How to Warm Up for Weight Training (& Avoiding Injuries)

Why You Should Never Immediately Start Lifting Heavy Weights

Last Updated: February 15, 2021

Many beginner lifters in the gym tend to avoid warm-ups - totally understandable as it may not seem important, and when you hit the gym the fun part is getting straight into your real reps and sets. I was similar when I first started out in the gym, but in hindsight after many years of experience, I've come to realize just how important it is to give yourself plenty of time to warm-up and slowly build-up towards those heavy reps and sets. Injuries can and do happen, and plus, a warm up can help you get in the zone and be closer to 100% when you are actually doing your proper sets. Furthermore, if you have been sitting for long periods of time for work at a desk, and then transition almost immediately from sitting all day to some heavy workout out, it's really not good for your body.

A proper warmup goes a long way to minimizing your risk of injury though, and that should be reason enough to take them seriously. Doesn't mean you must do a super rigid, long-winded, technical routine full of long boring stretches. But you absolutely should give yourself at least 10-20 minutes to get in some light cardio, some few basic stretches - especially for the muscle groups you'll be training - and also a few warm-up sets with light weights to prepare your muscles and joints. Let's break down these things a little more.

Example of a Good Weight Training Warm-Up

For the first part of your overall warm up you should spend 5-15 minutes on cardiovascular activity. Any basic cardio machine such as a stationary bike or treadmill will do fine, or just a brisk walk or even a jog - any type of movement that's light in nature, and so long as you don't wear yourself out (so no intense cardio). When I say 5-15 minutes, that's not an exact science, so it doesn't have to be exact. The point is to warm up your whole body thoroughly so that you're not just immediately transitioning from perhaps sitting at your desk most the day (if you work at a desk like me) to almost instantly pushing some heavy weights. That is not good for the body and you're risking injury (speaking of which we'll get to preventing injuries at the end of this article).

During this 5-15 minutes of light cardio, mentally prepare yourself for your weights session by focusing in on progressing your lifts. It really can take 100% of your focus and strength in order to be physically able to progress one of your sets/reps from your last session, so don't underestimate the simple act of focusing your mind completely to the task at hand and making a mental pact with yourself to forget everything else you may be thinking about right now, as well as physically psyching yourself up for the upcoming challenge with whatever gets your juices going (perhaps music, giving yourself a pep talk, whatever strange rituals get you in the mood for literal war).

After your cardio warm-up is done and you've been moving a bit, I recommend streching a bit, and especially the muscle group/s you'll be training that session. It's also highly recommended (by me and many, many others) to also warm-up with some light weights before getting straight into heavy sets. For example, if you are training legs, and your first main compound exercise is say barbell squats (it's a good idea to generally hit the big compound exercises first whilst you're most fresh), you'll want to do a few light warm-up sets such as bodyweight squats and/or squats with light dumbbells. There's no set rule here on what's necessary to fully warm up, but use your common sense and get in a few light sets to prime your body and muscles for the heavy sets ahead.

The most important thing to remember whilst performing these warm-up sets is do not fatigue your muscles. You want to stay fresh and keep all your energy for the real sets so that you can go hard and push your limits to progress, which is what building muscle is all about (no progressive overload = no consistent results). This is what your warm up sets could look like:

  • Warmup Set 1 - 50% weight for 6 reps
  • Warmup Set 2 - 60% weight for 4 reps
  • Warmup Set 3 - 80% weight for 2 reps

The percentage refers to the amount of weight you would usually use for the exercise (when doing a proper set for 5-7 reps or whatever your rep range is). For example, if you usually Squat 200 pounds, then for the first warmup set you will use 100 pounds for just a few repetitions such as 6 or thereabouts (this isn't an exact science). And for the second set, move 120 pounds or so for a few less reps. You get the idea.

This will go a long way to avoiding injury; I always do a warm-up set, and will always do so for the rest of my life. Also, in terms of avoiding injuries whilst weight training, remember to always perform all your weight lifting exercises with proper technique, placing form higher on your priority list than lifting super heavy. Your future self will thank you, and there's no rush with building muscle anyway because your body can only physically build a certain amount of muscle at a time. Rushing yourself to lift heavier and heavier weights is not a good idea as you're risking your body for no reason. You want to go hard and push yourself, but not at the expense of technique. Slow and steady wins the race. Check out our weight training guide for building muscle to learn all the other key principles of a good workout routine.

Other Tips on Avoiding Injuries in the Gym

Besides a decent warm up period consisting of a little movement/cardio and some light reps, keep the following tips in mind if you want to reduce your chances of injury when lifting:

Balance Your Program

By balance I mean designing your weight training program so that you train all muscle groups in equal proportion to each other, to avoid overtraining some muscles and neglecting others, either of which can lead to muscular imbalances that can then lead to injuries later on as well as other issues such as poor posture (rounded shoulders if you focus too much on chest exercises, etc).

Strengthen Your Core

The strength of your core and abdominal region is crucial to be able to properly perform heavy reps of key exercises like squats and deadlifts, so make sure to incorporate training of your core/abs within your program (especially if this area is lacking for you).

You should be utilizing your core at all times when lifting heavy weights, and if your core is weak then you're putting areas such as your back at higher risk of injury, since more pressure will be put on that area, whereas if you had more proportional and functional strength across your whole body - including your core - then you can more evenly spread the load and avoid injury by overly stressing a certain area (eg your back).

Check out this solid video to learn more about core strength and whether you're lacking or not, and if you are, avoid heavy compound lifts like squats and deadlifts until you build a solid baseline of core strength, and perhaps stick to easier exercises to begin with such as bodyweight type exercises.

