It’s a heavy squat day. You know your game plan and you’ve strapped into your lifting shoes. You have your belt and chalk all ready to go, and your pump up playlist is all queued up. But is your body ready as ready as your pre-workout is saying?
Getting in a solid dynamic warm-up before squatting may not feel as glamorous as walking out under a heavy barbell. But without a proper squat warm-up, your performance just won’t be as powerful — or as safe — as it can be. Warming up before your squat session won’t just help you squat with less injury risk. It will also help you lift heavier with less effort.
If you’re still working out the kinks of your mobility issues or activating essential muscles during your working sets, you’re less likely to get the depth you need. You’ll waste a lot of energy fighting to get into good form, and risk getting hurt along the way. It might take some discipline and time up front, but committing to a solid pre-squat warm-up routine will spare your body a lot of stress — and potentially pack some extra pounds onto your lifts.
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What is a Dynamic Squat Warm-Up?
A dynamic warm-up is all about preparing your entire body for intensive movement — in this case, squatting. A complete dynamic squat warm-up integrates several different aspects of movement prep designed to help you squat most effectively. It includes low-intensity full-body movements, specific mobility-based exercises and activation exercises, and ramp-up squat sets.
Everyone’s dynamic squat warm-up will look a bit different depending on their specific mobility needs and sticking points. Tight hips? You’ll want to spend extra time focusing on those. Trouble keeping the bar pinned tightly to your back during low bar squats? Give a lot of extra love to your shoulders, traps, and lats. In general, though, your dynamic squat warm-up will take you through a series of movements designed to prepare your body for squatting the best it can.
Dynamic Squat Warm-Up Basics
As much as you might wish you could just slap a few plates on the bar and get after it, you’re better off completing a dynamic warm-up first. It might seem like there are a lot of components to a dynamic squat warm-up — and, to some degree, there are. This makes sense, because there are also a lot of components to a squat. That said, most warm-up moves address multiple muscles and joints at once, so you can make your warm-up sequence pretty efficient.
Overall Body Activation
With all the specific activation movements you’ll go through during a complete active warm-up, you will be getting your body ready from head to toe. But still, even before you begin all that, you’re generally best served by warming up your entire body with some very light cardio activity first. For people who tend toward foot or knee pain, you might want to avoid relatively high impact jogging.
You may choose to opt for a rower, ski erg, bike, or elliptical instead. Whichever mode of cardio you select, keep it at a low intensity. The idea is to ease into your workout by starting to get your blood pumping into the muscles you’re about to use while slowly amping up your heart rate.
Strong and mobile hips are a crucial component of any successful set of squats. You need to be able to sink into the bottom of your squat — and come back out of it — without disproportionately relying on your lower back or knees to fully control the movement. It’s normal for people to involve their hips and knees to different degrees during a squat.
Some people are knee-dominant lifters, while others are hip-dominant squatters. But either way, you need to maintain some strong degree of hip mobility to keep your squat safe and effective. Frog stretches, cossack squats, and squat sits with reaches will all help get your hips ready to go.
Your ankles might be one of the reasons you have trouble sinking into a deep squat. Whether you’re performing low reps of heavy weights or higher reps with more moderate weight, your ankles support and stabilize you through a lot of stress during your squat session. Help them out by warming them up. Performing cossack squats while maintaining full foot contact with the ground can help give your ankles some much needed lateral love.
Glute, Hamstring, and Quad Activation
Your glutes, hamstrings, and quads all play a huge role in a successful squat. Making sure to “wake” these muscles up is therefore essential. This will happen through your ramp-up sets, but you’ll also want to begin the process with just your bodyweight before adding load to the equation.
Reaching up to the ceiling with one arm at a time while sitting in a deep squat will prepare your shoulders, lats, and traps while also getting your glutes, hamstrings, and quads ready to hold steady and strong in a deep squat position. Cossack squats and frog stretches will also contribute to activating your lower body.
If your core collapses during your squats, you’re looking at everything from a missed lift to low back pain. To avoid letting your core be the reason you hit a plateau in your squat, make sure you’re activating your core muscles during your warm-up. Moves like bird dogs or dead bugs can help make sure both sides of your core are activated and ready to hold a strong brace.
Shoulder, Lat, and Trap Activation
Especially with low bar back squats, it’s important to get your upper body ready for the rigors of a squat session. Especially if shoulder mobility is not your forte, you’ll want to get them ready to help your elbows maintain an optimal squat position. You’ll also want to get your lats and traps ready to help you effectively pin the bar to its “shelf.”
Even if you’re high bar squatting, you’ll want to make sure your traps are ready to support the bar’s weight — and that your shoulders are ready to be in position. Though your shoulder mobility isn’t as crucial in high bar squats as it is in low bar squats, it’s still important to be able to maintain good elbow position. Squat sits with reaches, band pull-aparts, and even bird dogs will help you activate these crucial upper body muscles.
