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The Pre-workout You Should Be Using: Lift-Specific Activation

 Here’s a well-known fact: most people’s warm-up routines suck. There’s a saying and it goes something like this, “if you don’t have time to warm-up, you don’t have time to work out.” In my opinion, this shouldn’t just be a saying. It should be a rule among weightlifters and fitness enthusiasts everywhere. I’ve been to gyms where the foam rollers were so soft that even light pressure could immediately flatten the roller into an egg shape, thus unable to roll,

This is a confession: I hate watching people warm-up, for a weightlifting sesh, on a bike or rower or elliptical or treadmill or whatever kind of steady-state cardio equipment is available to them. Don’t get me wrong, you should warm-up for a cardio session on the cardio equipment. A quick five minutes on a cardio machine isn’t even a bad idea to get the heart rate up. But for those of us looking to throw a little iron around, a good warm-up is mandatory.

Let’s examine a Lifter A’s typical warm-up. If we’re lucky, it begins on a bike or treadmill. Five minutes, ten minutes, whatever. Then A might do a few light stretches, probably a few arm swings and other drills that are irrelevant to the day’s lift (if there’s even a solid plan in place).  The foam rollers remain in the corner collecting dust, the mini-bands remain unstretched, and the first set of any exercise is probably at A’s first work weight. This isn’t a warm-up.


When the Warm-up Truly Starts

A warm-up begins before you even step foot inside the gym. It involves having a warm-up thought through and perhaps even written out. You work sets should be in your head or on a piece of paper and you should know the first thing you’re going to do once you step foot inside the gym. When things aren’t planned out ahead of time, lifters have a tendency to resort to what they’re comfortable with, usually the main lift.

Without making this article a discussion on program selection, I would recommend that your program be decided on before you even think about going to the gym. A lifter without a program is as productive as a sailor without a compass. The best case scenario is that you stumble upon maximal strength, mobility, and cardiovascular health without having any clue of how you got there. How many of the strongest people in the world got there with this method? The worst case scenario is that you end up running around in circles, ending up right where you began and not where you want to be. You need a plan.

The General Warm-Up

If you don’t know what GPP is, look it up. Here, I’ll save you the trouble. It’s the acronym for General Physical Preparedness and a proper warm-up is part of your GPP work. Without going into detail, try out the DeFranco Agile 8 after 3-5 minutes of jump roping or other heart-rate-increasing activity. Here’s a sample of my warm-up:

  1. Jump rope – about five minutes or 500 jumps, whatever comes first/whatever I feel like doing that day. This gets my heart rate up quickly and ready for the rest of the warm-up.
  2. Foam roll the quads and IT band
  3. Foam roll the adductors and hamstrings – I do this on an elevated surface; anything similar to a massage table will work. I actually use a plate-loaded bench press machine for this as the bench, for some reason, is extra thick compared to regular benches.
  4. Kill my glutes and calves with a lacrosse ball
  5. Supine hamstring stretch – I don’t do this every day, but when I do I use a SuperBand/jump rope.
  6. Spiderman complex – I didn’t invent this but it consists of four basic movements: hip flexor stretch, transitioned into a spiderman stretch (an exaggerated mountain climber like those used in the Agile 8), transitioned to a thoracic rotation, and finally transitioned to a hip lift.
  7. Squat-to-stand
  8. Wall slides
  9. Deadbugs
  10. Birddogs

Me in the weight room

As you become a more experienced weight room warrior, you’ll learn which movements seem to mobilize you the best and how long your warm-up should be. A general warm-up should be quick, not taking more than 10-15 minutes. Dan John advocates using the warm-up to gain additional technique practice with movements that you are not addressing on that day (e.g. lower body movements on an upper body day). However, you should be the judge of when your body is warmed up. Don’t rush yourself through, but stay focused and on track.

