Build a Better Warm-Up
A well-designed warm-up can help you hit a new personal best, avoid injury, and generally just rock your workout. In this article, we’ll review both the theory and the practice with the goal of helping you build yourself a better warm-up.
Anatomy of a Warm-Up
A warm-up can include many distinct parts. Although time constraints, the objective of the training session and any physical limitations must be taken into account,
below are the categories you should consider for your warm-up.
· Soft tissue work
· Static stretching (Don’t freak out. I’ll explain.)
· Mobility and activation
· Dynamic warm-up
· Specific movement prep
Let’s review the basics of each component.
Soft Tissue Work
Soft tissue work involves using implements such as a foam roller, stick, lacrosse ball, or similar tools to massage various muscle groups or fascial lines. Over the past decade, foam rollers have won wide acceptance in the strength and conditioning and fitness community. However, some trainers and athletes are spending upwards of 30 minutes on a roller at the start of a training session. This simply isn’t an efficient use of time. Instead, I recommend about 10 slow rolls for each major muscle group. I first read this suggestion in Mike Boyle’s Functional Training for Sport, and haven’t looked back. It’s a great way to get the benefits of foam rolling, without spending most of your training time rolling around on the floor.
Recently, some authors have raised the point that spending time under tension in your desired positions, such as a deep squat or an overhead squat, is far superior at developing functional mobility, and I’m inclined to agree, but why can’t we do both? Others have argued that the most commonly cited benefit of foam rolling, myofascial release, does not actually occur and that the principle benefit of foam rolling is down-regulating neuromuscular tone. I don’t see this as a bad thing. If I have hypertonic (tight) muscles, and the foam roller calms them, makes me feel better and I perceive greater ease of movement, is that not a benefit?
The point is, the foam roller is not going to solve all of your problems, so it’s not worth spending 30 minutes per training session using one. However, 10 slow rolls per large muscle group can provide benefit and allow for better movement, regardless of the mechanism of action. In addition to the foam roller, a lacrosse ball is great for getting into areas in the upper back and shoulders, and I’ve found the stick to be effective for the calves and the bottoms of the feet. If you’re new to soft tissue work, start with the foam roller. Top end ones retail for about $55, with reasonable quality lower cost-options available for as little as $13 on Amazon.
I know, I know, you’ve been told not to stretch before exercising. Stretching makes you weak, and stretching a cold muscle is dangerous. Trust me, I’ve heard it before, and in fact, embraced this idea myself once upon a time. Unfortunately, this way of thinking represented a major overreaction to research that indicated that stretching before various strength and power tasks reduced force output. This is indeed true, but not in the context of how we actually train in the gym. The studies that I have read on the relationship between stretching and force output have involved a simple test, stretch, re-test design, with the re-test almost always showing reduced force output, however, this isn’t how we train, or at least, not how you should train. When was the last time you went from a static stretch right into a heavy squat or a jump? The inhibitory effects of stretching will be resolved after a few minutes of mobility work or a dynamic warm-up, which, as we’re outlining here, should be done after your stretching and before the heavier lifting phase of your training.
Additionally, stretching a “cold” muscle does not put you at risk for acute injury. This is something that is often said, but that simply isn’t confirmed by research or observation. Have you or anyone you’ve ever known hurt yourself during controlled static stretching? Our bodies are more ready for activity than we sometimes give them credit for. If you’re a fairly healthy and active person, you should be able to break into a run, or do a squat jump, or yes, stretch out your calves, while “cold” and not expect to injure yourself.
What I would suggest is, cold or otherwise, is that you ease into any stretching that you do. The muscles, tendons, ligaments and fascia will gradually relax, allowing you to get a good stretch without any injury risk.
As for how long to hold each stretch, I’m once again going to take a page from Mike Boyle and echo his recommendation for holding stretches for 5 deep breaths. There are several benefits to this. One, is that it ensures you breathe through the stretch, which is important. Two, it improves focus on the task at hand. Three, it doesn’t require a clock, and finally, it strikes a nice balance between being effective while still being time efficient.
A comprehensive review of good stretching practice is beyond the scope of this article, but in general, completing one stretch for each major muscle groups (quads, hamstrings, adductors, external hip rotators, pecs, lats, etc) is a good approach. Stretching at night before bed is an excellent way to improve flexibility, and can also improve sleep quality. However, this is a completely separate habit to develop that, in my experience, even competitive athletes struggle to adopt, so to ensure you actually complete some stretching, include it at the start of your training session.
