Here's what you need to know...
  1. To make heavy weights feel easier, warm up using a more difficult version of your main lift.
  2. Use "primer" singles to increase confidence on high-rep top sets.
  3. The Dynamic Effort method grooves technique and fires up the nervous system for heavy sets.

We've all had those days. You wait around for hours, salivating at the thought of crushing some iron. Maybe you're going for a new PR – the culmination of weeks or even months of intense training. You walk through the gym doors, Spike® in hand, dialed in and ready to dominate your workout.

What happens if your warm-ups feel heavier than usual? Or if someone steals your favorite bench or squat rack? Plenty of things can throw you off your game and rob you of the confidence needed to handle intimidating lifts. When things don't go as planned, you need a few tricks to refocus and keep you on the straight and narrow. Here are three methods you can use to instantly build confidence in the weight room.

1 – Use More Difficult Variations

When working up to a heavy set on complex exercises like squats or presses, technique is everything. A slight lapse in concentration or leak in tightness can throw off an otherwise successful set. More difficult variations of a movement can dial in technique and help you nail a heavy lift.

When working up, try using a tougher version of a similar exercise to prime yourself for a top set. The variation shouldn't be hard just for the sake of being hard – it should reinforce an aspect of technique that carries over to the main lift. For example:

Main Lift Variation Technique Cue
Squat Front Squat Chest up, abs tight
Bench Press Close Grip Bench Press Tuck the elbows
Deadlift Deficit Deadlift Hips low
Pull-up Wide Grip Pull-up Lead with the lats

Keep in mind, you may need to knock a few pounds off your warm-up sets since the variations are harder. The goal is to stimulate, not fatigue.

At my last powerlifting meet, I used deficit deadlifts for all my warm-up sets. People looked at me like I had an extra head growing out of my singlet, but I knew that deficit deadlifts helped reinforce my starting position and improved my speed off the floor. Once I hit the platform, my deadlifts felt easier and I pulled a 10-pound PR.

Paused reps also work with this approach. Try pausing each rep of your warm-up sets until you reach 75-80% of your target weight and then hit your reps as usual. You can pause for 3-5 seconds anywhere during the rep, but the most effective place is your sticking point.

For example:

  • Squat: Pause in the hole or halfway up.
  • Bench: Pause on the chest or just short of lockout.
  • Deadlift: Pause mid-shin or just below the knees.
  • Pull-up: Pause at the top or halfway up.

These methods will drill your technique, forcing you to stay tight and power through sticking points. By the time you get to your heavier sets, the weights will feel ridiculously light.

2 – Use Primer Singles

The point of warm-up sets is to prime you for your working sets. Do too few warm-ups and you won't be ready. Do too many and you'll lose out on precious pounds or reps. Submaximal singles done with pristine technique and lightning-fast speed can boost confidence and wake up high threshold motor units to get you ready for your working sets.

There are two ways to use "primer" sets:

  1. An overreach single before a lower-weight, higher-rep set.
  2. A repeat speed single after a multiple-rep warm-up set.

The first option simply uses a heavier weight than your top working set for a single. Choose a weight that's less than your max but heavier than what you want to do for reps, and hit it for one authoritative rep. For example, if you wanted to bench 225 for 8 reps, warm-up like so:

  • Empty bar x 8 reps
  • Empty bar x 8
  • 135 x 5
  • 185 x 5
  • 205 x 3
  • 220 x 1
  • 235 x 1 (primer set)
  • 225 x 8

After crushing 235 pounds for a single, 225 will feel lighter, giving you the confidence you need to smoke the set for higher reps.

The second method involves retaking a warm-up set for a single instead of multiple reps. Plenty of accomplished powerlifters advocate using more low-rep sets instead of a few high-rep sets to ramp up to heavy weights. This approach lets your retake a weight to get in extra warm-up volume while building confidence through high-speed singles. For example, if you were working up to a new squat max of 405 pounds:

  • Empty bar x 10 reps
  • 135 x 5
  • 135 x 5
  • 185 x 3
  • 225 x 3
  • 275 x 3
  • 315 x 3
  • 365 x 3
  • 365 x 1 (primer set)
  • 385 x 2
  • 385 x 1 (primer set)
  • 405 x 1 (PR)

Squatting 365 for 3 reps and 385 for 2 reps helps you feel out the weight, but retaking each weight lets you dial in perfect technique and work on explosive speed. The singles should feel easy after multiple reps, allowing you to carry that confidence into your PR attempt.

3 – Use The Dynamic Effort Method

Straight out of Westside Barbell, the Dynamic Effort method has been used for years by raw and geared lifters alike to build explosive strength and smash through plateaus. Perhaps the best reason for this is the extra technique practice a lifter gets by doing extra low-rep sets. Staying away from high reps lets you keep perfect form while focusing on bar speed helps you blow through heavy weights.

The Dynamic Effort method ignites the nervous system and hones technique for a heavy top set. Simply use one of the standard Dynamic Effort approaches and then move on to 2-3 heavy sets after your speed work.

Exercise Sets Reps Load * Rest After
Squat 8-10 2 50-60 45 sec. 2-3 sets x 1-3 reps at 80-90%
Bench Press 8 3 50-60 60 sec. 2-3 sets x 1-3 reps at 80-90%
Deadlift 8-10 1 60-70 30 sec. 2-3 sets x 1-2 reps at 80-90%

* % of 1RM

Mind Over Matter

These three techniques can get your mind right when the body struggles to follow. Incorporate these tricks into your warm-up and watch your working sets reach new levels of intensity.

Tony Bonvechio is a strength and conditioning coach at Cressey Sports Performance in Hudson, MA. A former college baseball player turned powerlifter, he earned his Master’s degree in Exercise Science from Adelphi University. Follow Tony Bonvechio on Facebook