The Secrets of Preparing for a Big Lift: What is the Perfect Powerlifting Warmup?

Learn how to warm up for a powerlifting training session in 5 minutes in order to maximize your performance under the barbell.

Session prep is a key factor that can help lead to consistency in your powerlifting training. Many are comfortable with their nutrition strategies leading in to a session. I will touch on a couple surface-level points for nutrition and general warmup strategies, but the focus of this article will be on specific warmup methods to follow once you’re under the bar.

For myself, I like to get a ~600 calorie meal with <20g fat, and 35-40g of protein around 2 hours before a training session and over the 2 hours leading up to my training, I will typically drink 500-1000ml of electrolyte enriched water so I can hit the ground running when it’s time to get moving.

But… how should we structure our warmups once we are in the gym?

Since I started coaching powerlifters back in 2014, I’ve worked to develop my own system that is both structured enough to remain usable and flexible enough to individualize for a lifter’s injury history, personality type, etc.

Without further ado, let’s jump in.

When it’s time to start lifting for the powerlifting training session, I will divide warmups into 2 primary parts:

  1. General warmup; and
  2. Specific warmup.

For a general warmup, there are two simple objectives – increase body temperature (get WARM via general movement drills or cardio) and train/restore mobility. For more detail on how to select exercises for building mobility, refer to my Definitive Powerlifting Accessory Manual ebook

The specific powerlifting warmup is where we will spend most of the time here. This is where we get under the barbell and lift some heavy ass weights!

With this in mind, I’d like to present a framework for how to approach the barbell when working up to a top set – whether that be for a 1 rep max testing or simply a regular powerlifting training session. At the end of this article, I will provide a couple additional insights on how to approach the psychological side of warmups to maximize your results from your time under the bar.

Selecting bar weight is pretty easy. I like the simplicity of warmups where the bar weight is expressed as a percentage of your first working set.

In practice, a “minimalist” type warmup could look something like this:

  1. 50-60% X 5-8 reps
  2. 65-75% X 3-5 
  3. 75-85% X 1-3 
  4. 85-95% X 1

So, if you were warming up a top set of 200kg for 8 reps, your warmups could be something along the lines of:

  1. 110kg X 8
  2. 140kg X 5
  3. 160kg X 3
  4. 180kg X 1

Using the same example first working set of 200kg – if you were planning on doing this for a set of 2, we would err towards the lower side of the rep scheme here. This could result in something closer to:

  1. 110kg X 5
  2. 140kg X 3
  3. 160kg X 1
  4. 180kg X 1

The above ideas are generally a good starting point for most late-beginner to intermediate powerlifters who are under ~35 years old. As you age and as you get stronger, you will typically need more time, and sets to get “up to speed” in your workouts. As such, if you’re a powerlifter who is older and/or stiffer and/or you’re just having a rough day and are off to a slow start, you can add in some additional, lighter sets to push more blood through the muscles and joints as well as double up on the % ranges supplied where you repeat multiple sets within the ranges instead of going from range 1 to range 2, etc.

An “extended warmup” under the bar could look something like this:

  1. 30% X 10
  2. 40% X 8
  3. 50% X 6
  4. 60% X 5
  5. 65% X 3
  6. 70% X 3
  7. 75 % X 2
  8. 80% X 1
  9. 85% X 1
  10. 90% X 1
  11. 95% X 1

You’ll notice here the much smaller jumps and overall lower rep count on each set. This is intended to “dip your toes in the water” and not risk overdoing it by having 11 sets of 5-8 reps where you would likely begin to fatigue yourself from the sheer workload of the warmups before even getting to your main work. Keep in mind: anything you do in your warmup should improve your performance in the main lifts – not detract in ANY way.

Additional Considerations + Advanced Warmup Layering

  • Bar speed is of utmost importance. Using the principle of Compensatory Acceleration Training (CAT) with any and all weights you are handling should be a constant when you train.
    • “Move light weights with the same intent as you do with heavy weights so that heavy weights move as though they are light”
  • Use the lighter weights and increased margin for error in ALL of your warmup sets as an opportunity to develop technique.
    • At the beginning of each set, focus on ONE technique item that you are working on developing. Be as focused on your intent with the lift as possible on each rep.
  • Generally speaking, you should repeat a weight in your warmups until technique feels correct and bar speed is near-maximal. Being warm from the general warm-up sequence should allow you to get under the bar and focus on the specific warmup with more intensity and less need to be “delicate” at the start of your session.
  • There is a fairly broad range of volume covered in this article for specific warmups. There is no “universally correct amount” when it comes to concepts such as warmup volumes. Best practices here would be to establish a range of acceptable warmup volumes starting with what your “minimum effective amount” of volume should be on days where you feel normal in order to maximize efficiency in the gym. From there, play around with how much more work you need to get moving on days where you feel beat up, sore, tired, etc. Once you’ve established that range, it really becomes quite “plug and play”
  • Adding in power-focused drills or plyometrics can be an excellent addition to your warmups. Less is more here and a couple sets of a few reps is generally sufficient at “priming” the nervous system. A couple examples are outlined below:

How to best use the information in this article:

We covered a LOT today on the topic of warmup up effectively for a powerlifting training session.

My suggestions on how to best implement the information would be as follows:

Take a look at the weights for your next training session. For any main lifts on that day:

  1. Calculate a specific warmup with a “minimalist” style per the first couple outlines in this article.
  2. On your next training session for that lift, try out the “extended” warmup style.
  3. Compare performance from the two sessions and see if/how much the adjustment in warmup volume helped or hindered your lifts.
  4. Based on the results of your 2-session experiment, adjust your number of warmup sets by 2 per session. Repeat this until you see improvement drop off or even a decline in performance. This strategy is known as bracketing. There are of course a TON of factors at play here, so take any increases/decreases in performance with a grain of salt.

I hope the article helped you figure out how to best choose warm-up weights for a powerlifting focused training session.

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