Mobility and Activation
This is my favourite part of the warm-up. In this segment, we complete movements that address common postural issues and prepare the body for the demands of the training session. There are many movements and strategies that can and should be used during this phase of the warm-up, but the two that are perhaps the most universally relevant are thoracic mobility and glute activation. The thoracic spine consists of twelve vertebrae, one for each rib. This part of the spine needs to be mobile but, too often, it is not. One obvious problem with limited thoracic mobility is that the body will take range of motion where it can get it, so if the thoracic spine doesn’t flex, extend or rotate as it needs to do during a compound movement such as throwing, then other nearby joints will compensate, which increases injury risk. Here are some of my favourite thoracic mobility exercises:
Most recreational exercisers spend too much time sitting, and as a result, their glutes become inhibited. When the glutes aren’t properly recruited, this results in the hamstring and low back over-contributing which can create hamstring tightness, low back pain, and of course, worse strength performance. Doing a few glute bridge exercises at the start of a training session can help improve neuromuscular recruitment of the glute muscles and thus resolve some of these issues.
A glute bridge is described as an activation exercise and not a mobility exercise since most people, even while “cold,” have the capacity to complete a full extension of the hips. The objective of glute bridging is not to increase functional range of motion, but rather to increase the neuromuscular system’s ability to effectively recruit the glutes in compound movements such as a squat or a lunge.
There are several other mobility and activation type exercises that you can use in your warm-ups. Drills for ankle mobility, or a lateral squat are common and useful examples. Choose 5 to 10 movements based on your own needs, the amount of time you have and your lifting skill level. If you’re not sure how to build the mobility and activation phase of your warm-up, consult a qualified trainer.
The line between mobility exercises and a dynamic warm-up gets blurred sometimes, and to be frank, it doesn’t matter all that much how you categorize each movement, as long as you do them. The goal of the dynamic warm-up is to further extend your active range of motion, increase your heart rate (and therefore blood flow and muscle temperature), and activate your nervous system. If your training session involves plyometric training, or speed or agility training, then the dynamic warm-up is essential. If you are only doing strength training, then perhaps a full dynamic warm-up is not necessary.
Movements in a dynamic warm-up might include a lateral shuffle, carioca (sometimes called the grapevine), back-pedalling, or using an agility ladder. Depending on your skill level and the purpose of your training session, you might do between 3 to 10 dynamic movements as part of your dynamic warm-up. In general, you want to work up a sweat and increase your heart rate to over 100 bpm at the end of your dynamic warm-up.
Specific Movement Prep
As stated above, if you aren’t doing plyometric or speed training, you may not need a full dynamic warm-up. However, specific movement prep is certainly advisable for both minimizing injury risk and optimizing lift performance. Let’s say that the first major exercise in your strength training session is squats. If you are new to strength training, perhaps a body weight squat is a strength exercise for you, in which case you can simply get straight into them. But if you are a more advanced lifter moving heavier weights, you will need to do a few lighter sets to adequately prepare for the actual strength training sets. The stronger you are and the more weight you are lifting, the more specific movement prep is required.
For example, if you are training by doing 3 sets of 10 deadlifts at 200lbs, you might try doing one set of 12 with just the bar, one set of 8 at 135lbs, and one set of 5 at 185lbs before getting into your actual training sets. If you’re working on maximum strength, you’ll need to do more warm-up sets at heavier weights to prepare your nervous system to effectively innervate your muscles and allow for a successful lift.
I usually only use the specific movement prep strategy for the first one or two lifts in a strength training session. After completing the heavy strength phase of your first one or two core lifts, you’re ready for whatever else you might be doing in the remainder of your training session.
I recognize that the overview provided here is very general, and this is because the exact warm-up strategies used to ensure an optimal training session vary significantly depending on training experience and goals. Time considerations must also be taken into account, and the reasons why you would prioritize one movement over another are highly variable depending on the individual.
What I hope you can take away from this is that there are several strategies that you can use to help reduce your injury risk and ensure better performance in your training sessions, and that these two benefits make the time you invest in your warm-up well worth it.
If you are interested in receiving guidance on building a warm-up ideally suited to your unique needs and goals, please get in touch, I’d love to help!