13 min read

What's the Difference between Work Sets and Warm-Up Sets?

Obviously, your real first set probably shouldn't be 3 pies per side. But how do you determine when the warm-up becomes the workout and vice versa?
What's the Difference between Work Sets and Warm-Up Sets?

This is another one of those articles I've been meaning to finish write forever.

So your program is littered with exercises listed for 3 sets of 5. But when is 3 sets of 5, not actually 3 sets of 5?

When you're working with a weight so heavy or a movement so technical that you can't possibly just start set #1 with the weight you'd like to use for all 3 sets!

Ever try to race someone without a warm-up? How'd that go? I'd bet, not well. You certainly didn't post a personal best time on the race.

High loads applied to cold tissues and unstimulated nervous systems will lead to a suboptimal training performance.

It'd be foolish to throw a few plates on each side for a leg press, deadlift or squat and get started with your workout. Unless of course, your max capacity is double a few plates a side. In which case, you probably don't need to be reading this article, move along.

Warm-ups should be built into your routine no matter who you are, it's just a matter of degrees.

What is a Warm-Up Set?

A warm-up set is a set of an exercise that doesn't "count" towards your prescribed workload. It counts in the sense that it's important to do, but it shouldn't count towards what you see written in an resistance training program.

Especially when you start working with relatively heavy weights – or even more technical or speed-oriented compound lifts too.

To do 3 sets of 5 with a "decent" weight (see the example below), you likely want to do anywhere from 2-8 sets of incremental warm-up sets. Towards the higher end of that spectrum when the intensity (Read: rep range you're working in = lower) is higher and possibly even zero or only one warm-up set if you're using high rep (12-15+), low intensity training.

Don't worry, I'll explain the details...

These sets help you "work up to" the weight you're actually going to use for all 3 sets. Or at least a threshold for what "counts" as a true work set. They prepare you.

Depending on how you warm-up best, this means some (but not necessarily all) of the 3x5 resistance training exercises in your training session could actually be more like 5-11 sets of 5. 😲

I know right? But the program said 3x5!??!!???!

Beginners especially find this concept of (*implied) additional sets leading into your actual work sets challenging. How do you do them? When? Why?

That's what I hope to clear up by the end of this article.

*They often lurk in the background of your program, implied but without specific instructions for how they should be done.

Let's make sure you know what they are first. Most commonly you'll see programs online written out like:

  • 3x5 Back Squat
  • 3x5 Barbell Bench Press
  • 1x5 Deadlift
  • 3xMax Chin-Ups

Or something like that...

Very rarely will you ever see:

  • 3x5 Back Squat (2 warm-up sets with 50% and 75% of your anticipated working weight)
  • 3x5 Barbell Bench Press (2 warm-up sets with 50% and 75% of your anticipated working weight)
  • 1x5 Deadlift (3 warm-up sets with 60%, 70% and 80% of your anticipated working weight)
  • 3xMax Chin-Ups (no warm-up needed)

Catch all that? I doubt it.

Not only does that take too long to write, it's also much harder to read. And it can't account for how you as an individual best warms up for certain exercises or certain rep ranges.

How you warm-up up should be pretty individualized, making it hard to pre-determine coaching instructions even within the notes of a program. This is a nuanced skill that almost defines the jump from 'beginner' to 'intermediate.'

Warming up is a concept I spend a ton of initial time sorting out with new clients. A ton. The workouts themselves even initially look like what warm-ups will look like in a few months time.

What you should be trying to do in your first few months of training is figure out how to best use warm-up sets to maximize your training performances.

It's a fairly individualized trial and error process. Everyone's a little bit different but there are some trends I'll highlight.

Exhibit A

Let's say you were prescribed the first workout above.

And let's say you can physically handle for one good clean set:

  • 5 back squats with 245 lbs (110 kg)
  • 5 bench presses with 195 lbs (90 kg)
  • 5 deadlifts with 335 lbs (150 kg)
  • And however many chin-ups...

Decent intermediate weights for a fairly average sized young adult male with a year or two (maybe more) of relatively serious training under their belt.

