There are generally a few activities that I see people implementing preceding a bout of resistance training: some form of cardiovascular activity for 5-10 minutes, static stretching, and/or a specific warmup for the actual lift to be performed. It's great that they're trying to do something to prepare themselves for lifting, but most trainees are misguided in the warmup department. Of course, many trainees don't implement any form of warmup at all. This is a big mistake; there are many benefits to a properly implemented warmup routine:
Improved nervous system function
- Increased sensitivity in nerve receptors
- Faster nerve impulse transmissions
Increased core and muscle temperatures
- Lower level of muscle viscosity
- Improved blood flow to muscles
- More efficient uptake of oxygen from blood
- Improves muscle flexibility and joint ROM
- More forceful contraction and rapid relaxation of muscles
- A more thorough lubrication of joint structures
- Acclimation of soft tissue to increased loading
- Activation of inhibited muscle groups
- A marked decrease in the chance of sustaining an injury
I'm sure this isn't an exhaustive list of all the benefits of a proper warmup, but if those aren't reasons enough for you to perform a warmup, then I don't know what is. Here is how I structure my warmups for myself and my clients:
Self Myofacial Release
More commonly referred to as "foam rolling," this is a way of improving the quality of soft tissue. I prefer to do this prior to working out. Not only is it great for working out adhesions in muscle tissue, but it is effective at instigating autogenic inhibition in overactive muscle groups. Foam rolling, when done in conjunction with flexibility training like static stretching, has been shown to increase flexibility/mobility. It only takes a few minutes to hit your toughest spots, and it is well worth it. Check out P-funk's sticky about flexiblity for more information.
This is the act of performing a light to moderate intensity bout of cardiovascular activity. Exercises such as jogging, stationary bicycling, rowing, elliptical trainers, and many others are all acceptable. I don't feel this is necessary, but if my clients get to the gym a few minutes early and want to hop on the treadmill for 5 minutes I don't stop them. I don't implement this step in my own warmups, but if you enjoy it and want to make it a part of your warmup routine, then by all means. Generally, 3-5 minutes is going to be plenty.
The purpose of this segment of the warmup is to get certain muscles activated that you have trouble neurally activating without intense concentration. The muscle groups I typically focus on are the gluteals and scapular stabilizers, but depending on the person, and for myself, I may include activation work for other muscles.
This requires a lot of individulization. Some people maybe be able to get away with hitting one weak point before you start or even skipping this step entirely, and some people may need to have emphasis placed on activation work instead of more dynamic warmup exercises. Personally, I like to include a full set of any necessary activation activites before every lifting session whether I am working my arms (Yeah right) or I am performing a full body workout. Reinforcing proper motor patterns on a regular basis is important, and so is stimulation of inhibited musculature as it is often weak in addition to being inactive.
I like to perform 2-3 sets of 10-20 repetitions of each exercise that I do. I also frequently implement isometrics during certain joint positions for various exercises. The birddog is a great example. I might use anywhere from a 2 second static hold in the loaded position to a 5 second static. These exercises can be progressive; that is, you can implement higher loads and/or more complex variations of these movements in order to better stimulate the target musculature as you progress in training status. However, the goal is not to induce a high level of fatigue. 1-2 exercises per muscle group should be sufficient in most causes, but more may be warranted for an extreme case of muscular inhibition.
Once you have been moving around a little bit and given a jump start to your core temperature, it is time to take things up a notch. Dynamic flexibility exercises do much to lubricate your joints, improve joint ROM prior to the workout, and in many cases instigate the myotatic stretch reflex and excite the nervous system.
The exercises you perform are somewhat ballistic in nature, but toned down from traditional ballistic stretching. As well, they generally implement more specific movement patterns than ballistic stretching. This type of flexibility training is superior to static stretching prior to a workout for the aforementioned reasons. Static stretching should be saved until after the workout is finished, except for the possibility of “calming down” an overactive muscle group. As well, static stretching of antagonist musculature can potentially improve neural activation of agonist musculature. An example of this is a person with lower cross syndrome (A postural distortion leading to an anteriorly tilted pelvis). Generally someone with lower cross syndrome is going to have very tight hip flexors and weak glutes. So, some static stretching for the hip flexors at the beginning of the workout to help facilitate reciprocal inhibition when the glutes should be firing is a good idea. Otherwise, static stretching causes relaxation of muscle spindles while doing almost nothing to help raise your core temperature or increase neural activation, which is not desirable prior to a workout.
