What’s keeping you from setting a personal record (PR) in your lifts? Why isn't your “top end” going up? It's your warm up!

The equation to determine your central nervous system (CNS) potential could be written this way:

(Gross CNS potential X recruitment efficiency) - interference = max potential

That’s not out of a textbook. That’s just a descriptive way of showing limitations to maximal potential. We can define the variables in the equation this way:

Gross CNS potential = your maximal gross motor unit output

Recruitment efficiency = how well you can recruit the motor units involved

Interference = limitations on how efficiently you recruit motor units, inhibitions by antagonistic muscle groups, instabilities, or mental inhibitions

Injuries and scar tissue would fall under motor unit recruitment inefficiency.

When you’re warming up for a personal best in any lift, you have to take care to address all parts of the equation without creating undue fatigue. It’s not enough to be mentally stimulated. The weakest part of the equation will determine your max, not the strongest.

How can you improve the various parts? Let’s break them down. Gross CNS potential can be improved with training. You can train your CNS to put out more effort per contraction through speed lifts such as explosive squats and box squats, cleans, snatches, plyometrics, throws, and very short sprints.

Recruitment efficiency is best improved through practice. The more fluent you are in a given lift, the more efficiently you can deliver maximum neural recruitment to the right spot at the right time. Also, the more practiced you are at using maximal lifts, the more efficiently you can translate that neural drive into the right movement pattern.

You can improve recruitment efficiency with frequent exposure to heavy weight and sub-maximal repetitions. It’s important to use the same movement pattern in practice as you’ll use in competition. Practice makes permanent. If you’re a shirted bencher, practice with a shirt instead of doing pin presses all of the time. Pin presses have their place as an assistance lift and they help improve gross CNS potential, but they won’t help much with recruitment efficiency unless you’re brand new to benching.

Interference is anything that limits your ability to efficiently recruit motor units. This could be a weak or tight antagonistic muscle. For instance, if your traps or lats are weak, your pecs and anterior deltoids can’t operate at maximal force. Your body places a natural limiting feedback process on all muscles (controlled by the golgi tendon organ) that behaves like a speed limiter on an engine. Think of it this way. Imagine a car with an onboard computer that allows you to go faster if your brakes are well tuned or limits your top speed if your brakes are worn. The same concept applies to your body.

Limiting interference is called disinhibition and can be accomplished in a variety of ways. Caffeine helps. It’s a proven disinhibitor and not just socially. Use it in small doses or risk a “caffeine rebound” effect, which will actually make you drowsy. Stretching antagonistic (opposing) musculature also has the effect of disinhibition on the prime movers. Strengthening the antagonists will have long-term benefit.

Want an example? Take a vertical jump test. Perform your two highest jumps and then do static stretching for the hip flexors for a minute. Then test again. You’ll jump an inch higher. The hip flexors aren’t a prime mover—they’re antagonistic—but they need to be ready to go, too.

Disinhibition also means increasing the rate of force production in a muscle by slowly turning back its injury, or avoidance response. The golgi tendon organ just won’t let the muscle reach maximal contraction right out of the gate. It has to slowly be prodded up to its maximal level.

That's why you can’t just jump on a bench and go for a PR right off the bat. You’ve got to tease your way into it.

That’s the real key to the warm up—disinhibiting the muscle without fatiguing it. Lifts should be significantly heavy to stimulate the golgi tendon organ but not heavy enough to cause fatigue and jeopardize the “money” lift. Dynamic stretching will also push back the golgi tendon organ’s response so use it on the prime movers!

Here’s your step-by-step guide:


1.      Start with a total body warm up involving dynamic stretching of the quads, glutes, hamstrings, and lower back. If you’re not sure how to do dynamic stretching, get Eric Cressey and Mike Robertson’s excellent DVD, Magnificent Mobility.

2.      Perform static stretching for the antagonists—abdominals, hip flexors, pecs, and rotator cuffs. The bar should be low on your back.

3.      Perform a couple of high repetition sets for the supporting musculature (lats and traps) to get them engaged and let them know that you expect them to be ready to go to work.

4.      Start neuromuscular disinhibition in a more serious way. We like short sets of plyometric box drops—five sets of three—with long CNS recovery times (over 30 seconds). More advanced lifters (or heavier ones) will get enough CNS stimulation from speed squats without bands or chains.