Clean merely implies that technique was sound for all 5 reps. No grinding or forced reps. This person is not training to complete muscle failure (AKA Absolute Failure or Concentric Muscle Failure) and they could do a few more reps if you held a gun to their head.

What I might call Technical Failure or a rep or two shy of form failure.

Should they throw 4x45 lbs plates and 2x10 lbs on a barbell and start their squats? Peal those off, down to 2x45 lbs, 2x25 lbs, 2x5lbs plates and do their bench press? Then put the bar on the floor with 6x45 lbs and 2x10 lbs plates and see how it goes on the deadlifts?

Probably not...

These are all big fairly complicated or technical compound lifts using relatively heavy weights that exceed the likely bodyweight of a fairly average active young adult male. Roughly 170 lbs (75kg) assuming an average height of 5'9" (175 cm).

You likely want to gauge these lifts a little before you jump into the deep end of the pool. And you can do that by practicing the movement a little bit in advance using lighter weights.

Why Add Warm-Up Sets?

Let's ignore for a minute the fact that throwing a ton of weight on the bar without some kind of movement preparation or warm-up is a generally terrible idea.

How do you know you're ready to handle 150 kg today for 5 clean deadlift reps today?

Answer: You don't... Β 

At least not without a lot of practice and even then you'd be surprised how much your lifting ability can fluctuate based on factors like:

  • Stress
  • Mindset
  • Sleep
  • Nutrition
  • Training Programming
  • Recovery
  • Genetics
  • Muscle Dominance (people with higher levels of fast-twitch fibres typically take longer to recover)

Just because you've done a weight for a certain number of reps before (in the past), does not mean you are currently capable of that. Could be more, could be less.

Best err on the side of conservative optimism.

If the training process is going well, you're building off your previous performances continuously and thus should expect to see some small continuous improvement. The 245 you lifted last week, should or could lead to 250 or 255 this week assuming everything goes well. It could also mean 235 or 240 if things don't.

Note: As a general trend you want to see continuous improvement. However, don't panic if you have an off-training session or two. That happens sometimes and warm-up sets help you determine your level of preparedness to train before you go and miss reps.

Adjusting your working weights on each day accordingly is typically termed "Autoregulation." You might also hear people refer to it by it's original term "Biofeedback." The details of which, involve a completely separate article.

Autoregulation is just a long word for smart training approach.

It means relying on your immediate or current experience relative to previous experiences to determine what your body can most likely handle from set to set within a given training session. You rely on your performance in each set to determine the next step.

Was it easy? Too easy? Or far harder than you expected? Did you have to terminate the set early? Was it just right? All of these outcomes provide valuable information and with practice you learn how to adjust the weights you are using accordingly to suit your objectives.

This is was separates more advanced trainees from beginners.

Warm-ups are an overlooked by highly effective tool for preliminary autoregulation. They give you very valuable feedback on how your body will most likely perform come work set #1. Set #1 gives you biofeedback for set #2 and so on and so forth.

I like to call it Goldilocks training or the Goldilocks zone because the aim is always to find the weight that is "just right." Economists might call it some variation of Match Quality or "set quality" in our case.

And there are a few other good reasons to use warm-up sets that I discussed in my previous article:

  • To Practice the Movement
  • To Potentiate your Nervous System

All of this ultimately leads to improved training performance and improved training performances lead to improved results.

The name of the game for beginners and intermediates alike is to learn good technique. And the best way to do that is to accumulate practice in a low-fatigue environment.

Fatigue is the enemy of technique – and speed/control.

And a lack of potentiation is why nobody runs their best 100m (or 40 yard) dash time from a cold start, with no warm-up. The nervous system just isn't optimized for immediate on-demand performance. It isn't Netflix. It needs some foreplay. Kinda like your spouse.

What Counts?

Other than successfully achieving a performance boost by way of movement practice and nervous system potentiation; The question remains:

How do I separate warm-up sets from work sets?

Answer: Anything that exceeds ~85-90% of the maximum weight used.

You can ballpark it. I am generally more forgiving (85%) when using higher intensity (1-5 rep zone) workloads than less intense (β‰₯ 8 reps) workloads (90%) but it depends on the trainee. As much as we like to pretend that lifting is an exact science, it's definitely part art.