Make Form a Priority

This is absolutely huge. Whatever you do in the gym, always perform exercises with as close to perfect form as possible. If you want to avoid injury, that is. Using too much swinging momentum or getting into other bad habits (ie bad posture) just to be able to lift a little more weight (or to perform an extra rep or two) isn't worth risking injury. Besides, you only want to lift a weight that your body can handle with good form so that you're building functional, well-proportional strength, and not encouraging muscular imbalances in your body (which again, can lead to injury).

For example, if you're doing barbell bicep curls, and swinging your whole body in order to get in a few extra reps, you're essentially trying to progress your bicep strength and size at the expense of other areas of your body such as your core. If you can't stand relatively straight with good posture and perform an extra rep, then you don't have the overall strength across your whole body to do so, and forcing more reps with a swinging motion is not a good idea.

Stretch More Often

Stretching may be boring to some, but it's proven to help recovery, flexibility, and to also avoid injury. So start getting used to it if you're not already, and it will pay you back in the long run. Especially as you get older. I would stretch before and after workouts as an absolute minimum, but doing a little more at other times of the day when you perhaps have time to kill or are relaxing can only help. Remember to hold a stretch for at least 10 to 15 seconds to get the full effect - doing a quick 5 second stretch is a bit of a waste.

Improve Your Posture

If you have bad posture such as rounded shoulders or forward head posture - two of the most common postural problems in modern society today due to our overly sedentary lifestyles of sitting at a desk all day and/or always hunched forward on our phones - you want to immediately work on rectifying this alongside (or even before) your weight training program. Bad posture can easily lead to injuries, among other issues.

Start Small if Brand New

Perhaps you've never lifted a weight before and are only just stepping into the gym for the first time in your life. In that case, you don't want to immediately start doing the hardest, most technical exercises like deadlifts or barbell squats. Perhaps not even barbell bench/chest press. You first want to build up some base level of strength (and muscle size), including a good level of core strength as mentioned earlier, by starting out with more beginner-friendly exercises like pushups, pullups, bodyweight squats, and so on. Then move onto the bigger lifts.

Don't Train if Sore

When you really blast a certain muscle group, you need to give your body plenty of time to rest and recover. I'm talking days; if you train hard and heavy, you want at least 3-4 days without training that same muscle group before hitting it again. And that's a minimum; 5-7 days of rest for each muscle group is not unheard of and can still be very effective, assuming you're training intensely enough. If you overtrain your muscles by training too often, or worse - training when you are physically sore - you're not just putting your muscle gains at risk, but increasing chance of injury.

3 Paths to a Highly Effective Program

If you want to be on the fast-track to consistent results with a solid program you can simply execute on week in and week out without having to think about it, there are 3 ways to get there:

Path A: Plan Your Own Bulking Program

If you're the patient type who likes to know how every little detail works and have the time and interest to learn all the important principles and strategies around building muscle mass, you can strategically piece together a well-balanced, properly structured, effective program yourself.

Just make sure you cover all your bases in planning a program that is well suited for the long-term, otherwise you could be creating bad habits such as overtraining certain muscles groups over another etc (which can cause postural issues or muscular imbalances, a common example being rounded shoulders from focusing too much on chest workouts). 

You also ideally want someone more experienced to look over your program to weed out any potential issues, as there's a fair few things that can go wrong with planning a program. To get started see our introduction to building muscle along with our main guides on training and eating for gains that will set you off on the right foot.

Path B: Follow a Proven Pre-Made Bulking Program

If instead of creating your own program from scratch you'd rather follow an already-made complete program that has been proven to work for others in your shoes (ie skinny hardgainers) this is the path for you. Spending a few bucks to get your hands on a well-crafted, respected program that's specifically been designed with skinny guys in mind can save you time and effort having to design your own program and ensures you don't miss out on all the important details that goes into making an effective program that will get you results week in and week out.

This is what I'd recommend if you're just starting out or quite inexperienced in the gym, as you'll get off on the right foot to kick-start some solid results, so long as you choose your program wisely from someone who has been in your shoes before and understands the science behind building muscle. Sean Nal's Body Transformation Blueprint is currently the most comprehensive, effective bulking program for beginners on the market right now, and has been for a while, and is the program that personally helped me the most when I first started out too. 

There are other good premade mass gain programs out there that were created specifically (and scientifically) for hardgainers, but there's also a lot of overpriced, overly-marketed and low-quality programs that you should avoid out there so be on your toes when looking for a program to follow to avoid wasting your money. I've personally tried out a fair few different programs over the years and I compiled the best ones I can comfortably recommend in the recommended programs guide.

Path C: Find a (Good) In-Person Trainer Who Understands Strategic Bulking

This isn't for everyone as a quality trainer who knows what they're doing - and most importantly has got great results themselves - can be quite costly. If you value results, you don't just want any random trainer, as the truth is that many don't understand all of the science behind effective muscle building and structuring good programs (in my opinion based on experience having met a lot of trainers in my time). There's some good ones though if you know where to look.

This is the path you should also definitely consider if you have any type of injury or health problem, or if you are worried about potentially injuring yourself during important, semi-risky exercises like deadlifts or heavy squats (especially when just starting out). But that's not to say these exercises can't be learned on your own if you take it real careful and slow.

Whichever path you choose, never forget the single most important thing: never give up, and keep going no matter what until consistently training and eating well becomes such an ingrained habit that you don't even think about it (and hitting the gym and sticking to your meal plans becomes second nature and takes almost no effort). When you get to that stage of momentum, your success is inevitable. Good luck and train hard.