Light Cardio Warm Up Best Before Strength Work

Doug Dupont


Strength and Conditioning

Most people who have been exercising for a while have a preferred warm up ritual. Sometimes this ritual is so ingrained that a lifter will get totally thrown off if the warm up changes at all. Some of this could easily be psychological or otherwise neurological. Figuring out the right warm up for your lifts can be challenging because of the variables that go into your performance.


The issue about how best to warm up is not any simpler when approached by science. In fact, it’s probably even more complicated. Since some warm ups have been shown to improve performance, it casts a long shadow over decades of testing various methods of developing strength.



If one method tested better for developing strength, maybe it just used a better warm up. The warm up isn’t always covered in any great depth in scientific literature, so perhaps many of our assumptions are false. A recent study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning sought to determine what the best warm up really is and how this might have affected what we know about strength.


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Before continuing, it’s important to be clear about what is being tested here. There are many reasons to warm up, including injury prevention. The researchers in this study were concerned only about the impact of the warm up on the expression of strength. But just because a warm up can make you stronger doesn’t mean it’s automatically the best overall.



For this study, the researchers described the difference between general warm ups, like a jog, and specific warm ups. The specific warm up would be doing a lighter version of or similar exercise to the one you’re training that day. In this study, researchers used an ergometer (basically, an exercise bike) to warm up for a leg press. So essentially they were doing a specific and general warm up simultaneously.


Researchers combined two different length warm ups with two different intensities, resulting in four different warm ups. A fifth group did no warm up. Neither of the shorter length warm ups, which were 5 minutes long, had any difference compared to the group that didn’t warm up at all. So while a 5-minute warm up might be good, it isn’t going to boost your performance.


The longer warm ups of 15 minutes were the only ones that altered performance. With the higher intensity, which was enough to yield an average heart rate of almost 150 bpm, strength was reduced. With the lower intensity producing a heart rate of about 115 bpm, limit strength increased.


The jury seems to still be out on warm up sets of the exercise you are preparing for, but at least when it comes to training cardio as a warm up, keeping it light for a full 15 minutes is the way to go. This is enough to gain the benefits of increased body temperature without any unnecessary fatigue.



1. Renato Barroso, et. al., “The Effects of Different Intensities and Durations of the General Warm-up on Leg Press 1RM,” Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 27:4 (2013)


Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

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