If the program prescribes 3 sets of 5 squats and your complete sequence goes like this:

  • 125 lbs for 5
  • 175 lbs for 5
  • 225 lbs for 5
  • 235 lbs for 5
  • 245 lbs for 5

0.9 x 245 = 220

Therefore, 225, 235 and 245 all count as work sets and you can stop (if you want) with that exercise for the day.

If it was:

  • 115 lbs for 5
  • 165 lbs for 5
  • 225 lbs for 5
  • 225 lbs for 5
  • 225 lbs for 5

Then all the 225 lbs sets would count. The important part is that you see this pattern.

Note: There is no rule stating that all your work sets need to be at the same weight. I find this inflexible approach to training to be rather counterproductive as not all sets will feel equal unless you take it easy on work set #1 and likely #2 as well. It's better to adjust the resistance used on performance.

For many mass programs (AKA Hypertrophy) you may even see a common reverse pyramid strategy like this:

  • 115 lbs for 8
  • 165 lbs for 8
  • 225 lbs for 6
  • 215 lbs for 6
  • 205 lbs for 8

Whereby you work up to a real working weight on work set #1, and then drop the weight you use slightly to account for not hitting the number of reps you intended. Truly maximizing the resistance used on each work set out and theoretically inducing more effective repetitions for mass gains.

If you go all out on work set #1, then you should expect performance to drop and adjust accordingly.

The pyramid being that you slowly work up to your working weight and then work back down a bit by purposefully overestimating ability just a little bit. After all if you have gas in the tank after 3+ sets to keep the weight the same, then you probably didn't push yourself very close to technical failure on the first sets.

Note: I don't mind this approach for hypertrophy purposes, but for strength purposes I prefer ending on a high note with my best set being my last set if possible. And sometimes you overestimate your ability for the training session.

You're a biological organism, meaning it's hard to get each set 'just right.' That's the goal, but it's tough to do consistently. You should usually be ramping up or ramping down depending on set performance.

When To Use Them

Do you need to use warm-up sets for every single exercise in every training session?

Of course not...

That would be overkill and inefficient. Bicep curls with 35 lbs (16 kg) later in your workout – typically done after rows or chin-ups – aren't going to need an extensive warm up. You've already lifted something heavier with similar muscle groups.

They could even serve as part of the warm-up for those bigger compound lifts in some cases. Another article for another time but even if you do go that route; Isolation exercises aren't very technical and the weight used typically isn't very high. You have more of a buffer in this regard.

Warm-up sets generally only apply to more technical compound lifts done at higher intensities (typically ≀8 reps, maybe ≀10?). Anything that you can load considerably, requires excellent technique and moves a lot of muscle fits the bill.

Again, you don't want to fatigue yourself with a warm-up, the goal is to prepare yourself.

If your primary goal is hypertrophy (muscle mass gains), the further away you move from 5-8 reps, the less of a warm-up requirement there tends to be. I'd even argue that anything above about 12-15 reps warrants no warm-up sets at all. By all accounts, maybe one warm-up set maximum.

It’s most appropriate for the first 1-4 main exercises used in a training session at high to moderate intensities. More often the first one or two exercises.

The most technical lifts or the most desired stress is often placed first in any given training session. These are your:

  • Olympic Lift Variations
  • Squat Variations
  • Lunge Variations
  • Hinge/Deadlift Variations
  • Get Ups
  • Bench Press or Overhead Press Variations
  • Rows/Chin-Ups/Lat Pulldown Variations

How to Use Them

There are lots of ways to do warm up sets, and every coach has their own method/madness. Near as I can tell, few are grounded in strict science and fall under the umbrella of "the art of training," but they work. At least, when you figure out what works for you.

This requires anticipating your working weight(s). Anticipated working load means the maximum load you anticipate you'll tolerate for however many repetitions you’re attempting to do. Experience and practice are essential in this regard.

I recommend working up fairly heavy in relation to the working weight you expect. I look for the last warm-up set to be at least 75-85% of the anticipated working weight. With at least one other warm-up set before that in the 50-70% range, more often than not.

