28 Feb The Essential Guide To Warming-Up (How To Warm-Up)
How important is the the warm-up? How much time should be spent on the warm-up? What should you be spending your time on before a strength training session? I’ll make a case to answer these questions for you in this article.
Let me be the first to tell you, I’m not a huge fan of warming-up before training. If it were up to me, I’d skip the warm-up and just train.
But, that really doesn’t make sense.
A well designed warm-up can increase muscle temperature, core temperature, and increase blood flow.
Have you ever heard someone say they were “trying to get the blood flowing” before a training session? Well, there seems to be truth to that statement. But it goes deeper than that and there are other important reasons to warm-up.
I read somewhere that any athlete who is unwilling to spend at least 10 minutes doing a warm-up is simply not serious about their training.
Harsh? I don’t think so. Warming-up prior to strength training is a necessity. It’s not a just something we do for the sake of warming-up though, it’s done for specific reasons.Warming-up prior to strength training is a necessity.Click To Tweet
As a lifter or strength enthusiast, there are 4 main reasons to warm-up properly before a training session.
In simple terms, we warm-up to “get the blood flowing.” Literally. Well, this is one of the main reasons. And the benefits of warming-up can be summarized best by saying we do it to minimize risk for injury and improve training performance.
I once heard physical therapist and strength coach Charlie Weingroff brilliantly explain the 4 main reasons to properly warm-up:
- To increase tissue temperature (which enhances the muscular system)
- To prepare the central nervous system (CNS)
- To “prime” mobility
- To rehearse movement
All of this essentially helps us to increase performance and decrease risk for injury.
Let’s look at each one of these a little bit closer.
REASON #1-TO INCREASE TISSUE TEMPERATURE
When you warm up properly you raise your core body temperature. As the body temperature increases through warm-up, this improves the muscle tissue extensibility to be able to move better and perform better, specifically during a strength training session. We want the muscle tissue to be more dynamic and flexible. Muscle, in particular, tends to contract more rapidly and more intensely with higher tissue temperature. A warm-up is needed to facilitate that.
REASON #2-TO PREPARE THE CNS
As a strength athlete, you are required to turn on your central nervous system for the appropriate movements during a strength training session. The better you can actively “turn on” or activate your CNS, the better your movement skills.
This is because a properly implemented warm-up movements can increase the sensitivity of our nerve receptors and increase speed of nervous system impulses. In other words, this can be thought of as a way to increase the communication between our nervous system and muscular system prior to our training.
Think of a car in the dead-cold of winter. You start the car and it takes time to get the engine warmed up so that it fires with precision. As the car warms up, it’s going to drive a helluva lot smoother. Well, our bodies are kind of the same way. Get the machinery warmed up so that it operate efficiently and with precision.
The importance of the nervous system in any strength skill cannot be understated. The better we can do this before a session, the better our training session will ultimately be.
REASON #3-TO PRIME MOBILITY
An obvious reason to warm up is to improve mobility before the training session.
For example, before doing heavy loaded barbell squats it’s typically advantageous to perform light bar squats or goblet squats to improve or prime mobility prior to performing a loaded movement pattern. We do this to improve the joint health by stimulating movement and synovial fluid in the joints.
Performing a warm-up to improve mobility is probably the biggest reason most people perform warm-up activities prior to strength training.
But, you should be able to now see that there are many other very important reasons to perform the warm-up besides just mobility.
REASON #4-TO REHEARSE MOVEMENT
We perform a warm-up to rehearse the movement pattern.
For example, when I’m performing the Olympic lifts such as the snatch or clean and jerk you can bet that I am performing these exercises with a stick and then the unloaded barbell to rehearse the movement before start loading the bar.
Take the bench press as another example. This movement should be done with an unloaded bar to rehearse the movement prior to putting any weight on it. Most top strength coaches would agree with this, no matter how advanced or elite the athlete.
I’d even add one more reason to warm-up.
REASON #5-TO PRE-ACTIVATE THE SPINAL STABILIZERS
You may argue that this is just preparing the CNS (as I mentioned above).
However, I have been getting a lot of benefit from doing a few simple stabilization exercises prior to training. Specifically, the McGill Big 3 exercises, which I’ll outline below.
