Updated: Mar 15
Speak to any fitness professional, and more likely than not, they’ll have their own style of warming up. Like most things in the fitness industry, there is such a vast expanse of opinions, styles and attitudes towards warming up. Some people don’t even bother. This is something I have seen on the gym floor, many times. Sure, you might be able to lift the same weight or cover the same distance, you know, getting from A to B. If that’s the way you want to try and achieve results, then that’s your own prerogative, and quite frankly, is rare. Personally, and I don’t think I’m alone in saying this, a good warm up will allow for a better performance of how we get from point A to point B. A good warm up allows us to execute our exercises with better form and technique, to aid in reducing injury and to help our bodies be better set up for what we are about to do. In general, it’s good practice and yields better results, especially if we are about to undergo a hard bout of High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) or maximal strength training.
Great. I’ve said it’s worth warming up, so let me explain why exactly we warm up:
Why We Warm Up
The research that has been conducted into warming up pre-exercise is extensive. It heavily supports the idea that by conducting a suitable warmup the athlete or trainee will give a better performance. A study conducted by the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research looked at 32 research papers that considered the benefits of warming up, a meta-analysis of previously conducted studies. In 79% of cases covering various forms of aerobic and anaerobic exercise, a warmup beforehand proved to be beneficial. 17% showed a decrement. The interesting thing about this 17% though is that the warmup conducted was not specific to the kind of exercise taking place in the study. For example, if I was going to be spending a session developing my bench press, I wouldn’t put the emphasis of my warm up through my quads and hamstrings.
Not only does warming up seem to improve the performance of the athlete or trainee before exercise, but it also helps to reduce the risk of injury. Ultimately, unless you are training to partake in a specific sport as either a past time or regular hobby, what we do within the gym walls should have one goal in mind; that of building a better quality of life outside of the gym. If we are looking to build a better quality of life outside of the gym, then we want to be in a place where we are free of injury. To be fair, I think this goes for all types of people, not just us regular Joes.
One of the key reasons for warming up is to improve movement around our joints, especially those of the ankle, knee, hip and shoulder. When it comes to putting heavy loads through these joints, or sudden fast movements that require a range of motion above what our daily life demands, it is hugely beneficial to have these joints primed. An increased range of motion and the level of mobility our bodies can undergo around the joint is going to allow for a better overall performance. In turn, a better performance is going to yield better results for the athlete or trainee. One of the most common things I witness on the gym floor is a lack of warming up around the ankle, knee, hip and shoulder. If you are planning on executing large compound (multi-jointed) exercises with considerable weight, your performance (i.e. how much weight you can shift well) is going to suffer. This is when we see injury, when there is a lack of priming in our joints before heavy resistance work. We also see injury occur when we try to shift more weight than our joints and muscles can manage. Remember, the word ‘train’ means exactly that, building up piece by piece. Each workout should be the same, your warmup it’s initial element.
When we think about sports-based injuries, where do they most often occur? That’s right, at a joint. Imagine that your warm up is a chance to top up the synovial fluid between your joints with a little WD40.
There are two types of warmup. The one we more commonly see in the gym and at sporting events is the active warmup. This involves the trainee physically moving their body in a variety of ways to prepare themselves for exercise. The other, less commonly seen warmup is that of the passive warm up. This involves covering the body externally with heat whilst the trainee or athlete doesn’t move the body. Both of these methods have shown to aid in performance through the raising of core temperature, metabolic and neural related effects, elevated oxygen uptake and post-activation potentiation (a short-term improvement in performance). The passive method has grown in popularity in some sports as it helps to increase body temperature without depleting energy stores prior to exercise. On the other hand, active warm-ups help to induce a greater metabolic change, which in turn leads to increased preparedness for the specific exercise about to be undertaken. We’ll come back to that theme of making your warmup relevant and specific very soon.
Ultimately, this is why we warm up. Conducting an appropriate warm up has a very good chance at improving your performance, in almost any type of exercise you are about to undertake. Research into pre-exercise warmups is still an area of sports science that is continually developing, but it’s safe to say that the evidence is there. There are perhaps just as many, if not more, ways to warm up for exercise as there are stars in the sky. Sure, a slight over exaggeration perhaps, but quite often we can become unsure of how exactly to warm up. Conflicting advice from different coaches or gym buddies can see us doubting our own warmups or those that have been advised by a professional.
When I train myself and clients, I always make sure that the warm up is the first thing we do before we un-rack any heavy barbells to lift compounds or partake in a tough and gruelling CrossFit WOD. So, what is the secret formula to warming up..?
How To Warm Up
This might sound simple to a few and blindly obvious to others, but for some it is something that often gets totally washed over. How do you warm up? Easy. Make it relevant. There’s no one size fits all warmup for exercise. For your warm up to be effective, it needs to reflect the kind of activity that you are going to be doing. Alongside this, there are a few components to a warm up that should be undertaken to make sure our bodies are properly primed for the exercise. Splitting your warm up into three easy to digest sections is a great way to make sure we are ready. These include a general warmup component, dynamic stretching component and a muscle activation component. We could look at your warmup in more detail, but for now, this will suffice.
With such a large variety of different ways to warm up, even when the warm up exercises are relevant to the activity we are about to undertake, it can be hard to decide what to do. An easy way to imagine picking out warm up exercises is to imagine that you are looking at a menu. Your starters are your general warmup, your main course is your dynamic stretching, and the muscle activation your desert. Make sure you fill up here though. Don’t just opt for the ‘one of each’ option. Pick 2 to 3 exercises from each course to formulate your warmup.