At least one paper found that warm-up sets at 80% of working weight led to a much better performance than warm-up sets done at only 40% of your working weight, at least in the lower body. Though that might not matter as much in the upper body as it does in the lower body. Implying that you at least want one set prior to your work-sets at a high ratio to your work sets.

If you're a high twitch individual that burns out quickly, you may want to use less reps and ramp up the weight faster. If you find that you only really get going on work set #3, then you probably could have used a slower ramp and heavier loads. The heavier the weight you use, the more warm up sets you should probably use.

For instance, I’m fond of the following as a starting point:

  • ~50% of anticipated working load (for the same # of reps)
  • ~75% of anticipated working load (for the same # of reps as the work sets)
  • 90-95% of anticipated working load (meaning this is your first work-set)

Assuming you’re using 6–10 reps or so. If I'm working heavier, or find that I don't hit my stride until later I will extend this out into maybe something like:

  • 50% of anticipated working load
  • 70% of anticipated working load
  • 80% of anticipated working load
  • 90% of anticipated working load (first work-set)

Or maybe even 50–60–70–80–90% so my first work set happens on #5. Could be 60–70–80–90%, the point is to show you a trend, not a specific way to warm-up.

I know a lot of people don't like math either – it's one of my gym superpowers – but you could also just use typical jumps with the equipment you're using.

Math is much easier to do with machines, cables, dumbbells, or even kettlebells. Barbells (especially in pounds) tend to throw people for more of a loop.

One less math intensive recommendation might be to add 45s, until you get close to a working weight, then 25's, then 10's. For instance:

  • 135 lbs
  • 225 lbs
  • 275 lbs
  • 295 (first work set)

If you were working with kettlebells which are typically standardized to 4 kg jumps, you might end up with something more like:

  • 16kg
  • 24 kg
  • 32 kg (work sets...)

These are simple and effective ways to work up to a decent working weight with common gym equipment – unless you're an absolute beast in the gym, and let's be honest, if you were, you wouldn't be reading this. Although hard-style kettlebell work can be a separate beast too.

2-3 warm-up sets are likely sufficient if you're working a compound lift in a 6-10 rep range. 3-5 warm-up sets will often be enough when you work in a 1-5 rep range.

I've taken as little as 3 and as many as 8 warm-up sets in that 1-5 rep range.

Some other recommendations?:

  • Do a generalized warm-up before any of this – this is considered the specialized warm-up.
  • This process is not necessary for most isolation exercises or exercises that you plan to do for more than about 12-15 reps.
  • Start warm-up set #1 with with ~50-60% of your anticipated working weight (see the research paper above). Anything less than this doesn't feel like much and doesn't mimic what you're about to do well enough to prep your nervous system.
  • If it's below 50% of your anticipated working weight, skip it. This includes 'bar only' warm-ups, which you'll see as a common recommendation all over the interwebz.
  • Be efficient – I don't see the point of doing a lot more reps with warm-up weights than you plan to do in your work sets. I see this all the time on the internet where people recommend like 10-12 reps to warm-up for 8's and I don't see the point of that at all. You want to prep your nervous system, not fatigue it!
  • My general rule of thumb is do the same number of reps you plan to do in the work sets.
  • Exception #1 – When you're working in that 1-5 rep range, where I might consider a warm-up of 3-5 reps even if you plan to only do doubles or singles later.
  • Exception #2 – Working above about 12-15 reps (especially 15) if you think you need a warm-up set, do fewer reps, avoid failure in the process and use a weight much closer to your anticipated working weight. i.e. 10 reps with 80%+ of your anticipated weight. Again, you're trying to warm-up up, not fatigue.
  • You can keep "working up" within your work sets, it's just smaller jumps typically. Anything within about 4 reps (AKA 4 Reps In Reserve AKA RIR) of your max will give you a hypertrophic training effect. More RIR could be ideal for strength in some instances.
  • Reminder: Count anything above 85-90% of your anticipated working weight as a work set. i.e. If you're benching 200 lbs for 8, and you do a set of 170-180 or higher, count it as a "work set."
  • All this said, routines are important, so don't change what you're doing if it works for you on my account.

And that's the gist! Let me have it in the comments if you must...