1-3 sets of 5-12 repetitions should do the trick on most of these exercises. For enjoyment's sake, I like to implement a wide variety of these movements and repeat the same activity very few times, if at all, within the same workout. I tend to focus on the hips, ankles, and shoulders as they are capable of moving on multiple planes, while the knees and elbows don't require special activities to get them moving on their one plane of available movement. Usually, they are peripherally stimulated sufficiently from the other activities performed during this kind of warmup.
This is the portion of the warmup that I do see a good number of trainees implement, though it is usually insufficient or overdone. You want to perform the target resistance training activity, but you want to gradually increase the load as your soft tissue gets acclimated to the increasing loads. As well, it helps your nervous system prepare for a high level of activity.
General guidelines I go by when warming up with the target activity is that the heavier you are lifting, the more warmup sets you are going to require. I'm also not a big fan of doing more than 5 repetitions or so on any warmup sets. You shouldn't need to do any more than that if you performed the aforementioned warmup activities already. Your joints will be sufficiently lubricated by this stage. You want to avoid fatigue at all costs. Warmup sets should not induce any significant level of fatigue. As well, I don't feel that subsequent exercises utilizing similar movements and muscle groups require the same number of warmup sets. So, if you bench press first and perform 3 warmup sets, then you probably only need one warmup set just to get your nervous system in the groove of the movement if you follow up with an incline press or an overhead press.
No informative writeup would be complete without an example. The sample person here has very weak and inactive gluteals, has internally rotated humeri, and is very tight in the hamstrings, hip flexors, calves, chest, and lats:
Supine Glute Bridges – 2x10 - 3sec isometric at top (Glutes, duh)
Band Resisted Sidesteps – 2x12 Each Direction (Glute medius/minimus)
Shoulder Dislocations – 2x12 (External rotators)
Wall Retractions – 2x12 (Scapular retractors)
Inch Worms - 2x6
Dorsiflexed Ankle Mobility - 2x12
Shoulder Circles - 2x12 (Each direction)
(Note: Someone requiring this much remedial activation work probably cannot move this kind of weight, but just humor me for example sake)
Specific on Leg Day:
Deadlift 1RM Attempt
95 x 5 No rest
135 x 3, No rest
185 x 3, No rest
225 x 1, 30s rest
255 x 1, 60s rest
285 x 1, 60s rest
305 x 1, Full Recovery
325 x 1
135 x 5, No Rest
185 x 3, 60s Rest
205 – 3x10
135 x 5, No Rest
185 x 3, 60s Rest
225 – 3x8
5s x 3, 60s Rest
30s - 3x12
So there you have it. That's my take on the proper way to warmup. This type of warmup takes me about 10 minutes, but could take up to 15-20 minutes for someone who needs more remedial type work. This does not including the specific warmups for each lift. I try to blast through it to get my core temperature up sufficiently. It may help to do the movement preparation in a big circuit to conserve time. Give it a try and see if it makes a difference for you too. I mix up the exercises all the time; make it fun and make it work for you.
For those of you who don't know what some of those activities I laid out are, here is a combination of links and my own notes for the aforementioned exercises:
Supine Glute Bridges:
As an additional note, don't allow your pelvis to tilt posteriorly. You should have a nice flat back at the top of the movement. This is an improper firing pattern that I noticed in myself, though I have yet to see a client do this.
Band Resisted Sidesteps:
Get a resistance tube, or preferably, a resistance band. Stand on top of the tubing/band and firmly hold the top portion in front of you. Sometimes it helps to grab the right part of the band with your left hand and vice versa, but go with whatever you are comfortable with. Then, simply step laterally; you can alternate which direciton you move or finish moving to the right or left before changing directions. It really doesn't matter.
Grab a broomstick, a nylon strap, or even a taut resistance tube/band. Just make sure it is long enough for you to grab with a snatch grip, which is the hand position you will utilize for the movement. Now, bring the object overhead by rotating, not rowing, and continue rotating until you touch your back with it. Keep your elbows locked out the entire time, and grab wide enough so that there is not too much resistance to the movement. Try to decrease your grip width over time if at all possible.
Don't force it in either direction. If your hands, elbows, or shoulder blades begin to lose contact with the wall then stop. Your ROM will improve in time with this exercise.
Scroll down a bit for his explanation of this exercise. I don't have people hold for 10 seconds in the stretched position, but you get the idea.
Shoulder Circles/Reverse Shoulder Circles:
These can be done with circles of varying sizes and can also be performed overhead. You don't have to follow the set/rep pattern mentioned in the video.