Your warm-up doesn’t end before you touch the barbell. Before you get into your working sets, you’ll need to perform ramp-up sets to grease the groove of the actual lift. Always start with an empty barbell, even when you’re going to squat heavy. This is where your warm-up really starts to sink into place. You will get your muscles and your brain in the right mindset to move the way you need to during your session.
After the empty barbell, jump to about 50 percent of your one-rep max (1RM) if that feels comfortable. From there, gradually increase the load on the bar by increments of roughly 20 percent of your max until you reach your working weight. You don’t need to go overboard with rep count, but you’ll figure out what works best for your body. Some lifters hammer out 10 whole reps at 135 before moving up toward their working weight, while others are comfortable performing only two or three reps at each weight until they get to their working load.
Treat each weight with the same respect you treat 90 percent of your max. Brace yourself with each rep and don’t use sloppy, rushed form. The more locked in you are during your ramp-up sets, the more prepared your mind and body will be to perform your working sets with excellent form.
Sample Dynamic Squat Warm-Up
Depending on your own personal needs as a lifter, your warm-up might emphasize different components. For example, you might have spectacular thoracic mobility, but your ankles are extremely tight. In that case, you might not need to spend as much time preparing your upper back as you do getting your ankles loose and ready.
This sample dynamic squat warm-up will take you through the general components of preparing to squat. But cater each movement to your own needs, adding or substituting moves where you need to and experimenting with what works best for your body.
- Cardio Machine of Choice: three to five minutes, low to medium intensity
- Frog Stretch: 2 x 15
- Cossack Squat: 2 x 10 per side
- Bird Dog: 2 x 10 per side
- Band Pull-Apart: 2 x 15 to 20
- Squat Sit and Reach: 2 x 10 per side
- Empty Barbell Pause Squat: 2 x 10
- Ramp-Up: start with 2 to 5 reps at 50% 1RM; add 20% 1RM load and repeat until you reach working weight
If you’re deliberate with each of your movements, you’ll need to invest at least 10 to 20 minutes in this warm-up. But it’ll be well worth the effort, as warming up properly will help you move more weight with less chance of injury.
Benefits of a Dynamic Squat Warm-Up
A lot of lifters hate warming up. They might find it boring, or just generally be impatient to start the good stuff. But slowing down to invest just a little bit of time in your warm-up can be the difference between a successful workout and a form breakdown that leads to less pounds on the bar at best, and increased injury risk at worse.
Activate Neglected Muscles
Yes, squatting is a feature of leg day. But that doesn’t mean you’re not involving your entire body. Performing a dynamic warm-up draws your attention to all the muscle groups you need to activate during the squat. Think about your traps, shoulders, and lats — especially for low bar squats, you need to really get your upper back ready for some action to actively pin the bar to you throughout your set. A few squat sits with reaches and band pull-aparts will take care of that. In turn, your upper body will take care of you during your squat session.
Increase Your Range of Motion
Have you ever filmed yourself during a heavy set only to find that you were actually nowhere near hitting the depth you thought you were? Warming up adequately can help fix that. You’ll grease the groove of your squat pattern— and all the joints it takes to get you into and out of the hole. Doing this helps you complete your reps successfully without having to warm up your range of motion for the first time under a heavy load.
Reduce Injury Risk
When you’re more easily able to sink into your desired range of motion, compensation patterns are less likely to emerge. With fewer compensations, you’re less likely to get hurt. By starting your ramp-up sets with an empty barbell, you’re also setting your body up for a gradual build-up to your working sets. This way, your body won’t be shocked by a load of 80 percent of your one-rep max.
Think about it as progressive overload — gradually increasing your training stimuli over the course of your program — within a single session. When you prepare your body for the stress you’re about to put it under, it’ll be able to tackle your workout more effectively and with less strain. The less sudden strain you’re under, the less likely you are to have a lifting accident.
Get Mentally in the Zone
You might feel pumped up from your pre-workout — but there’s a difference between being pumped up and being mentally ready to lift. Warming up can be a centering mental experience. By doing some light cardio and moving through your beginning exercises, you are giving yourself space from the rest of your day. Warm-ups allow you to create distance from any stressors that you have outside the gym before you get into the heart of your workout.
Then, when you get to your ramp-up sets, you’ll train yourself to be disciplined by properly bracing and breathing for each rep — even under an empty barbell. This kind of discipline and focus will serve you well when it’s time to hit the big weights.
If you’re an impatient lifter, you might be tempted to step under a loaded bar and get after it after doing a few air squats and swinging your arms around a bit. But if you really want to maximize your training session and get better at squatting, invest some time upfront and do a proper dynamic squat warm-up. Your body will thank you, and so will your squat numbers.
Featured Image: Mongkolchon Akesin / Shutterstock