Understanding Warm-up Sets

Jeff WilletWarm up sets are important but you don’t need to over-analyze the process or make it too difficult.  Just remember the primary objective of the warm-up sequence is to progressively introduce heavier weights without approaching the point of fatigue.  This gets your mind and muscles ready to handle the maximal weights during your muscle building sets.

Since I receive a lot of questions about the Max-OT warm-up protocol I decided to share an entry from my eBook “Inside the Mind of a Champion” which addresses the issue in detail.

 Max-OT Warm-ups – A closer Look (Inside the Mind of a Champion page 28)

Every aspect of Max-OT training works synergistically, making it the most effective training approach for building maximum muscle. To get the greatest results it is important that you understand and execute all the principles from the warm-ups to the last rep of each set.

Warming up correctly and efficiently is vital to the success of your workout. If you have an inefficient approach to your warm-up sets, you’ll be shooting yourself in the foot before the real workout even starts.

A better understanding and execution of the Max-OT warm-up protocol will lead to more effective muscle building workouts so I thought it wouldn’t hurt to take a closer look at this important aspect of Max-OT training.

Here is a review of some important points to help you understand the warm-up process better.

• There are three types of sets.

The Max-OT course explains there are three types of sets: warm-up sets, weight acclimation sets and muscle-building sets as seen in the example below.

Warm-up sets are done with a weight you can handle easily in a 6 to 12 rep range. Warm-up sets make up the first 2 or 3 sets of your warm-up sequence. Their job is to get blood into the muscles and connective tissues, which increases the flexibility and elasticity of the muscles.

Weight acclimation sets are done with a weight you can handle for 1 to 3 reps. Weight acclimation sets make up the last 2 sets of your warm-up sequence and are designed to prepare your mind and body for overload.

Muscle-building sets are done with maximum overload in a 4-6 rep range. You should use a weight you can complete 4 times on your own but no more than 6. These are the sets where muscle-building occurs.

• Warm-up on the first exercise for a body part only.

The full Max-OT warm-up protocol that is illustrated in the sample warm-up below should be performed on the first exercise for a body part only. For example, after you warm-up for flat bench presses and perform your muscle-building sets there is no need to warm-up for your second chest exercise.

• Progressively introduce a heavier weight.

One of the goals for your series of warm-up sets is to progressively introduce a heavier weight. Physically it allows your muscles, joints and connective tissues to get adjusted to heavier weights and guards against injury when you attack your muscle-building sets with maximum overload. It also enables you to get comfortable with the mechanics and execution of any particular exercise. This will lead to more coordination and power on your first muscle-building set.

Mentally, the introduction of heavier weights allows you to gain confidence and lock into the mind muscle connection of the exercise. Greater confidence and greater mind to muscle connection means a more productive and powerful set.

• Do not approach the point of fatigue.

One of the biggest mistakes people make when they are warming up for their first exercise is they fatigue their muscles by doing too many reps. We’ve all seen people doing warm-up sets and pounding out rep after rep until they are actually working to complete the last few. I can recall doing that in the past and maybe you can too.

Pre-fatiguing is bad news because it limits the amount of overload you can achieve during your first working. Don’t waste valuable energy that could be directed towards muscle-building by doing an inefficient number of warm-up sets and reps.

You’ll notice as you increase the weights during your Max-OT warm-up sets, you will also decrease your reps. This is how you introduce heavier weights without approaching the point of fatigue.

• Your last weight acclimation set should be close to your muscle-building set weight.

The last weight acclimation set should be done for 1 rep with a weight that is close to your muscle-building set weight.

The idea is to avoid a dramatic jump in weight from your last weight acclimation set and your first muscle-building set. The last weight acclimation set may be 20 to 30 pounds less than your starting weight on a squat or a bench press and 10 to 15 pounds shy of your first set of barbell curls or lying tricep extensions.

• You can perform weight acclimation sets within a workout when transitioning to other body parts or other exercises with different mechanics.

I made a point saying you only need to do the full Max-OT warm-up on the first exercise for a body part. You may, however want to include a weight acclimation set when you transition into some exercises. Deadlifts are one good example.

Let’s say you perform deadlifts as your second back movement. It’s true you have already warmed-up and performed one back exercise but I would still advise one or two weight acclimation sets before you attempt maximum overload. The reason being, deadlifts are unlike any other back exercise and recruit nearly every muscle in your body to some degree and there is heavy lower body involvement. I think it is very wise from a safety and a performance standpoint to include a couple weight acclimation sets to introduce the mechanics of deadlifts and introduce the muscles to a heavier load.

This is one example where a weight acclimation is advised in the middle of a workout. Another example would be if you are training triceps after chest. Triceps get a lot of work during compound pressing exercises and therefore are already warmed-up, however I would advise a couple weight acclimation sets on the first tricep exercise before they are subjected to direct overload. Triceps wouldn’t necessarily need the entire Max-OT warm-up sequence in this scenario, a couple weight acclimation sets should do the trick. The same would be true for biceps if you trained them after back or triceps if you trained them after shoulders.

When transitioning into other body parts you need to go by feel to determine the number of warm-ups or acclimation sets you do. For example, when I move to triceps after chest, I usually feel ready to go after a couple acclimation sets on the first tricep exercise but if there is a day I feel I need an extra warm-up set, I take it. There is some flexibility here, just make sure you acclimate yourself to the mechanics of the exercise and the weights to the point you feel you are ready to exert a maximal effort on your first muscle-building set.

Below is a sample warm-up sequence taken from the Max-OT online course. This example uses the bench press with a starting weight of 285 lbs to illustrate the pattern of progressively introducing a heavier weight while reducing the reps and not approaching the point of fatigue.

