I know that I’ve been beating this old dead horse for more than 10 years now, but since I still see people doing a “warm-up” routine, it obviously needs repeating.
When you enter the gym, you want to activate and potentiate your central nervous system (CNS). An effective and activated CNS, simply means better muscle fiber recruitment, better coordination and more gains in both strength and muscle mass. You also want to reserve as much energy and muscle glycogen for your main workout as possible.
Doing some pedaling on a bike or walking on a treadmill will only waste energy and tell your CNS that you’re about to do some endurance exercise. That’s not what we want.
If you have nagging injuries or if your mobility sucks, you should start with some easy mobility work for 5 minutes. Other than that, you should get on your main exercise directly. No matter if it’s squats, deadlift, the bench press, the power clean or some barbell rows.
What you should do is a ramp. This means that you keep the reps low (to preserve energy), you start with a weight about equal to your 40 to 50% of your 1RM and then you increase the load for each set. You only rest as long as it takes to change the load and get into a proper lifting position.
A good rule of thumb is to keep the ramp within 5 to 8 sets. If you’re a beginner or intermediate, keep the reps at 5 at the start and lower them to 3 at the end as you approach your max weights. If you’re more advanced, start with about 3 reps per set and 2 reps towards the end of the ramp.
I prefer to do 2 reps instead of singles, simply because your second rep is always better due to getting more compact/tight and “settling into the load” from the weight and execution of the first rep. Doing a ramp like this will potentiate your nervous system, getting you ready to push the really heavy weights. It will also warm you up like nothing else and get you into the grove, as you actually practice your main lift during the ramp.
This is how it could look like:
Set 1) 135 x 5
Set 2) 185 x 5
Set 3) 225 x 5
Set 4) 275 x 3
Set 5) 295 x 3
Set 6) 315 x 3
Set 7) 325 x 3 (first work-set)
The number of sets are dictated by your daily performance level. Some days you’ll need more sets to get ready, some days you’ll need less. And never do more than 5 reps – don’t waste your energy and don’t give your CNS the wrong signals. Also, try to be as explosive as possible on all lifts. Always strive to accelerate the load as much as you can during the lifting concentric phase.
This kind of ramping can also be used as a part of the planned workout. You work your way up to your daily 3RM or 2RM and then you do a couple of sets at that load or you move on to some intensification or hypertrophy-specific technique.
All of my training programs from the last 10 years have started with some kind of ramp. It’s simply the best way to start a workout.