Personal Trainer Sunnyvale | Tension in arms before a deadlift

Getting Set – The Moment Before You Lift

Get ready.  Get set.  Go!

We all know this phrase but what exactly does each term mean with regards to lifting weights?

Being ready is showing up for your workout with a good attitude, well-fed, rested, in proper attire, and mentally prepared for a challenge. 

Getting set is the act of contracting muscles immediately prior to lifting weight.  It is synonymous with the following terms: brace, squeeze, or tense up.

Going is lifting the weight – what we all came to do.

One of the big distinctions I notice between long-time lifters and new lifters is the ability to correctly get set. I often notice lifters ready and they really want to go, but they don’t always understand how to get set or why it’s important.

Here we talk about getting set. Unfortunately, this key step is regularly looked over or even skipped altogether, even by many well-meaning trainers.

What are the benefits of getting set?

Getting set is the act of recruiting your muscles for the work they are about to do.  This is rather than recruiting your muscles the instant you need them in the middle of the lift – when you get set, it’s just a bit earlier.  Lifters who get set lift more weight and injure themselves less. 

Getting set eliminates the slack in your muscles and replaces it with tension.  If a lift begins without tension, muscles tense up mid-lift.  Recruiting muscles mid-lift is poor timing because it’s at the hardest part of the lift.  Bracing mid-lift from a relaxed state makes the lift much harder than it needs to be and often causes the lifter to pause when changing directions with the weight.  It can also feel scary and create a negative or precarious experience for a new lifter. 

When your muscles are tense and ready to immediately contract throughout the lift, you get to utilize your stretch reflex and simultaneously lift more.  You also are more ready for the weight and in a safer state to handle it.

How do you get set?

Here, I walk you through setting the most common muscles groups used for compound lifts.   I call this a “down the body” brace and it’s one of the first things I teach new lifters.  When I teach a client to get set, we work down the body starting with the upper back and we are usually learning a compound lift, like bench, as the lift in which to implement this brace.  Getting set is far less relevant for isolation exercises.

Let’s start with your upper body.  To set your upper back muscles, simply move your shoulder blades together and hold them there.  Another way of thinking about it is to move and keep your shoulders backward. 

Moving down the body, let’s look at what it takes to set your stomach muscles.  To brace your core, take a big breath in and push down and out with your abs.  When this is done correctly, you will feel your abs harden.  The most common error I see here is people sucking their stomach in when I ask them to tighten. 

To set your glutes, squeeze them together!  You may also feel your hamstrings tighten when you squeeze your glutes and that is totally normal. 

To set your legs in the standing position, straighten out your legs very purposefully and simultaneously push your knees back like you’re trying to lock your knees or see how straight you can get them.  When done correctly, you’ll feel your quads harden.

To set your legs in the seated or laying position, push your feet into the ground.

It’s all about creating tension and taking the slack out of your muscles.  More advanced lifters contract even more muscles, often squeezing the bar in their hands and isometrically contracting stabilizing muscles all throughout the body.  It may mean their toes are gripping the ground, their jaw is tense, and arm muscles are on and ready to go.  They are fully set.

When to get set?

Getting set costs energy!  One of the big complaints I hear about getting set, especially on squats, is that it’s tiring and I can sympathize.  It most certainly is.  It is wise to work toward setting all your muscles at once and only do this immediately prior to lifting.  This saves as much energy as possible for the actual lift.  Getting set occurs when we’re holding the barbell, dumbbell, kettlebell, etc. and right before we perform the lift.  It takes approximately one to two seconds for lifters who can set all their muscles at once.

A new lifter may not be able to simultaneously contract all their muscles on day one and that’s okay.  That’s normal and why I teach the “down the body” set first.  That way, it is learned step-wise and as you get better at those contractions, you contract more at once because you’re developing your muscle memory. 

It’s only a matter of time before, the “down the body” set I teach is replaced with a simultaneous contraction across the entire body.  Muscle memory is powerful and shows up as using muscles with less thinking about how to use those muscles.  Muscle memory allows us to drive and type without thinking too much about how to drive and type.

When we first learn to drive, we spend much more time thinking about which pedal is on which side, how much pressure to add with our foot, and where our blinkers are located.  A few years into driving, we don’t have to think about it nearly at all; our muscle memory knows exactly how much pressure to add to which pedal to control the car the way we want to. 

Same with typing.  When elementary-age me was learning to type, I spent a lot of time looking at the keyboard and practicing typing new words, often with many mistakes.  At that time, it was slower than writing for sure.  Now, as I type this, it’s much faster than writing and my fingers know exactly where to go for the words I want to relay to you.


Next time you’re ready to lift and at the gym, get set right before you lift a weight and see how it feels.  Force your muscles to create tension, don’t let them relax!  Hug your skeleton with your muscles.  All these are common cues an effective and experienced coach provides and on which they give feedback. Getting properly braced paves the way for a safe, positive, and results-producing lifting experience.