I'll admit, right here in the first sentence, that warming up for a one-rep max is a pretty individual thing. I've seen some people blast out a new PR in the middle of a brutal workout. Others might walk into the gym, do a single warm-up set, load the bar with a new max, and actually succeed.
Good for them, and good for you if you've got a warm-up routine that works; I'd never try to talk you out of doing it if you're happy with the results.
But if you've ever walked into a gym with the goal of establishing a new PR and found yourself missing weights you thought you could handle, chances are you didn't warm up properly. You either did too little to get your body and mind ready for a one-rep max, or you did too much and exhausted yourself without achieving your objective.
My goal here is to show you a way to hit that sweet spot in the middle, where you're ready for a true test of your maximum strength with little risk of overshooting and being too tired by the time you get to the moment of truth.
The idea of "warming up" means different things to different readers. A good preparation for a one-rep max includes two specific and distinct types of warm-up. Most of this article is about the second type: the specific preparation for the specific lift or lifts you're going to max out on.
But before you get to that, you need to prepare your body with a general warm-up, which is basic activity to improve blood flow and increase your heart rate. It can be a brisk walk, five minutes on the stationary bike, 500 to 1,000 meters on the rowing machine, or anything else that takes no more than 10 minutes and doesn't leave you feeling worn out.
You can include some dynamic mobility exercises after a few minutes of walking, cycling, or rowing. The more inflexible or stiff an area is, the more important those mobility exercises will be.
If I'm preparing to squat or deadlift, I'll usually ride a bike at a brisk pace for one to one and a half miles, and follow that with some mobility drills. For an upper-body workout, I'll either walk or skip the general warm-up altogether. I don't recommend skipping it, but I'd be lying if I said I always do a general warm-up before I do upper-body exercises.
Do the Math
Once you're done with the general warm-up, it's time to prepare your body for the specific lift you're going to max out on – or the first one, if you're attempting a 1RM on more than one lift.
I'll start with the obvious: the best way to warm up for a max lift is to do the same exercise with submax weights. So while push-ups are a perfectly fine exercise to warm up your shoulder joints, if the goal is a PR on the bench press, it's better to warm up for it with lighter-weight bench presses. By practicing the lift, you warm up your neuromuscular system along with your muscles and joints.
My system is percentage-based, which means you need a 1RM to use as a starting point. That may seem like an odd prerequisite for an article like this – how can you know your 1RM if the goal of this exercise is to establish that 1RM? Trust me, you don't need to have a precise number. You just need to know the ballpark.
As you can see from the tables that follow, I offer several sample warm-up progressions for the three powerlifts. For a male lifter going for a bench press 1RM, for example, I break it down for a guy whose current PR is 185, 250, or 315. If your 1RM is something below, above, or between those samples, just plug in your own max and adjust the numbers from there.
If you have no idea how much you can lift once, but have a general idea of the most you can lift for a particular number of reps, you can use this powerlift conversion chart to approximate your 1RM.
When in doubt, estimate a lower 1RM. It doesn't matter where you start; it's what you end up with that counts. It'll take you a few minutes longer to get there, but if the end result is a new PR, who cares how long it took to figure it out?
You'll hit your max in as few as five sets or as many as 12, depending on your strength and the technical difficulty of the lift. The stronger you are, the more warm-up sets you'll need to get to your top number. Squats require more warm-ups than deadlifts.
This first chart is the basic outline of the system.
|Warm-up set #||%1RM||Reps||Rest after set|
|1||~ 30-50%||8||~ 2 minutes|
|2||~ 60%||5||~ 2 minutes|
|3||~ 70%||3||~ 3 minutes|
|4||~ 80%||1||~ 3 minutes|
|5||~ 90%||1||~ 5 minutes|
|6 (max out)||100%||1||5-15 minutes|
|7+ (max out)||+ ~ 2-5%||1||5-15 minutes|
The most common response I hear from lifters who aren't used to this kind of warm-up is fear that all these sets will tire them out before they get to the max. But that fear is misplaced. It's not the number of sets you do that causes fatigue, but the number of reps.
The first four sets are ridiculously easy. You're working with weights you should be able to lift for two or three times the number of reps you'll actually perform. You shouldn't need to ask for a spot on any of them. (If you do, you're working with too much weight.)
Set number five is heavy, but you're only doing one repetition. Most of us can do three or four reps with 90 percent of our 1RM, so one rep shouldn't be fatiguing. The key is to feel as if you're lifting something really heavy. Otherwise, your max will feel even heavier than it is, and you might end up defeating yourself before you start.
