Q: How many warmup sets are needed before I go to heavy sets?
A: That’s a simple question, but the answer is very complex due to the many variables you need to consider. If you’re training in Texas and you break into a full sweat walking from your car to the gym, then you probably don’t need that many warmup sets. In contrast, if you live in Alaska and it’s so cold that your sideburns break off when the wind blows, then you might need a lot more of them. That being said, let me give you some suggestions that are a bit more practical.
First, the more reps you perform during a warmup set, the fewer sets you need to perform; that’s because the repetitions provide the warmup, and the intensity of the sets is lower. For example, if you’re performing sets of 15 on the bench press, you may only need one. You’ll find that most of those so-called high-intensity protocols call for higher reps; further, they usually don’t count warmup sets. From a marketing standpoint, I guess it’s more impressive to say that you perform only 10 sets in a workout than to say you do a total of 30 sets with 10 of them performed to momentary muscular failure.
Another factor that determines the number of warmup sets is the type of work you did previously in the same workout. For example, weightlifters who perform 10 sets of snatches have shoulders that are pretty warmed up, and they probably don’t need many warmup sets for jerks off the rack. Likewise, a lifter who’s just cleaned 300 pounds doesn’t need to start front squats with 135.
Keeping to that theme, using preexhaustion protocols reduces the number of sets required. If you perform several sets of heavy bent-over rows, you can probably go right into a set of heavy biceps curls because the biceps would already be warmed up, and unlike, say, the power clean, curls are not a technically complex movement.
By the way, one of the most impressive examples of preexhaustion protocols was demonstrated by Casey Viator, who at age 19 became the youngest competitor to win the AAU Mr. America. He accomplished that feat in 1971 and later went on to place third in the ’82 Mr. Olympia. In one training session, Viator performed 20 reps on the leg press with 750 pounds, followed immediately by 20 reps of leg extensions with 225 pounds, followed by 13 full squats with 502 pounds.
It’s also important to note that when you’re deploying large muscle mass on a relatively complex exercise, such as a squat or bench press, it’s not necessary to pyramid down from higher reps; in fact, it’s often better to do exactly the opposite. Let’s say your goal is to bench-press 300 pounds for three sets of five reps. A warmup protocol would commonly look like this: 135×10, 185×8, 225×5, 255×5, 275×5 and then 300 for 3×5. The problem is that all those reps wear you out—in this example, 33.
A better approach is to use just enough reps to “jazz up” the nervous system to prepare for the heavy working sets, as follows: 135×5, 205×2, 225×1, 255×1, 275×1, 300×1 (or even 300×1 and then 315×1, so the following working sets feel lighter), then 300x3x5 sets. Doing the math, you’d perform 11 reps, one third of what you’d do with the conventional method just mentioned. As a result, you might be able to lift even more weight in that 300x3x5 scenario.
Q: What top competitive bodybuilders have impressed you in your career as a strength coach?
A: Two names that immediately come to mind are Bev Francis, who held world records in powerlifting, and Ronnie Coleman, who squats and deadlifts more than 800 pounds. Franco Columbu, meanwhile, reportedly hoisted 780 pounds in the deadlift, which unofficially exceeded the amateur world record at the time. Many others were exceptionally strong and had exceptionally long careers. Let me give you a few names.
John Grimek. Grimek retired undefeated in bodybuilding. He won the AAU Mr. America twice—1940 and ’41, victories that resulted in a rule change so that after Grimek no one was allowed to win the title more than once—and at age 38 he defeated Steve Reeves in the ’48 NABBA Mr. Universe (after a tie that was broken, oddly enough, by a gymnastics contest). As for strength, Grimek competed in the ’36 Olympic Games in weightlifting and could squat more than 400 pounds for reps in his late 60s.
Reg Park. Park won the amateur NABBA Mr. Universe title in 1951 and the pro divisions in ’58 and ’65. In 1973 he placed second in the tall class in the pro division of the Mr. Universe competition. Park had legitimate 20-inch arms and is credited with being the first bodybuilder to bench-press 500 pounds—without any of the special assistance gear today’s powerlifters use.
Bill Pearl. Pearl won the ’53 NABBA Mr. Universe title in a lineup that featured Sean Connery of future James Bond fame. At age 37 Pearl won the ’67 Pro Mr. Universe, and at 41 he won the ’71 Pro Mr. Universe. The lineup for that competition included former Mr. Olympia Sergio Oliva and future Mr. Olympias Chris Dickerson and Frank Zane. Among Pearl’s best training lifts were the seated behind-the-neck press, 310 pounds; military press, 320; bench press, 450; front squat, 500; and back squat, 605.
Boyer Coe. Known for having biceps that seemed to be composed of several mounds of small biceps stacked on top of each other, Coe could bench-press 420 pounds at age 17. He went on to win the Teen Mr. America, Mr. America and Mr. Universe titles, and on three occasions he placed fourth in the Mr. Olympia. In 1994, in his mid-40s, Coe returned to the stage after a 10-year hiatus—in amazing shape—and took third at the Masters Mr. Olympia, defeating former Mr. Olympia Chris Dickerson.
Those bodybuilders all used heavy weights to achieve their physiques, and they had especially long careers.
Q: What’s your opinion of the hex bar for deadlifting? I’m a high school lineman and want to improve my lower-body strength and power.
A: An interesting article about that exercise appears in the July ’11 issue of the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, comparing the training effects of using a hex bar vs. a straight bar in deadlifts. One aspect of the study that I really like is that it involved 19 high-level powerlifters—rather than the usual test subjects: a few students in an exercise-science class who have no lifting experience and are required to participate in the study to pass the course.
For those who aren’t familiar with the hex bar, it gets its name from its hexagonal shape, which enables you to perform deadlifts and other exercises while standing “inside” the bar. Handgrips are placed near the inside of the collars so the arms (and the resistance) will be aligned with the hips. In contrast, with a straight bar the legs get in the way, moving the resistance farther from your center of mass. As a result, the erector spinae muscles of the lower back must work considerably harder during a straight-bar deadlift to maintain the back in proper alignment—and when you let your lower back round during a deadlift, you’re asking for trouble.
The study showed that the hex-bar deadlift was superior to the straight-bar version for developing power. “Studies quantifying power during Olympic weightlifting exercises have reported maximum peak power values similar to those obtained here,” the researchers said.
So, to answer your question, research suggests that the hex bar deadlift is more effective for developing power—with the added bonus of putting less stress on your lower back.
Editor’s note: Charles Poliquin is recognized as one of the world’s most suc-cessful strength coaches, having coached Olympic med-alists in 12 different sports, including the U.S. women’s track-and-field team for the 2000 Olympics. He’s spent years researching European journals (he’s fluent in English, French and German) and speaking with other coaches and scientists in his quest to optimize training methods. IM