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I failed a 120kg bench PR a few weeks ago, after which I went down to 117.5 and succeeded, so I know I was very close. I decided to wait 4 weeks and try again which I'll be doing soon. One vital part of a PR attempt that I've never felt I've managed to perfect if the warm up I.e doing enough set to warm up sufficiently but keeping the intensity low enough to keep fatigue to a minimum. I know of course individual variation will mean there's no one right answer but is there a generally accepted method, specifically for a PR attempt to maximise power output while by meeting the 2 conditions I mentioned above. Essentially what I'm asking is what weight do I use (in term of % of my 1RM), what reps ranges should I use and how many warm up sets do I need?

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There's no definitive answer to this question, just that it should be enough to physically warm you up (especially in a cold climate), gradually increase the loading to the muscles, allow practice of the movement pattern, and re-familiarise you with holding onto heavy weights, while not being so much that it fatigues you and adversely affects your 1RM performance.

This would typically start with a set or sets using just the empty bar, and then over several sets, increase the weight while decreasing the reps, ending with a final warm-up of perhaps one rep at a 3-4RM load. Or, if the test is in the context of powerlifting competition, then you'd probably do something more like warm up to a single at a 4-5RM load, and then perform lifts at predicted 3RM, 2RM and 1RM loads for your three competition attempts, since in that context you need to make three attempts that count, rather than just one.

So for a 120kg bench press attempt, it might look like:

  • Empty bar for 5-10 reps. (Repeat if cold)
  • 60kg for 5 reps. (Repeat if cold)
  • 80kg for 3 reps.
  • 100kg for 1 rep, then minimum 1 minute rest.
  • 105-110kg for 1 rep, then minimum 3-4 minutes rest.
  • 120kg attempt.

If there are any specific requirements for the PR attempt, such as pausing on the chest or waiting for commands (as would be the case in powerlifting competition), then you should attempt to replicate those as much as possible in at least the 1 rep warm-up sets.

These weights and rep ranges are not at all prescriptive, and should not be scaled to other target weights. Rather they are just chosen as examples using round numbered weights for ease of loading. There's nothing magical about the third warm-up weight being 2/3 of the final attempt weight, and if the final attempt were 130kg instead of 120kg, I'd probably leave everything exactly the same, except maybe bump up the weight on the final two warm-up singles a bit, so that they were heavy enough to be significant for someone who can bench 130kg, but not too fatiguing.

To generalise this to lighter of heavier weights, I'd choose the same starting point of the empty bar (except for deadlifts, where you need a pair of full-size plates on the bar to position it at the correct height), then something like sets of 5 at increments of 40kg/90lbs, reducing the reps when you're at around 2/3 of the target weight, and then a single in each of the ranges of 75-85% 1RM and 85-90% 1RM. If it's a very light attempt, then obviously you'd need smaller increments than 40kg, and may need to reduce the number of warm-up singles. E.g. For a 40kg attempt, you might do 2 sets of 5 with the empty bar, 3 reps at 30kg, 1 rep at 35kg, and then the 40kg attempt.

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    Thank you, this method definitely worked, I hit my target PR and even exceeded it with 122.5kg. When using this for a considerably weaker lift like shoulder press, would I need to reduce it accordingly. My expected 1RM for this lift is 80kg so should I use the same method but reduced weight I.e. bar, 40, 60, 70, 75, then 80?
    – Ethan
    Dec 13, 2023 at 13:21
  • @Ethan I've edited my answer to generalise this warm-up schedule to lighter or heavier weights. Dec 14, 2023 at 1:35
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Let's say you'd like to hit a particular weight n for a new gym PR. For this situation, I find that first working backwards from n works well with the 91%/96% rule of thumb. (These numbers come from study on successful weight selection attempts on powerlifters[1]).

Then all warm up before that should be selected such that it satisfies the following criteria:

  • gets you warmed up
  • gets you in the right groove for the heavier weight
  • doesn't get you fatigued

I'd like to use very light weights (bar to 55% of 1RM) to get warm. Once the weights are over 55%, I already want to be warm. The warm-ups between 55% and the 91% can be used to grease the groove and get used to the heavier weights.

The number of sets and reps you need to get warm and to get used to the heavier weights depend on many factors. For example:

  • room temperature
  • other warm up you did before
  • type of life
  • lifting experience
  • etc.

To put this into practice, for a 120 kg bench:

* 100%    1x 120kg PR 
* 96%     1x 115kg (rounded down from 115.2kg) last warm up
* 91%     1x 110kg (rounded up from 109.2kg)
* 56-90%  however many singles you need to grease to the groove  
* bar-55% whatever you need to get warmed up  

[1] Travis SK, Zourdos MC, Bazyler CD. Weight Selection Attempts of Elite Classic Powerlifters. Percept Mot Skills. 2021 Feb;128(1):507-521. doi: 10.1177/0031512520967608. Epub 2020 Oct 23. PMID: 33095691.

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