You're also resting five minutes, more or less, before you do your sixth set, which uses 100 percent of your previous or estimated max. Again, you shouldn't feel fatigued when you get to that one.
The Main Event
As I mentioned earlier, the charts in this section and the next two show warm-up strategies for different lifts and different levels of strength. I picked bench-press numbers that'll be most useful for beginner and intermediate lifters – as you'll see, they stop at 315. Advanced lifters using bigger weights can simply use the examples shown for the squat and deadlift, which go up to 500 pounds.
If you can bench, squat, and/or deadlift more than 500, I'm going to assume you already have a warm-up strategy that works for you. If not, it's simple enough to pull out a calculator to figure the percentages using the basic templates I've shown here.
In each chart, I show three different options: normal, high, and low volume. Like I said at the beginning of this article, warming up for a PR is an individual thing – some do better with more volume, some with less. If you're unsure which applies to you, start with normal volume, and work your way up or down from there.
You may need different strategies for different lifts and different circumstances. For example, if you're lifting in a cold garage, or if you're feeling stiff on the day of your 1RM attempt, you may choose the high-volume option. Conversely, if you're a guy who just likes to grab the bar and go, you might do best with the low-volume warm-up.
I only show one example that's specific to female lifters, but women can use any of the following charts for their own lifts. If your current 1RM in the squat is 185, just use the example shown for a 185-pound bench press.
Bench (Female) – Current 1RM: 105 pounds
Increase weight by 2.5-10 pounds on next attempt.
Bench – Current 1RM: 185 pounds
Increase weight by 5-10 pounds on next attempt.
Bench – Current 1RM: 250 pounds
Increase weight by 5-15 pounds on next attempt.
Bench – Current 1RM: 315 pounds
Increase weight by 5-20 pounds on next attempt.
Squat – Current 1RM: 405 pounds
Increase weight by 10-30 pounds on next attempt.
Deadlift – Current 1RM: 405 pounds
Increase weight by 10-30 pounds on next attempt.
Deadlift – Current 1RM: 500 pounds
Increase weight by 10-40 pounds on next attempt.
A few more guidelines:
- As you can see in the charts, I like to use convenient weights whenever possible – 135, 225, etc. – to minimize the number of weight plates on the bar and make transitions as easy as possible.
- When you jump to the next weight on a warm-up set, the increase shouldn't be any bigger than the previous increase. (A smaller increment is fine.) So if you go from 135 to 165, a 30-pound bump, don't jump all the way up to 205 on the next warm-up set. Instead, use 185 or 195.
- Once you get up to 80 percent of your 1RM, stick to one or two reps. More than that, and you've turned a warm-up set into a work set. That's fine for training, but not for warming up.
- Don't do any warm-up sets with 95 percent or more of your 1RM. It's heavy enough to tire you out but not heavy enough to prove anything.
- On the charts, I used your current max as the final set before you go for a PR. But if you've maxed out before and know exactly what your 1RM is, you don't have to hit that max again before you go for a new one. You can add five or 10 pounds and use that instead. That way you hit a PR before you're technically even trying for one.
- Once you hit a new max, increase the weight 2 to 5 percent, rest 5 to 15 minutes, and try to hit another. You can add as much as 10 percent if the new max went up so easily that you think you're wasting time with a small bump, but avoid the temptation to add any more than that. It's much easier and more exciting to hit a series of PRs on your way up; the momentum makes you feel like you have superpowers. You don't want to jump too much, fail, and then strip weight off the bar for your next attempt. It probably won't work, since failure creates its own negative momentum.
- I didn't write this for competitive powerlifters, but if you are one, you can certainly use this system with a simple modification. Since you probably aren't going to use your PR for your opener, you should plug that first attempt into the formula as your final set, and plan your warm-up sets accordingly. Then your second and third attempts should be treated as PR attempts, whether they are or not.
- Don't be afraid to add or repeat warm-up sets if you feel you need them. Just make sure you include the additional rest period between sets.
- If you have questions about a specific weight you want to hit, or about anything I should've covered here but didn't, post them in the discussion thread, and I'll do my best to provide an answer.
That's it for me. Now it's all you. Give this warm-up method your best shot, rock out a new max, and tell us all how you did.
Most important of all, remember that you can't argue with results. If this works for you, great — I'm happy I could help. If something else works better for you, that's fine as well. As long as you hit those PRs, what else matters?