So, what are these different components? The general warmup serves as a way to simply get the body moving. This helps to elevate the heart rate, raise the body’s core temperature and start moving the joints through their range of motion before forcing them too far. When choosing exercises to do in your general warmup, pick low impact movements, like rowing or a cross-trainer. These are great at hitting a large number of muscles in the body and the multi-jointed movements mean that your ankles, knees, hips and shoulders (those areas of the body most prone to injury) get some TLC before being put under heavy loads or abnormal ranges of motion. These type of low impact cardiovascular machines serve as a great tool for almost any sport or activity imaginable.
I would recommend spending between 3-5 minutes doing your general warmup. If you wanted to pick two exercises here, you could use 2 separate machines. If you don’t have access to this kind of equipment, perform some low intensity body movements, such as jumping jacks, spot jogging, etc. You can get creative here. A nice general warmup I like to use in my classes is the 30/30/30. For this I choose 3 low intensity exercises that will achieve the results I want from a general warmup. Complete one exercise for 30 seconds, moving straight into the next for 30 seconds, then the last for the same amount of time. Repeat this process 3 times. This will give you a nice 4.5 minute general warm up. If you opt for this method, bring it back to the idea of relevance. If your workout includes heavy back squats, throw in 30 seconds of air squats in the general warmup. I find the 30/30/30 method a great general warmup, especially for my clients and classes going into a vigorous HIIT session.
The second component to a suitable warmup is dynamic stretching. Make sure the stretching you do here is dynamic and not static. With dynamic stretching, the aim should be to move the body’s joints and levers through their full range of motion, increasing the range as we ease into the exercise. Dynamic stretching means to ‘move through our stretching’, as opposed to static stretching which means we hold a stretch in an isometric fashion for a period of time without moving. Research has shown that static stretching can be detrimental to performance. I still often see people statically stretching. Save this for post workout, not beforehand.
Get into the habit of stretching dynamically after your general warmup. Pick 2-3 dynamic stretches that are relevant to the exercise you are about to undertake. For example, if I was about to execute 3 sets of 12 pull ups as part of my workout, I would want to make sure my shoulders and lats have been moved through there full range of motion and the elbow and shoulder joints have moved appropriately before supporting my bodyweight through explosive movement. These dynamic stretches should be performed for around 10-15 reps for each movement chosen. In a nut shell, the dynamic stretching will help to lengthen your muscles which will in turn allow for better mobility. Better mobility will mean better movement. Better movement will mean better form and technique, and in the end, we get there; better form and technique will result in better performance. We receive the best gains from our training when we put in a good performance.
The third component of a good warm up is that of muscle activation. Perhaps more so than the first two components, the muscle activation stage of your warmup should be really specific to the training you are about to do. I think at this stage it would be wise to give you an example of what an appropriate warmup routine would look like.
Let’s take the squat for example. Let’s say you are having a heavy day on the back squat. You have completed your general warmup, consisting of a 3 minute row and 2 or so minutes on the upright bike. Your heart rate is elevated, your core temperature has risen and you’re just a bit loser in general than before you walked into the gym. You then completed your dynamic warmup. Knowing you had a squat day (or a leg based day in general or even something like a CrossFit WOD that involves plyometrics through the legs for example) you then chose 3 appropriate dynamic stretches that specifically target the muscles and joints in the leg. Because you are performing a back squat, you also decide to dynamically stretch through the shoulder joint to allow the mobility needed in the upper back to correctly rack the barbell in the low bar position. Great, good job so far. Now you hit step 3, muscle activation, but what is muscle activation?
Muscle activation is the ability of your body’s musculature to switch on and work. By activating the muscles needed in our workout before it begins, it makes it easier for your brain to engage with that specific set of muscles during the workout. Again, this is important if you are performing a HIIT workout with specific or even more complex movements. It also helps greatly for resistance work in general. In essence, you have told your body what areas it can expect to engage with. Using the correct muscles at the correct time is ideal after all.
If we take this definition back to the squat, we can now understand what 2-3 muscle activation exercises would be appropriate as part of our warm up. We know the squat requires a huge load through the glutes, hamstrings, quads and core. Our dynamic warmup has helped prime our joints and lengthened our muscles, so now it’s time to target the muscle groups that are going to be highlighted for a good performance. 10-15 reps of these muscle activation exercises really help set yourself up. Being specific to the squat, you might complete glute bridges, good mornings, air squats, goblet squats, single leg RDLs, etc, etc. All of these would have their place in a squat warmup. The idea is not to get carried away. Think of the menu analogy. Pick 2-3 exercises and then move on. Now you are ready to go.
If you are training heavy compounds, don’t go straight for your heavy sets at 75% +. Warm up the specific exercise (back squat for example) by completing some actual back squats at a lighter load. This really gives you time to focus on your form and technique, giving you the chance to iron out any creases before going heavy. The same principle can be applied to HIIT training. If I know I have a CrossFit workout that is filled with skill work like handstands and skipping, I’ll practice these movements before I go hell for leather.
It Really Is That Simple
In conclusion, the best thing you can do is to make your warm up specific to the type of training you are going to do. The beauty of a warmup is that it can be way more flexible than the actual training you do. Play around with it. See what works for you and produces the best results. There are so many fun ways to get warmed up that you can consistently keep your warmup ritual fresh and exciting. If you have been doing the same old thing for ages and want to change, then change. Part of me here does want to say, ‘if it ain’t broken, don’t fix it’, but at the same time, if you haven’t tried anything else, then why not.
· Make the warmup specific to the training you are about to do
· Complete a general warmup
· Complete 2-3 dynamic stretches based around the joints and muscles you will be using
· Complete 2-3 muscle activation exercises
· Practice the specific movements that are in your main workout before going crazy
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Effects of warming up, massage, and stretching on range of motion and muscle strength in the lower extremity - Margareta Wiktorsson-Moller, Birgitta Öberg, Jan Ekstrand, Jan Gillquist, 1983 (sagepub.com)