people producing some interesting work.  One of the few systematic reviews I could find on the area of warming up found 32 studies of sufficient quality they could include them in the review they showed that of those studies 79% of the participants showed an improvement in performance after an adequate warm-up

Whilst it is not essential to the effectiveness of this article or the interventions suggested that you read the research I am going to provide a brief overview of some studies to demonstrate the rationale to their inclusion in the warm-up methodology I will be laying forward in this article.

A few more specific studies on the effects of muscle temperature on muscular power and strength


The main performance benefit you will get from performing a warm up in pretty much any sport or activity.  BUT especially in sports that are dependent on your ability to produce high velocity and high force output, is in the physical increase in the muscle temperature.  The importance of getting and keeping warm cannot be over emphasised if the goal of your warm up is to increase performance.


The importance of mobility or flexibility in the warm up for maximal strength 

In powerlifting what you are looking for is enough mobility to allow you to perform the optimal technique not one bit more.  An effective powerlifter will have the range available to adopt safe and efficient technique in each of the three disciplines and will be stiff through end range of these movements this stiffness will aid in their performance.  In strength sports your ability to produce maximal force is by far the most important factor to your performance, the lifter who can produce the most force to within in the confines of the rules is the lifter who is going to win.  Sure you might squat high bar ass to grass but the person who squats more weight to within the rules no matter how they do it is going to beat you.

Static stretching has gotten a bad reputation for reducing muscle velocity and power output from the research that exists.  It is pretty much commonly accepted that dynamic stretching is the go to method for increasing joint ROM without compromising muscle performance.  It is important to distinguish the need for extra joint ROM since not all lifters will require this change.

In a recent Literature Review, Jules Opplert and Nicolas Babault (2017) looked at the current literature on the acute effects of dynamic stretching on muscular flexibility and performance.  There findings suggested that static flexibility or ballistic flexibility where not recommended in a warm up routine but dynamic stretching of a precise and controlled manner was recommended if there was a need for extra range of motion.

Likewise, foam rolling or self-myofascial release has been shown to increase acutely the range of motion around joints without negatively affecting the function of the muscle or performance.  A recent study by Su Hsuan et al (2017) showed that foam rolling showed an increase in range of motion when compared to dynamic or static stretching.

Mental preparation

Most people will focus purely on the physical aspect of warming up or preparation when it comes to getting ready for a session.  For maximal activities, the mental side of an athlete’s preparation can often be THE determining factor between success or failure.  Before a lifter gets under a bar it can be difficult to tell if they are going to be successful or not if the lift is at the outer limits of their capability.  However, it is very easy to spot a lifter who has already psyched themselves out.  Many a physically gifted athlete has fallen short as a strength sports athlete because they were not be able to produce the performance they were capable due to problems with anxiety or inability to dial in and produce the technique or effort required.

Here are some factor you might want to consider including into your preparation or during your session to increase your performance.

Mental rehearsal

The process of mental rehearsal has been shown to be of benefit to lots of sports although typically it is of more benefit to sport that have a larger technical component vs having a more gross effort activity (of which lifting obviously falls under) this isn’t to say that there isn’t any benefit to mental rehearsal for lifting tasks far from the case

  • Mark W Cornwall et al (1991) looked at the effect of mental rehearsal and it’s effect on isometric strength. They found that mental preparation increased the force output produced by the experimental group vs control to be +12.6% greater.  This is a pretty good return for something that literally requires no physical effort.

Of course, this is going to be mediated by other factors such as your own ability as a lifter, the complexity of the task at hand (however more complex might actually be of benefit in this case) and you probably aren’t going to see a  12% increase in your 1 rep max IF ONLY.  But if your currently don’t practice any mental rehearsal I can almost guarantee if you take some time out of your day or on the way to the gym to visualise your workout and how you are going to execute perfectly I can guarantee you will notice an improvement in your performance.

Get in control of the music

Pretty much everyone knows that music makes exercise scenarios more engaging or make you more motivated.  Or at least it is pretty much accepted as common knowledge for most people who exercise on a regular basis.

Your take homes here are that music is better than no music for most people (some people will prefer a silent gym) and if you are in control od the music then much the better.  During sessions, if a lifter or athlete who is about to put forward a big effort and want to change the music then I will never refuse them regardless of what I might think of their music taste J

External cues

Other factors that you might want to try when you are getting ready or psyched up for a big lift

Anecdotally or from experience there is definite merit to the use of smelling salts, having training partners, getting yelled at be it encouragement or abuse (depending on what you are into) and a good hard slap on the traps or face can help you to get your adrenaline up.

What works for you is pretty individual some people love to have obscenities shouted at them or to be beaten around the face.  Whilst other prefer a quiet gym and no one near them or maybe a bit of encouragement before the lift but definitely not getting flogged.  The best thing to do is to experiment with different methods of mentally preparing for a hard set or big lift and then to make sure you REPLICATE it to the fucking smallest detail when you find something that works for you.

Activation and Potentiation.

Finally, there is a need to potentiate or to “activate”/get excited for a big neuromuscular effort (aka lifting your 1 rep max or trying to better it).  There are any number of way of doing this here are some of the ways I do it with myself and others or some wee tricks you can use to increase your chances of having a good session, we have covered off a lot of the most important things – being warm, good music, right environment etc.  The following are little things that might make a big difference.

  • Control the eccentric, fucking PAY ATTENTION to your position and nail it. When you lift the bar make it fucking RAPID!  Try and make the thing fly.  One of the biggest issues people have with this is getting overexcited and making a cunt of the eccentric of their set up.  Make sure you have the base right and then make the weight fly.  If you screw up your set up you will miss your heavier lifts so treat the bar like it’s your new PB every fucking set.
  • Try some heavy pick-ups before taking a rattle at your new deadlift PB. This is not for everyone but it’s definitely worth a try for your next heavy deadlift session.  Before you start deadlifting set up the rack or the J-Hooks for a high pick up (close to lock out) and then load it up towards or slightly heavier than the weight you are looking to hit.  Pick it up and hold for 3-5 seconds.  This should be enough exposure to not fatigue you but expose you to holding higher loads than you can deadlift, this just might make every weight feel piss easy even your PB or it might fry your grip.  Either way worth a shot once or twice.
  • Try squatting against bands when you are warming up for heavy squats. There was a study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning in around 2015 that showed warming up with bands lead to a jump in 1 rep max strength (Can’t dig out the reference).  Definitely worth a shot.
  • For bench press try warming up using DB bench press to make sure all of your shoulder joint is good and ready. This will help to warm up the shoulder more thoroughly due to the extra movement you can get in a dumbbell press.  You shouldn’t be looking to go heavy and fatigue yourself just heavy enough to warm up your upper body and not too light so you’re taking the piss.
  • There are any number of routines and circuits you can use to warm up your ankles, knees, hips, back, core, shoulder etc etc. Have a look and try some of these routines the initial kick will help you get into your sets.  It will probably make fuck all difference to the business end or towards you max but it will make your feel better warming up and that will make a difference.

There you have it a whole host of things you can implement and try when you are next warming up for a 1 rep max attempt.  Always make sure you are preparing to perform well in the lift you have coming up and not learning how to do an elaborate warm up for the sake of it.

How is this activity going to help me DIRECTLY to set a new personal best today?

If you can answer that question with no bullshit and straight away then you have a good warm up activity.





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