You want to lift heavier. Or you want to build more muscle mass. You might even just want to improve your endurance so that flight of stairs heading up to your apartment isn’t quite as devastating. Whatever’s motivating your training, there’s one pretty sure-fire way to get you closer to your goals — a thorough full-body warm-up.
The most effective warm-ups seem to combine general full-body mobility work with exercise-specific movements to prepare you for the day’s big lifts. (1) Warm-ups are going to get you into mental workout mode and wake up your joints and muscles. The more ready your muscles are for action, the more efficient your movements become. And when you move more efficiently, you can transfer a lot more force into the barbell — and potentially lift much heavier weights.
To get the most bang for your warm-up buck, you’ll cycle through some low-intensity aerobic work, movement prep via mobility work, exercises to get your muscles ready to go, and ramp-up sets. Here’s what goes into making a warm-up and a sample of the best full-body warm-up to get you ready to hit some PRs.
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Why Warm Up Your Whole Body?
If you’ve ever warmed up for the bench press by swinging your arms back and forth a few times and sliding a plate on each side of the barbell, you might be missing out on a lot of gains. Even compound movements like the bench press and squat — traditionally associated with the upper and lower body, respectively — recruit muscles from across your entire body.
It’s not enough to just warm up whatever muscle group you’re working for the day. Even if your focus is chest, you’ll need your lats for stabilizing your bench press, your core for holding that solid brace, and even your hip mobility and legs for leg drive.
When you’re opting for squats and deadlifts, the need for a full-body warm-up is even more obvious. Your upper body will support the weight — either when it’s on your back as with squats, or in your hands as with the deadlift — and you’ll need sufficient lat and trap activation for both moves. Shoulder mobility also comes into play hugely in low bar back squats.
Warming up your entire body helps you have a fuller range of motion to complete all your exercises efficiently. Even isolation exercises don’t exist in a vacuum. The more you prep your entire body for movement, the easier you’ll be able to access a complete range of motion and movement patterns you need to bust out heavy lifts.
Benefits of a Full-Body Warm-Up
It might not be as glamorous as tossing a loaded barbell above your head, but warm-ups are pretty much a must. Why bother warming up your full body? Check out these benefits to convince yourself to slow down the beginning of your workout to up the intensity for the rest of it.
Improve Lifting Performance
Warming up before lifting has been shown to increase performance in big lifts across the board. (2) Doing a full warm-up complete with ramp-up sets can help improve your force output during big barbell exercises, resulting in more efficient and heavier lifts. (3) This might be due to a couple of factors — likely a combination of a few.
Full-body warm-ups prepare all your joints to help you move through the ranges of motion you need to complete your reps with good form. You’ll get your heart rate up so those heavy reps don’t take your lungs by surprise. Your muscles will have extra blood pumping to them so that they’re ready to contract to their fullest potential. Not to mention, completing your ramp up sets prepares your mind and nervous system for lifting heavier weights.
Potential Injury Prevention
Ever gotten a rush of bravado and tried to pull that heavily loaded barbell off the ground before getting your body ready for it? You probably felt it a lot more than you wanted to — perhaps in places you really didn’t want to. Warm-ups may be the answer for you. Research suggests that properly warming up can reduce injury risk during your strength training session. (4)
By not lifting cold, you may be lowering your risk of muscle strains from your body rushing to catch up to sudden, unexpected strain. Instead, your joints and muscles will prepare gradually for the rigors of your workout. That way, when you put them to the test, they’re less likely to fail you.
Physically increasing your temperature through movement is a key part of improving your force production and strength during your lifting session. (1) You’ll typically do that by spending around five minutes with a low-intensity cardio movement of some kind — perhaps a bike or even an elliptical. For athletes who are used to doing little or no cardio, adding these five minutes daily can start building your cardio capacity.
Movement-specific exercises are a key part of every warm-up. It can improve your performance significantly to work up to a higher intensity of exercises that match what you’re doing that day. (5) For example, ramping up to heavy squats relative to your working squat weight of the day, for example.
This means that your warm-up is going to give you a lot of practice at your lifting technique. You’ll be performing reps at lower loads than your working weight, gradually getting heavier as you reach the end of your warm-up and the start of your strength session. In the process, you’ll refine your technique and lock in the proper movement patterns you need to lift successfully.
Warming up isn’t just an opportunity to get your body prepped for what you’re about to put it through. You also need to get into the right headspace for a tough workout. Focusing on the aerobic component of your warm-up can help you start transitioning your brain from your day outside the gym into your workout. Then, the overall mobility work and specific movement prep get you in the headspace of your actual lifts.
Components of a Full-Body Warm-Up
You’re convinced that you need a full-body warm-up — yes, even for muscle group-specific workouts. But how do you create an effective full-body warm-up? We’re glad you asked. Here are the components you’ll need.
Yes, you’re supposed to be making your body warmer with your warm-up. But shrugging and saying “it’s hot out anyway” before trying to heft three plates with no build-up won’t do the trick. Research suggests that passively heating up your muscles doesn’t “count” as an effective warm-up. (5) Enter the aerobic component of your warm-up.