First Set: 135 x 12 reps (warm-up)

These should be good smooth reps. Not too slow and not to fast. Your main goal is to increase blood flow and get the feel of the movement and the weight. After this first set you should rest about 2 minutes.

Second Set: 135 x 10 reps (warm-up)

Same weight as before. Rhythm should be a little faster this time. Not much faster. Rest about 2 minutes.

Third Set: 185 x 6 reps (warm-up)

This should be a deliberate set done at a moderate pace. This is the next step in weight acclimation. It should feel light and 4 reps should be very easy. Rest about 2 minutes before the next set.

Fourth Set: 225 x 3 reps (weight acclimation)

You should follow the same rhythm as in the last set. 3 strong reps. Rest 2 minutes before next set.

Fifth Set: 255 x 1 rep (weight acclimation)

That’s right, just 1 rep. The purpose here is weight acclimation. This should be a strong, powerful and deliberate rep.

Sixth, Seventh, and Eighth Set: 285 x 4 to 6 reps (muscle-building)

You will use this same pattern when warming up for any exercise, just adjust the weight to suit you. There is no perfect amount of weight to use or a magic percentage of your maximum. Simply follow a similar pattern and progressively increase the weight with each warm-up set while decreasing the reps.

You don’t have to be too scientific about your warm-up weight selection as long as you accomplish the task of progressively introducing a heavier weight without approaching the point of fatigue and without leaving a dramatic jump from your last weight acclimation set and your first muscle-building set.

If you have never warmed up this way it may take a little getting used to but the longer you perform the Max-OT warm-up protocol, the more instinctive it will become.

Remember, a great workout starts with an efficient warm-up. Don’t make the process too difficult and understand that the primary objective of a warm-up is to progressively introduce a heavier weight without approaching the point of fatigue.


  1. avatar

    Thank you for taking the time to explain the Max-OT warm-up in more detail. I’ve had many moments in the gym where I questioned whether I was warming-up correctly or not. This helps answers those questions a bunch.

    I’m still concerned though; at times I have a hard time getting some of my workouts down from an hour to 40 minutes or so as you prescribe in Max-OT. Should this warm-up be included in that time frame or just the muscle-building reps?

    Thanks again!

    • Don’t worry too much about the time frame. That is just a general guideline and it really depends on the body part groupings.

      For example, let’s say a Max-OT arrangement has chest by itself for 6 total sets. That is probably a 20 minute workout. On the other hand you may have leg day that takes closer to 50 minutes with longer rest and more weight changes.

      The important thing is just focus on executing the sets and keep things moving at an efficient pace. You should fall in the ball park of the timing guidelines but don’t worry too much about that.

  2. avatar
    pete smith

    Since, as you say, the first work set is the real priority, the one which you want to strive to progressively improve. Therefore, after warming up and performing the main work set, is it necessary to perform a second set?
    Or, instead of doing a second heavy set, why not decrease the weight and perform fast reps with good form, a technique that was used by successful bodybuilders of yesteryear, such as Vince Gironda. This approach has been backed empirically for improving muscle mass and strength by sports scientists in 2004 at the University of Tsukuba: Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, Volume 18 (4), 730-737.

    • I prefer to execute the Max-OT principles as I have written countless times. It is how I achieved the most success and how I’ve instructed countless others with great results. You are welcome to try different methods but if you are asking me to change my opinion of which method is best, it isn’t going to happen. I provide information for those who want to hear it and I provide what I feel is the best. I am not here to defend nor argue the merits of Max-OT training. It is what I believe, it is what I do and it is what I recommend.

  3. I realize that stretching before weight training can impede performance and even cause injury. However, over the years of max-ot training I have become incredibly tight and inflexible (especially in the hips). My question is, did/do you ever implement a stretching protocol following your training sessions? And if so, could you outline a couple of pointers?

    I have been stretching following my training sessions for at least a year and have not seen much improvement in flexibility. I stretch all major muscle groups for approximately 3 sets of 20-30 seconds.

    Thanks for all the great information on your site,


    • I never did any specific stretching and never found flexibility to be a real issue. There is no reason why Max-OT training or any training for that matter should make you less flexible. One of the properties of skeletal muscle is elasticity so building bigger muscles shouldn’t automatically equate to less flexibility.

      I always found the stretch that the muscles receive during full range free weight exercises to be sufficient. If you like stretching and the feeling of it, there is nothing wrong with incorporating it after exercise. I think that is a matter of personal preference. I personally didn’t incorporate it so I am unable to offer any good advice on specific stretches.

      • Thanks for the prompt reply, I had a feeling that you would say that.

  4. avatar
    pete smith

    I can appreciate that, champ. Thank you.

  5. Hi Jeff, I’m new to MAX-OT training. Thank yo for outlining the most important parts of MAX-OT training approach I hope I can train much better and will see results out of this technique.

  6. Say if you doing bench press and after u finish u go into incline presses just go ahead and jump into your heaviest sets or is it ok to maybe to 1 or 2 weight acclimation sets to get prepared for the heavy sets

    • After you follow the warm-up protocol and do your first exercise, there is no need to warm-up or acclimate on the next exercise for the same body part. In the scenario given, after your heavy sets of bench you are as “warm” and “acclimated” as you will ever be for the next major chest exercise.

  7. Hi jeff. Just a question on diet! I weight 240 pounds and I just want to know how many grams of protein carbs and fat would you recommend or ratio of macronutrients should I be taking? Thanks

    • This will depend on many factors such as your goals and your starting condition. In general, if you are in a max muscle building phase you will have a protein intake goal of about 2 grams per pound of body weight. And we want protein to be about 50% of our daily intake. I have some great examples of this on the nutrition plan downloads on http://www.jeffwilletpremium.com

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