If you are like me maybe you used to see warm-ups as a waste of time or something to rush through to get to the good stuff.
You’re excited about the workout ahead (or maybe just in a rush to get it over with) so you jump head first into your first working set.
If you want to get the most benefit from you workout, and prevent injury in the process, a proper warm-up is crucial.
Remember your workout is only as good as your warm-up. If you’ve been slacking in the warm-up department and have been fortunate to avoid injury so far, minor or major, then count your blessings.
If you’d like to stay that way and just have better overall workouts let’s dive in and learn the right way to warm-up.
What’s the purpose of a warm-up?
The goal of any warm-up should be to stimulate blood flow and prepare your joints, muscles, and nervous system for the work ahead.
It’s not just about raising your core temperature. It’s also about neural activation. In other words, it’s about firing up your muscles and activating your nervous system for more intense physical activity.
What not to do as a warm-up?
There are two things you do not want to do for your warm-up.
The first is static stretching.
As renowned strength coach Vern Gambetta states, “You warm-up to stretch, you don’t stretch to warm-up.”
Stretching cold muscles is never a good idea. Static stretching relaxes the muscle. This relaxation decreases the force generating capacity of the muscle and can actually lower your strength and power output. It can inhibit your ability to achieve full intensity.
This is the opposite of what we want before a weight lifting workout.
Now at the end of your warm-up it can be useful to stretch non-competing muscle groups. For example, if I am about to perform back exercises I like stretch my chest at the end of my warm-up because I tend to be tight and this restricts my range of motion. My hip flexors are another area I like to stretch out when I am doing leg work since they are also tight from years of sitting in a cubicle and limit my range of motion.
Dynamic stretching can also be a useful tool to employ at this point.
The second thing not to do is activities non-related to the workout you are about to perform. For example, if you are about to perform an upper body resistance training workout then jumping on a treadmill or bike for 5-10 minutes does nothing to prepare you for work ahead.
Not that doing this type of activity is particularly detrimental. But at best it is just a waste of your time, and at worst it may be counterproductive as it can have a shortening and tightening effect on your hip flexors.
So what should you do as a warm-up?
A proper warm-up should be specific to the activity you are about to engage in and can be broken up into 2 stages.
The first stage is to perform a general warm-up to get your nervous system firing and enhance proprioception (awareness of body position and movements).
This is achieved by performing dynamic general movement patterns to warm-up the joints (shoulders, hips, and knees). As Scott Abel states in his book The Abel Approach, “…a proper sequencing of reaching, bending, twisting, light lifting, and arm and hip swings can and will also raise core temperature while still activating the nervous system, coaxing the muscles and joints to be properly prepared rather than prematurely shortened.”
Activities in this stage include arm circles, arm swings, leg swings, anterior/lateral/posterior reaches and reach lunges, and some rotation/twisting exercises. These all serve the goal of the general warm-up phase.
Always take what your body gives you. Gradually increase range of motion as your body loosens up.
A general warm-up sequence may look like this:
15-20 arm circles (front-to-back then back-to-front)
15-20 arm circles (clockwise/counter clockwise in front of the body)
15-20 arm swings with core rotation
15-20 leg swings (front-to-back then left-to-right)
10-15 reach lunge to the front
10-15 reach lunge to the side
10-15 reach lunge to the back
can include band pull aparts, shoulder rotations, etc.
The second stage should be an event specific activity. In other words, warm-up the specific muscles you are using in the workout. You want to engage the muscle you are going to begin working and really start to “feel” it contracting.
If you are about to perform squats then warm up by squatting. Start with your body weight then work up with lighter weights as your body gets used to the movement and increases its range of motion.
Because of my ACL surgery I even need to regress body weight squats by first holding on to tubing or some fixed object to unload my knees as I try to regain full range of motion in my “bad” knee.
A proper warm-up consists of a general preparation phase and then an event specific phase or physical rehearsal. Your warm-up should always be targeted to the goal of the workout. It is not just movement for the sake of movement.
A proper warm-up can usually be done in 5-10 minutes but it depends on many factors such as age, weather, injuries, type of training, etc. The key is to take as long as you need to feel ready. Remember the goal is to always train smarter not harder.
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Reference: Abel, Scott. The Abel Approach. 2016