You can tell a lot about a lifter by watching them warm up. Intelligent veterans approach their warm-up as a key component of their workout. It’s the young and inexperienced lifters who treat warming up as an option – something to do if time allows – and even then, little thought goes into the choice of exercises. A few arm circles and chest slaps before benching and they’re good to go!
A well-planned warm-up will enhance that day’s performance and keep your body fresh for future training. Most injuries don’t just happen; along with preparing ourselves for what’s to come, warming up allows us to take notice of the subtle clues our bodies are signalling, information which should dictate the course and intensity of your workout.
(I say “should” because our egos tend to steer the ship. I once noticed a sharp, searing pain in the area right of my hip while warming up, shrugged it off, then jumped into a set of heavy deadlifts. Needless to say, things didn't go well that workout. It was months before I lifted heavy again. Lesson learned.)
So what, then, does a proper warm-up look like? As always, context is everything. If you’re taking it easy, say spending 20 minutes on mobility and core exercises or getting in some moderate intensity cardio, you don’t need to do much: stretch your hamstrings, spend a few minutes on a foam roller. In these cases, the workout is the warm-up, the warm-up the workout. Focused strength training requires more consideration.
My favourite training legend involves a competitive lifter from the former Eastern Bloc who would sit himself in a large burlap sack outside in the sun before meets. Yes, there is a very literal element to warming up. Building a slight sweat before lifting increases your body temperature; this improves muscle elasticity, which is turn leads to greater force production.
Not only that, warm and relaxed muscles are less likely to get injured. Also, as your body temperature rises, oxygen in the blood becomes more readily available, leading to improvements in overall work capacity. Grab a skipping rope, hop on a cardio machine, jog, do some jumping jacks. Or, find yourself a potato sack and a comfortable spot in the sun.
Smart lifters know that being able to move well and without any pain is the first step toward moving big weights. Achieving high-quality movement comes from paying attention to three areas: the shoulder girdle, the thoracic spine and the hip complex. Band pull aparts and shoulder dislocations will ensure the shoulders and scapula can move freely; yoga-inspired movements such as the cat-camel and thread-the-needle will hit the thoracic spine in every plane of motion; and happy hips love banded lateral walks and clamshells. Don’t worry about sets and reps, focus instead on feel. Set a timer for 30-45 seconds per exercise and get moving.
Tend to problem spots
After addressing general mobility, it’s time to move on to your body’s specific needs. Everyone has a problem area or two, be it stiff ankles that keep you from squatting to full depth or tight traps that don’t let up without a few minutes of TLC. This is where tools such as lacrosse balls, foam rollers and slant boards can prove useful. Again, don’t worry about designated repetitions. Feel your way through the process, spending anywhere from 45-90 seconds exploring problem areas for hot spots.
Mimic main movements
This one’s a no-brainer. If barbell back squats are on the agenda, fire off some bodyweight squats first. If you’re planning on pressing, start with push-ups (yoga push-ups are awesome for total body warm ups). Deadlifting? Grab a dowel and dial-in your hip hinge. The goal here is to prepare your brain and body for the main event, get the blood flowing while refining the movement patterns in question. You may notice a slight spasm or peculiar clicking in an area or two; if that happens, repeat the above-mentioned protocols for problem spots.
Putting it all together
Warming up – like working out – is as much an art as a science. Yes, there are fancy names for specific protocols, and some methods are more effective than others, but it’s important not to overthink things. The biggest mistake you can make is skipping the warm-up altogether. Show me a middle-aged weekend warrior hobbled by a strained hamstring and chances are good they’ve spent a lifetime ignoring basic warm-up practices. If in doubt, use a fan bike, rowing machine or elliptical for 10 minutes.
Another thing to consider: Your warm-up must evolve with your training. As you get stronger and more efficient with how you move, your body will need new ways to be challenged. Or, as a camo-print T-shirt once yelled at me, “today’s workout is tomorrow’s warm up”.
Paul Landini is a personal trainer and health educator in Toronto.
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