As a former back patient and someone that will always have to consider my past back injury, I have found that a few sets and reps of spinal stabilization work helps to ‘turn on’ the spinal musculature prior to a training session – doing activities that are specific with this goal.
These simple and effective exercises have been very valuable for me personally to pre-activate spinal stability prior to loading.
They don’t take much time, but seem to offer major benefit in a pre-training regimen.
Now that you know WHY, you should also keep in mind GENERAL versus SPECIFIC warm-ups.
The purpose of a general warm-up is to improve function and performance of the body as a whole.
The purpose of a specific warm-up is to connect the CNS to the specific movement that will be performed during that day’s training session.
Does this make sense? Typically, I like to do a few things general, then a few things specific (depending on what I’m doing that day).
Here’s my typical guidelines for warming-up:
- Spend approximately 10 minutes on warm-up activity, more if needed
- Do “just enough” (I’ll explain in a minute)
- Work general to specific
- In general, keep the number of activities to around 5 to 10
Remembering the reasons I’ve outlined that we do the warm-up, I’ll do “just enough” so that I’m not fatigued prior to the training session.
What I don’t want is doing too much that will take away from my training. This is huge – and I want to say it again. Do “just enough” so that the goals are accomplished, but it doesn’t take away from your training session.
THOUGHTS ON STRETCHING
Static stretching (holding a given position for an extended period of time) has been used by many to improve flexibility. Flexibility and strength are, no doubt, important fitness and performance components for all of us. However, spending too much time on stretching before a training session has largely been shown to be detrimental to a strength training session. Excessive stretching can interfere with the muscle, tendon and joint receptors and potentially impair performance.
This is not to say that mobility work should not be done before an Olympic Weightlifting session that requires certain degrees of mobility and flexibility to perform the lifts. In this case, time should be spent pre-training to work on mobility issues through some stretching or dynamic movements.
The science seems to suggest that dynamic movements are more effective than static stretching. My personal experience leads me to that conclusion, as well.
For example, a few sets of kettlebell swings can do wonders for tight hip flexors. A few reps of a Turkish get-up can do wonders for tight shoulders and a thoracic spine.
Stretching has a role, but aggressive passive stretching seems to be best served at the conclusion of a training session (if at all) rather than at the beginning.
THE SCIENCE OF THE WARM-UP
What does the science say about warming-up? Most of the research seems to favor warming-up and from a “common sense” standpoint, it certainly makes sense.
Just as an example, some of the latest research in the February 2017 issue of the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research looked at the utilization of warm-up programming. The study demonstrated improvements in strength and balance (in soccer athletes) over a six week training period.
This new research strategically implemented a combination of aerobic work, balance and strength drills into the athlete’s warm-up programming. In the study, the subjects performed the warm-up sessions for approximately 20 minutes before their practice sessions. My point in sharing this study is that the science of the warm-up is still an area being investigated today. There are still questions to be answered and things to be learned about this topic.
If you’re interested in sorting through the body of research about warming-up, then I’d recommend you take a read through of a massive sport science review that I’ll reference at the bottom of this article. This review does an excellent job of looking at individual studies related to the science of the warm-up.
In addition, nearly all books I’ve ever read refer to the benefits and necessity of warming-up for the strength athlete for reasons similar to what I have mentioned.
Proper warm-up programming is a combination of art, science and simply applying common sense.
Always be able to answer the question, why am I doing this and how does this contribute to my training goal?
THERE ARE MANY WAYS TO WARM-UP (SPECIFIC EXAMPLES)
There are many different ways to warm-up. You’ll find things from very general to more specific and for different training goals.
Dan John has stated that there is really no difference between the warm-up and the workout with his “the warm-up is the workout” philosophy which makes the process seamless.
Now, I’ll give you some specific examples of warm-up programs (many things I have used – in some variation – at one point or another in my training).
I’ll start this off with one of my own that I’m using currently. This is one variation as it fluctuates depending on the training session I’m doing (remember, general to specific).
