Warm Ups Part II Activation & Potentiation

by Chris on September 6, 2012

In Part I of this series I went over the basic tenets and purposes of an effective warm up. If you missed it go back and read it before reading this. It will give you the foundation for what I’m going to discuss now.

As I mentioned in part I, I use a warm up to accomplish three distinct goals:

Mobilize – Activate – Potentiate

I covered mobility in part I so now it’s time to break down the last two.


The purpose of the activation part of the warm up is to teach your body to fire the right muscles in the right way at the right time. Simply put many people can’t recruit certain muscle groups the right way and this leads to weaknesses, imbalances and risk of injury. For example, it’s been my experience that many people with nonspecific low back pain cannot activate and recruit their glutes effectively. This causes other muscles to take over and bear the load. Another very common area that requires activation techniques is the upper back, in particular the muscles surrounding the scapula (shoulder blade). These muscles are responsible for scapular retraction and depression, or pulling the shoulder blade back and down, as well as external rotation. They often become weak and inactive because of bad posture and not being used throughout the day.

Below is a video showing some of the activation exercises that I frequently use.

As usual, your exercise selection should be dictated by your needs and your workout. Before an upper body workout, for example, I’ll usually do some external rotation work but probably not any glute activation.


Now that everything is firing right it’s time to prime the nervous system. Potentiation means increasing the strength of a nerve’s impulse. Basically that means you’re going to fire up the nervous system so that when you step up to lift some weights it’s firing on all cylinders. Potentiation doesn’t have to be fancy. You’ve already got the body warm and mobile and turned on weak muscles. Now you want to make the transition to lifting.

The easiest way to accomplish this is to do progressively heavier warm up sets of your main exercise, focusing on technique and explosiveness. Explosive lifts turn on the nervous system and recruit more muscle fibers so performing your warm ups with some speed will actually help further sets.

Another way to throw in some potentiation work is to do some low level plyometrics that are related to your workout. If your first lift of the day is a squat, for example, a few jump squats can help. For bench you might want to try some medicine ball throws of explosive pushups. Unless you are doing dedicated power work the goal here is just to do enough to get the nervous system ramped up. A few reps are fine. You don’t want to fatigue yourself, just prep for the lifting.

As a side note I just want to say that this is obviously only the case if you aren’t doing any dedicated speed & power work in your training session. If you are you will obviously not be using the potentiation portion as part of your warm up.

Wrap Up

That’s it. That’s the basics of how I build warm ups for myself and my clients. It’s a simple process and all together an effective warm up shouldn’t need to take more than 5-10 minutes tops. Choose the best movements and focus on the areas that need the work. I think you’ll find that, hands down, this template is more effective than jogging three miles before lifting.

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