Tip: The Art of the Prep Set

It's not a warm-up set, but it's just as important. Here's what you need to know.

Identify and Economize Your Warm-Up Sets

Every time you do a set, you should be very clear about whether or not you're doing a warm-up set or a work set. Using a real-world example, let's say that your goal for the workout is 4 sets of 8 reps with 155 pounds on the military press.

Your first set might be 10 reps with the empty bar. Next, 85x8. Both of these sets were clearly "warm-up" sets, but you're not quite ready for 155. You'll need one more set to bridge the gap between 85 and 155.

Some lifters call this a "prep" set, and since the reps in this set qualify as "necessary but useless," we want to do as few of them as possible. This will vary from person to person and from workout to workout, but probably 3-5 reps will do the trick. From here, you're ready to tackle your result-producing work sets.

In your own workouts, get in the habit of distinguishing between warm-up, gap, and work sets. Then, vary your work output accordingly. Rather than using the same number of reps for all warm-up and work sets (as many lifters do), perform your warm-ups in a "pyramid" style to save your energy for when it really counts.

Let's say my goal is to deadlift 375 pounds for 10 reps. Here's how I'd warm-up and "prep set" for that workout:

  • 135x10
  • 225x6
  • 315x4
  • 345x1 (prep set)
  • 375x10 (set of reps that "count")

The main takeaway here is to evaluate your warm-up sets and look for opportunities to reduce unnecessary reps whenever possible.

Incidentally, the bigger the exercise is, the more important this strategy becomes. For "small" movements such as direct biceps and calf exercises, you'll recover so fast you won't need to worry much about saving your energy during warm-ups. But for big movements like squats, deads, and presses, economizing your warm-ups is a key success tactic.

Charles Staley is an accomplished strength coach who specializes in helping older athletes reclaim their physicality and vitality. At age 56, Charles is leaner than ever, injury free, and in his lifetime best shape. His PRs include a 400-pound squat, 510-pound deadlift, and a 17 chin-up max. Follow Charles Staley on Facebook