Before we get into the meat and potatoes of this post I want to start off by addressing the fact that everyone has different time constraints when it comes to training. Some people have 12 or more hours a week they spend in the gym. Others are lucky if they have 3 hours a week that they can devote to their fitness. Regardless, every level can benefit from some type of warm up. In this post I will discuss a few things. First, what a warm up is and the importance of it. Second, my opinions on what moves can be skipped based on time constraints. Third, a true full warm up that address mobility, stability, and warming the body for the session. Fourth, how much time to spend warming up based on how long you train.
What is a warm up? A warm up is anything that is going to prime the body for the workout of the day. Warm ups have several parts. In my opinion, any thorough warm up has 5 parts.
Now, depending on your bodies needs and the amount of time you have to devote to training you want to look at each of these pieces and weigh them in order of importance. Some people do not lack sufficient mobility and if they were to spend time on mobility would actually be hindering their progress. Others may only have 45 minutes to train so spending 30 minutes of it warming up would be a waste of time. Every person, unless they have a coach will have to determine which parts apply to them and under what circumstances. Depending on the movement or body parts being trained on a particular day will have an effect on how long and thorough the warm up process is. So, to make this simple let’s rank each of these in order of importance.
The only reason why I ranked a moderate intensity movement last is because if time is constrained the other parts of the warm up can be performed in a circuit to get the heart rate moving.Now that we have covered the parts of the warm up I want to talk about each part, the purpose of it, and what exercises fall into each category. By the end of this post you should be armed with enough knowledge to put together a full warm up for yourself.
Part 1- A moderate intensity movement to warm the body
Warming up the body for training is especially important because it gets the body ready to perform work. Elevating the heart rate enough to get blood flowing to all the limbs and raising the core body temperature to “grease” the body are both components of this part of the warm up. This part of the warm up is the simplest to explain because basically all you have to do is get your body movement. Using a treadmill, the air rower, exercise bike, running, jumping rope, etc are all acceptable movements for this part of the warm up.
Part 2- Core Stability
The entire warm up process consists of “waking up” all the muscles that you are about to use for the day. The core is a muscle that will always be used no matter what part of the body is being trained that day. That is why I believe this is the most important part of the warm up. Having a stable core is necessary for performing proper squats, presses, deadlifts, rows, etc. This is because the core provides the linkage between the hips and torso to create full body force and power. Having a stable core allows the body to brace as the legs and upper extremities can drive into the weight together. My favorite movement circuit to do for this part of the warm up is the McGill Big 3. Coined by Dr. Stuart McGill these 3 exercises coupled in a circuit can provide core stability for 3-4 hours and over time will lead to a more resilient and stable core. The three exercises he recommends are; bird dog’s, McGill curl up, and the rolling plank. Generally I have all of my clients perform at least 1 of these 3 exercises and as they advance in strength we will progress to performing all 3. Other exercises that can provide great core stability are any variation of carries. Farmer walks, suitcase carries, bottoms up carries, etc. If one is in a rush carries can be performed as the general warm up and core warm up saving time.
Part 3- A movement or series of movements to address mobility issues
In my experience every “Normal” trainee can benefit from some type of mobility work. Normal being anyone not extremely genetically gifted. We are all born with slight imperfections in our bone structures. We also all have bad habits in our posture that lead to immobility over time. Mobility work will be dependent on what is being trained. Mobility is required in the shoulders and hips to create proper movement patters. If the lower body is being trained one day obviously the mobility work will be geared towards the hips. If the upper body is being trained the mobility work will be more geared towards the shoulders. Mobility work can include shoulder dislocations, hip airplanes, assisted hip airplanes, scapula retractions, thoracic mobility work, cervical mobility work, etc. The best recommendation I can give to anyone reading this is to do 2 things. One, video your lifts from all angles. Sometimes, especially for newer trainees imbalances are not “felt” by the body while performing the movements. So taking video will give you the insight into your movements to see what is actually going on when you move. Second, once you have established what needs work take the time to research mobility movements for whatever part of your lift is suffering.
Part 4- A movement or series of movements to focus on stability
Stability in the hips and shoulders is also required to move big loads. I know this sounds counter intuitive because I just mentioned how important mobility in these areas is. However, when performing squats and deadlifts the hips must lock and move in a straight line, not side to side. When a bench press is being performed the shoulders must lock into place behind the pecs to create optimal power and movement. So, as you can see proper stability is also required in these areas. The mobility allows us to get our body in the right position and the stability allows us to keep it there. In my experience the 2 muscles most benefitted from stability work are; the lats and the glutei. The glute medius is responsible for stabilization of the hips and knees. Strengthening the muscle with specific stability movements can greatly enhance power through the hips. The lats are responsible for creating a fully locked torso when doing any movement so creating strength in this area is if upmost importance. My favorite “guide” to stability work is Dr. Andrew Lock. Dr. Lock is an experiences Australian physiotherapist and is well versed in rehab and strength and has created and coined the “Lock Big 3” for hips and shoulders. He also has a lot of exercises and tools for bench stability. Other exercises that can be done for stability are I-Y-T’s, monster walks, single leg glute bridges, single arm rows, etc.
Part 5- A specific warm up for the movement of the day
This is ranked closer to the bottom in order of importance in my opinion. The reason why is despite the fact that it is important if one is strapped for time reps with an empty barbell on the movement of the day can replace this. For example instead of performing a goblet squat an extra set of empty bar squats could be performed on squat day. However, if someone is becoming more of an advanced lifter this part of the warm up becomes increasingly important. Specific warm ups can include dumbbell bench press, single arm rows, Kroc rows, kettlebell bench press, goblet squats, etc. Whatever is necessary to provide stability, mobility, or groove the movements. Kettlebell bottoms up bench presses have helped me a ton in my programming because they force me to groove the press properly. Similar effects have been seen on my clients with different movements that we use in this part of the warm up. Again the best way to see what you need, especially if you don’t have a coach is to take videos of yourself lifting and watch them.
The last thing that I want to cover in this post today is how long to spend on your warm up. Generally I would spend no more than 10-20% of the time you have to devote to the session that day to warm up. So, If you train for an hour a short warm up would be 5 minutes, whereas a longer warm up would be 15 minutes based on your needs for the day. Someone that trains longer 2-3 hours might spend 20-35 minutes on a warm up depending on specific needs. Basically, you want to do enough to get you ready for the days training without wasting energy.
I hope by now you have a deeper understanding of the components of a warm up. Armed with these tools you can build a warm up for yourself that will allow you to set new personal bests and address nagging issues you may be dealing with. Remember that warm ups are just as important if not more important than the actual workout planned for the day. The more time and attention you give to applying a proper warm up, the bigger dividends you will reap in the long run. Stay strong everyone.
My name is Patriel Dunford and as the owner of Infinite Fitness my main goal in life is to spread good advice in the health industry and help people live healthier, longer, more fulfilling lives.