By hopping onto a bike, going for a short low-intensity jog, or using a rowing machine, you get your blood flowing and heart pumping a bit harder than usual. You’re raising your body temperature and therefore priming your muscles for the rest of your warm-up — and workout.
Static stretching in your warm-up won’t do the trick when it comes to improving your performance. (5) Instead, you’ll want to choose dynamic, mobility-focused exercises that require you to both activate your muscles and move your joints through the fullest ranges of motion that you can access.
Ideally, your mobility work will do two things — prepare your entire body for movement and specifically prepare you for your strength movements of the day. (1) To start, choose fairly general exercises that incorporate ankle, hip, thoracic, and shoulder mobility. Then incorporate movement-specific exercises based on whatever you’re doing that day and your current needs. So if you know your ankles need a little extra love before you squat, now’s the time to give them the attention they need.
Mobility exercises help prime your muscles for action, but think of these as light pre-workout exercises instead of dynamic stretching. Moves like lateral lunges, jump squats, and push-ups come into play here.
If you’re not experienced with intense workouts, don’t feel the need to push this part of your warm-up. For many athletes, 10 push-ups might be too intense for your warm-up and instead belong as part of your workout. Scale your warm-up according to your strength, conditioning, and experience level.
If your workout is going to be very intense, you can up the intensity of your warm-up. But if your workout is going to be lower intensity, an intense warm-up may hurt rather than help your performance. Match the intensity of your warm-up to that of your workout for best results. (2)
Performing dynamic movements with high loads can help boost your strength and power production during your workout. (6)(5) That’s where ramp-up sets come in. You’ll complete the final, movement-specific part of your warm-up. Typically, you’ll do ramp-up sets primarily with your main movement of the day, but you can use them for any lift where you’re hefting significant weight.
To perform ramp-up sets, start by performing a few reps with an empty bar. Then gradually increase the weight on the bar and perform disciplined practice sets until you’re ready for your working weight.
Research suggests that heavier loads and higher reps might be more beneficial for your squat and bench press. For squatting, research suggests optimizing your ramp-up sets by finishing off with a set of six at 80 percent of your training load. When you’re benching, it might be more optimal to go for one set of six at 40 percent of your training load and another set of six at 80 percent of your training load. (3)
This suggests that how many ramp-up reps you do — and how heavy you go — depends largely on your lift of the day. Take some time to figure out what protocol works best for your body with each of your big lifts.
Best Full-Body Warm-Up
Whether you’re going to lift heavy or are hoping to build muscle, warming up your whole body beforehand is your best bet for the best gains. This warm-up will get you ready to go whether you’re hoping to squat heavy or overhead press like Rob Kearney.
- Five-Minute Bike OR 2 x 400-m Row: low-intensity movement
- Band Pull-Apart: 2 x 15-20
- Hip 90/90: 2 x 10 per side
- Deep Squat + Reach: 8 per side
- Long Lateral Lunge: 8 per side
- World’s Greatest Stretch: 5 per side
- Push-Up: 10 (modify if necessary)
- Ramp-Up Sets: starting with an empty barbell, ramping up gradually to your working weight
Just because it’s thorough doesn’t mean it has to be long. Warm-ups like this one can take anywhere from 10 to 15 minutes, depending on how quickly or slowly you choose to flow through the movements. Take your time and don’t rush through the mobility work, but make sure that you’re moving at a quick enough pace to keep your body nice and toasty.
One of the quickest ways to sabotage your gains is skimping on your warm-up. If you don’t want to miss out on performing at your best, make sure you’re incorporating a thorough full-body workout into your routine. It doesn’t have to take you long. You can get in a solid warm-up within 10 or 15 minutes. That small amount of time will be well worth it when your body is moving easier — and your lifts start getting heavier.
- Abad CC, Prado ML, Ugrinowitsch C, Tricoli V, Barroso R. Combination of general and specific warm-ups improves leg-press one repetition maximum compared with specific warm-up in trained individuals. J Strength Cond Res. 2011 Aug;25(8):2242-5.
- Fradkin AJ, Zazryn TR, Smoliga JM. Effects of warming-up on physical performance: a systematic review with meta-analysis. J Strength Cond Res. 2010 Jan;24(1):140-8.
- Ribeiro B, Pereira A, Neves PP, Sousa AC, Ferraz R, Marques MC, Marinho DA, Neiva HP. The Role of Specific Warm-up during Bench Press and Squat Exercises: A Novel Approach. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2020 Sep 22;17(18):6882.
- Fradkin AJ, Gabbe BJ, Cameron PA. Does warming up prevent injury in sport? The evidence from randomised controlled trials? J Sci Med Sport. 2006 Jun;9(3):214-20.
- Andrade DC, Henriquez-Olguín C, Beltrán AR, Ramírez MA, Labarca C, Cornejo M, Álvarez C, Ramírez-Campillo R. Effects of general, specific and combined warm-up on explosive muscular performance. Biol Sport. 2015 Jun;32(2):123-8.
- McCrary JM, Ackermann BJ, Halaki M. A systematic review of the effects of upper body warm-up on performance and injury. Br J Sports Med. 2015 Jul;49(14):935-42.
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