Here’s one of my recent warm-up programs:
- McGill’s Big 3 Exercises for spine health (bird dog x 10, side plank, & curl-up x 10)
- Goblet Squats x 5-10 (focusing on power breathing)
- Turkish get-up x 1-2 with a light kettlebell
- Kettlebell swing, 2 sets of 10
- Overhead squats (holding a PVC stick) x 10
- A series of PVC drills/progressions for the Olympic lifts (Catalyst progressions)
- Then, progress to bar and “practice” the progressions again
Here’s an example of a minimalist warm-up/movement program. Actually, I’d consider this more appropriately – a movement preparation routine:
- Prying Goblet Squat x 5
- Hip Bridge x 10
- Halo x 5 each side
This is a simple and effective program I’ll do for 3 circuits that was outlined in the brilliant book Simple and Sinister by Pavel. (I may do a few other movements in addition to this).
THE GOBLET SQUAT
The goblet squat, in particular, is wonderful as a mobility drill, movement primer, and warm-up exercise. I’ve discovered great value with this exercise for myself and others. A few sets of 5-10 can cover a lot of bases for your warm-up checklist.
Another simple warm-up I use is the Original Strength “reset.” The “reset” is always going to be a great general warm-up for any strength training session (in my opinion).
- Neck nods x 10
- Quadruped rocking x 10-20
- Cross crawls (supine or standing) x 10
- Crawls (forward and backward, a few lengths of garage)
- Rolls (upper extremity, then lower extremity) x 5 each side
A few rounds of this can be all you need sometimes.
Here’s a much more extensive dynamic warm-up program that Matt Foreman references in his great book Olympic Weightlifting for Masters. This warm-up is an example that Chinese weightlifters use in their training.
- Standing hops x 10-15
- Jumping jacks x 10-15
- High knee/butt kicks x 10-15
- Horizontal arm swings x 15
- Arm Circles x 15
- Elbow circles x 15
- Wrist stretches against the wall – 15 second hold
- PVC pipe snatch-grip overhead rotations
- Side to side torso twists x 20
- Side bends x 15
- Wide groin shifts x 15
- Knee kicks x 10
- Leg swings x 10
- Lunge groin stretch – 15 second hold
- Toe touches with a PVC pipe x 10
- Behind the neck presses with a PVC pipe x 10
- Back squats with a PVC pipe x 10
- Toe touches with empty barbell x 5
- Behind the neck presses with empty barbell x 5
- Back squats with empty barbell x 5
You’re probably wondering how long it takes to do this warm-up?
Matt noted that it usually takes him about 8 minutes to do this. Again, only 8 minutes.
Here’s another example of specific warm-up sets for barbell squats.
In this example, let’s assume you did other “general” warm-up activities (ex. walking, light stretching, stabilization work such as McGill’s Big 3) before you did these warm-up sets:
Barbell Back Squat warm-up program:
- Bar x 5 reps x 2 sets
- 135 x 5 x 2
- 185 x 5 x 1-2
- First work set
*I’ve found that I really like to perform 2 sets of 5 (minimum) with the bar as warm-up on ANY first barbell lift or exercise I do. So, if I do squats first, I’m always doing 2 sets with just the bar. Whatever the first barbell exercise is – do 2 sets of 5 with just the bar.
Again, there are many options for us to do as a warm-up and I could have kept coming up with ideas and things I’ve done.
These are just a handful of things.
For a long time, I had a standard “warm-up” routine I used. Now I seem to vary it quite a bit and experiment with different things. The bottom line to know the reasons why you’re doing your warm-up. Not only the entire routine, but each individual thing you do.
A warm-up should never be something that’s randomly patched tougher. It should be done with intent and understanding of everything you do, keeping in mind general and specific approaches.
Once again, the warm-up is done to improve performance and help reduce the risk of injury.
Let me recap some simple and important reasons to spend your time on a warm-up program:
- Increase tissue temperature
- Activate the CNS
- Prime mobility
- Rehearse movement
- Pre-activate spinal stabilizers
SUMMARY & ACTIONS
- Understand why the warm-up is a necessity for strength training
- Commit to roughly 10 minutes of warm-up activities prior to a session
- Have a general warm-up program in place
- Use specific drills or exercises specific to your training session on a given day
Make the warm-up program work for you.
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What Does Sport Science Say About Warming-Up? by Jesse Irizarry. This article can be found on BretContreras.com
Rubin, et al. The Effects of Stretching On Strength Performance, Sports Med, 2007, 37 (3), 213-224
Ghareeb, et al, Effects of Two Warm-Up Programs On Balance And Isokinetic Strength In Male High School Soccers Players, J Strength & Conditioning Res, 2017, 31 (2)