Warming up is so hot right now, and that’s great, because it’s extraordinarily important to a good training plan. Warming up improves performance, reduces risk of injury, and it only takes a few minutes.
But man, you might not know that watching some people in the gym. You’ve seen them: guys and girls who squat 315 or 405, but spend upwards of an hour before they even touch a barbell. Foam rolling, stretching, massage, contorting into a pretzel – it’s like a bizarre ritual, and not only is it pointless, but it’s actually detrimental. If you’re messing around like this in the gym, stop. You should treat your warm-up just like the rest of your training: deliberate, well-planned, and to the point. In my opinion, a good warm-up need never take longer than 15 minutes (not including your actual warm-up sets of whatever exercise you’re doing).
Whether you need to begin a warm-up routine or streamline your existing one, there’s four steps you need to take before you get in to your heavy work.
Step 1: Break a Sweat.
The absolute most important part of your warm-up is also the easiest. You need to be doing at least a few minutes of general cardiovascular work before you ever touch a barbell. Your goal here is just to raise your core temperature enough to break a light sweat, which will greatly reduce the risk of soft-tissue injury.
You have lots of options here, but whatever you choose, it needs to be a low-impact activity. The point is to protect your joints, not bang them up even worse. My preference here is some light Prowler work, but really, any cardio machine will work well, too. You can try walking on an incline treadmill, stationary cycling, stair climbing – even swimming, if your gym has a pool.
Make sure you’re not doing a whole cardio session here. You don’t want to exhaust yourself.
Time for step 1: 3-5 minutes.
Step 2: Loosen Up.
Once you’ve got some blood flowing and sweat going, it’s time to stretch. But be warned: you should never stretch for prolonged periods of time prior to your workout. Static stretching can actually decrease your performance and increase your risk of injury, so avoid it.
Instead, use some dynamic stretching. Leg swings, arm circles, and walking lunges are a good place to start, but you can include dynamic stretches for any problem area: just don’t hold any one position for longer than about 10 seconds. Instead, try multiple repetitions of a very brief stretch.
Also, make sure you’re not jumping straight into extreme ranges of motion. If you’ve got some very tight hamstrings, trying to do some high kicks at the start of your workout isn’t a smart bet. As long as you feel a light stretch, you’re doing enough. Never stretch into pain.
Time for step 2: 2-3 minutes.
Total time: 5-8 minutes.
Step 3: Get Activated.
Breaking a sweat is the star of a good warm-up, but muscle activation is a close second place. Muscle activation involves light, moderately-high rep resistance exercise for specific muscles, and the goal of muscle activation is to more effectively recruit those muscles in your compound movements.
Here’s an example: many people have trouble staying upright in the bottom of a squat. Instead, they end up doing more of a good morning, letting their hips shoot up and chest fall. Oftentimes, this problem is caused when the glutes aren’t recruited effectively out of the hole. While it will take a lot of actual squat practice to undo this bad habit, you can speed up the process. A few sets of clamshells or glute bridges with a band around your knees will let you feel your glutes working properly – and make it easier to use your glutes properly when you’re squatting.
The trick, of course, is figuring out exactly which muscles you need to focus on, and finding the right exercises to help you activate those muscles. The first part is entirely individual. But there are some guidelines you can follow for the second:
- You should always use isolation exercises.
- If possible, you should use machines, because they force you to place your body in a position where the target muscle will work.
- You might have to get creative with it. Don’t worry if you find that some unconventional exercises seem to work better than more common ones – the end result is all that matters here. Check out my favorite adductor activation exercise, for example:
Finally, keep in mind that no matter what exercises you use, light weights and moderately-high reps are crucial, for two reasons. First, they are less fatiguing, so you’re not pre-exhausting weak points before training a compound lift. Second, with light weights, it’s easier to focus on the muscle rather than the movement. You should do just enough work so that you feel the muscle – once you reach that point, stop.
Time for step 3: 5-7 minutes.
Total time: 10-15 minutes. That’s all you need!
Step 4: Get Ready, Get Set, Go.
Once you’re warm, loose, and activated, you’re ready to get your hands on a barbell. Never jump straight into your working weights, even on a light day: even if your body is capable of getting straight to it, there’s a lot of value in easing into your main lifts:
- Light warmups allow you to practice and reinforce technique.
- They give you time to adjust to the feeling of a heavier weight, which can often make it seem lighter and move better.
- They also allow you to identify any possible issues like tight muscles or painful joints, so that you can do additional warm-ups or lighten your planned loads if necessary.
Just as with the other steps, there’s no one right answer for how to do your exercise-specific warm-ups, but you always want to start with the bar (yes, even for deadlifts). Then you can work up in pretty moderate jumps until you reach about 60% of your working weight. Obviously, the number of jumps will depend on what exactly your working weight is: getting up to 405 for a working set at 800 will take more sets than getting to 225 for a working set at 450. Just go with what feels comfortable.
Once you reach 50% of your working weight, though, you need to be a little more deliberate with your warm-ups. From here on out, you should be performing sets of at most 3 reps, and increasing the weight in roughly 10% jumps. Don’t just throw on plates! In fact, you can even go up in 5% jumps once you get close to your working weight.
If one of your warm-up sets feels a little bit off, don’t be afraid to retake it. Better to be cautious so that you’re prepared and confident for the sets that really count than to rush and under perform. That said, don’t dally in-between your warm-up sets. Try to take at most 2 minutes rest until you’re at your working weight.
Putting It All Together
So, what does a perfect warm-up look like? If you’re squatting 500×5, maybe something like this.
1. Stationary cycling for about 5 minutes, or until a light sweat
2. Walking leg swings, 10 reps per leg
3. Side-to-side leg swings, 10 reps per leg
4. Arm circles, 10 reps per arm, both forward and backward
5. Walking lunges, 20 reps
6. Monster walks with a light band, 10 steps in each direction
7. Single-leg hamstring curls with very light weight, 10 reps each leg
8. Barbell warmup:
- Bar x10
- 135 x8
- 225 x5
- 315 x3
- 365, 415, 455, 485 x1
And that’s it. No foam rolling, no pretzels, no wasting time. Your training will be that much better for it.
Feature image from @phdeadlift Instagram page.