The Specific Warm-Up: Lift-Specific Activation

Here’s the part of the article you really wanted to read. Now you’re in the gym and warmed up, work sets tagging along on a ripped piece of notebook paper in your pocket. What comes next? If it’s bench day, you might just throw 135 on the barbell and take a whack at it. The same goes for squat and deadlift day. And on shoulder day (if you’re still calling it that), you probably skip right to your work sets of seated dumbbell shoulder presses with 70 lbs. Here’s the step you’re missing in between the general warm-up and work sets: lift-specific activation exercises.


The deadlift is a posterior chain-dominant exercise that strongly utilizes the glutes, hamstrings, quads, and entire back musculature. It would be foolish to skip to your work sets on deadlift day. Instead, try using acclimation sets (otherwise known as warm-up sets) and sprinkle in a few sets of traditional exercises to prime the major muscles/movements for work.

  • Pullup/chin-ups – preferably done pronated, but neutral is just fine too. These will help activate the lats.
  • Glute bridges or hip thrusts or pull-throughs – get the glutes going with any of these movements.
  • Glute-ham raises – just a quick set will help activate the hamstrings (perhaps the most important muscle in the deadlift), balancing the quads and preventing forward sway during the lift.
  • Good mornings – remember that the hamstrings cross the knee joint and hip joint, so throw in a quick set for the hip extension pattern. Good mornings will also help the thoracolumbar extensors fire up.
  • Deadbugs/birddogs– for the core and glutes.


Learn to love the glute-ham raise


The squat will require many similar activation patterns as the deadlift, but there a few differences. For instance, the squat may require a little quad activation, but little or none for the lats. The squat also requires external rotation of the femurs. Here’s a few options for pre-squat activation:

  • Bulgarian split squats or lunges – fire up the quads (and the glutes, believe me).
  • Good mornings – activating the thoracolumbar extensors and hamstring-based hip extension.
  • Glute-ham raises – similarly to the deadlift, the hamstrings need to fire to counter the quad dominance in the movement.
  • Glute bridges or hip thrusts or pull-throughs – get the glutes going!
  • Mini-band walks or X-band walks with a SuperBand – this will help you externally rotate during the descent.
  • Deadbugs/birddogs

Bench Press

The bench press is a surprisingly complicated lift (judging by the technique used in most commercial gyms). Although a tight grip, five points of contact, and a tight upper back seem commonplace for the experienced lifter, there are many out there that have not mastered the setup. Though the setup is a topic for a different article entirely, I can tell you that activating the right muscles can make your form and set up approximately 703,723 times easier.

  • Shoulder external rotations and band pull-aparts – with a resistance band to keep the elbows safely tucked while proceeding through the lift..
  • Tricep pushdowns or tricep extensions or close-grip bench press – the CGBP may be the best, since it can be loaded heavily and you’re already in position after a regular warm-up set on the bench.
  • DB rows – prime the scapulae to be pulled back tightly on the bench.

Wall slides


Otherwise known as the shoulder press, military press, standing press, or overhead press, my favorite lift is a frontal plane staple and should be given its own day at the gym. It requires a tremendous amount of total body strength and is the most impressive lift I see in the gym (when done correctly). It is done with a barbell, not dumbbells, and is done standing, not seated.

  • Shoulder external rotations and/or band pull-aparts – with a resistance band to keep the elbows safely tucked while proceeding through the lift.
  • Deadbugs/birddogs
  • Glute bridges or hip thrusts or pull-throughs


This is, by far, not a comprehensive list of every warm-up exercise known to mankind. In fact, if anything, this list lacks warm-up exercises. I suggest the use of normal accessory work before the work sets of your main lift(s) to help engage the muscles that you need most. Use these lift-specific exercises to address your weaknesses. These can come in the form of a sticking point or poor technique. If you’re having trouble with the bar drifting away on your deadlifts, throw in a few sets of chins and glute-hams before your work sets. If your elbows are flaring on your bench press, try activating your external rotators and scapular retractors before your begin.

Don’t run train on each one of these lifts before your main work. There is no room for six extra sets on your squat day. And above all, don’t lose sight of the main lift. That is where the progress comes. But no matter what you do, stop running on the treadmill for 20 minutes before you deadlift, you’re only making yourself tired.

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