5.      Start your warm ups. Because we’ve kick started the CNS, we don’t have to do as many reps, saving energy for the big lifts. Use this warm-up pattern (based on previous max) to save energy, but roll back the golgi tendon organ’s response.
2 sets of 5 at 50% max

1 set of 5 at 65% max

1 set of 3 at 75% max

1 set of 3 at 82% max (this will likely be your toughest warm up set)

1 easy single at 90% (this will be belted with most of your gear on; it should be heavy enough to feel like a max lift)

1 hard single at 102% (hey, we’re not here to tie; get the PR and then go all out for the next lift)

1 hard single at ??? (it’s up to you; dream big)

Make sure you’re taking at least two minutes of rest between attempts after you get over 65 percent. Your central nervous system requires more recovery time than your muscles.

Bench press:

1.      Start with a total body warm up involving dynamic stretching of the pecs, anterior delts, and triceps. I like to do a quick row to get the whole shoulder complex moving on all planes but don’t go nuts (800 meters is plenty).

2.      Perform static stretching for the biceps, lats, forearms, traps, and rear delts.

3.      Perform mobility work for the lower back and perform a pelvic movement. The bench press is a whole body lift! Even an Achilles tendon movement would be a good idea.

4.      Start neuromuscular disinhibition of the prime movers in the right movement pattern. For some, performing a speed bench without bands or chains works great while for others explosive push-ups are enough. Do five sets of three reps at 50 percent.

5.      Start your warm ups. Because most people bench much less than they squat or deadlift, your weights are closer together, though the percentages remain the same. That means you have even longer rest intervals.

2 sets of 5 at 50% max (unless you’ve already done the speed bench option)

1 set of 5 at 65%

1 set of 3 at 75% max

1 set of 3 at 82% if possible (if the second rep is a grind, stop there)

1 easy single at 90% (will likely feel tough on the bench)

1 hard single at 102% (use fractional plates as necessary)

1 hard single at ???

Again, take at least 2.5 minutes rest between “heavy” sets. For a novice bencher, you can get away with less rest because your bench max is less dependent on CNS activation and more on technique.


Note: If you’re in a meet, you likely don’t need as much of a CNS warm up because you’re already maximally stimulated from the squat. Skip to #5 to loosen up and then do static stretching for the IT band, abdominals, pecs, and hip flexors.

  1. Start with a total body warm up. I really like kettlebells to get the hips rocking in the right forward/backward pattern. Two-handed swings with 70 lbs also do the trick for me. I do about 30 reps, rest a minute, and then go again.
  2. Perform massive dynamic stretching for the hips, low back, quads, hamstrings, and lats.
  3. Static stretch the pecs and abs.
  4. Try some high repetition sets in the horizontal plane for the lats and traps. Just fill ‘em up to let them know that you mean business. Really, you’re just getting the proper tonal quality (greasing the groove).
  5. Do overhead reverse throws, some frog drops, some light cleans from the floor, or some speed deadlifts. Perform at 30 percent of your max, and do five reps for three sets.
  6. Power up with two sets of five at 50 percent. Do more sets if your form isn’t perfect. If you need practice with the belt, put it on. On a day when you expect to PR, you’re not developing strength—you’re testing it. If your best effort will require a belt, practice with the belt on PR day. Just don’t use it all the time in training.

1 set of 5 at 65% (perfect form)

1 set of 3 at 75%

1 set of 1 at 80% (you’re going to singles earlier on purpose; belt up and practice if you haven’t already done so)

1 set of 1 at 85%

1 set of 1 at 90%

1 set of 1 at 95% if your max is under 400 (if you have a big pull, start going up in 50-lb            increments; don’t do any weight within 50 lbs of your projected max)

1 set of 1 at 102% (surprise!)

1 set of 1 at 200% (just kidding; use your judgment.)

This isn’t really relevant, but even if 90 percent feels great on any lift, don’t jump to 120 percent in the hopes of a huge PR. Take the small PR, bask in its warm glow, and then go for broke on the next one.

Use science to help you hit PRs. We’ve used this method on athletes who have been stuck at a plateau for months or years, and they hit a PR in their first workout! It’s not magic. It’s just the product of the information currently available. Try it for yourself!

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