Warm ups used to be considered “soft” by serious strength athletes. Seeing a guy prancing around with high knees and butt kicks would be a comical relief for the “real” athletes that got straight to their heavy lifting once in the gym. Fast-forward to present day, and mobility work and warm up popularity are at an all time high. Walk into most gyms and you’ll see more bodies scattered across the floor than a Walking Dead episode. Foam rollers, mobility bands, more groin stretches than a professional contortionist.
Make no mistake, a proper warm up is certainly prudent for any athlete looking to minimize injury risk and enter their training sessions at their best. That said though, the mobility movement quickly became a full-on takeover. A takeover that once started with positive intentions but now appears to often hinder physique athletes’ performance more than it helps.
Warm Ups & Time Sucks
What’s the most used excuse you hear from athletes on why they missed a workout or fell off the wellness wagon altogether? Bingo, time. We live in a fast paced world and in most cases, time is an ever-elusive resource. Particularly if someone has a family to take care of, between work & family responsibility, training time seems to constantly be on the chopping block when schedules need more room. In most cases, for us online physique coaches, developing the “best” training program tends to be dependent on the time clients have available as much as actual training principles.
If time’s the ultimate determinant in training periodization, it may be important to ask yourself just how much of your “training time” is spent simply warming up. I see this in a variety of people, but especially in younger athletes. It’s great to see younger athletes taking more interest in warm ups and prehab, but it’s equally disappointing to see more time spent warming up and “improving functionality” than actually lifting heavy weight. 30 minutes or more pass before athletes actually start their leg training, then somehow time constraints are elected as the reason for cutting the session shorter. If you’re focused on strength and physique development, it’s important to keep in mind just why you’re warming up in the first place.
Benefits of Warming Up
- Improved muscle elasticity (greater force production & reduced injury risk)
- Increased blood to working muscles (reduced oxygen debt)
- Increased focus & mind-muscle connection before working sets begin
There comes a point where additional warm up time is simply deterring from your actual workouts. Both in total time spent training each session, but also total energy availability to go toward the movements that are actually going to stimulate the changes in strength & physique improvements that we’re all working toward. If you’re starting to plateau on the increased strength in your workouts, consider reflecting on your total warm up time and see where you may be able to make it more time and energy efficient.
Speaking of fatigue, this holds particularly true for warm up or “acclimation” sets. Once you’ve reached the stage of performing acclimation sets prior to your actual, first working sets, you can either warm up effectively, or blow your energy with additional, unnecessary sets. The benefit of performing warm up sets is mostly just to get re-accustomed to the feeling of a specific movement and get into a solid groove with that motor pattern before getting into the heavy loads you have planned. It’s not the easiest thing to go straight from a general warm up right into a 400lbs+ squat session.
Naturally, we want to perform a few sets of squats working up to our programmed sets. We get used to the feeling of heavier loads, get back a solid groove with our motor patterns, and cap off our work to get optimal blood flow and elasticity into our working muscle groups. The problems arise when we reach a point of diminishing returns with those sets. We eventually work past warm up sets and enter a situation where sets just prior to our first working sets are just serving as pre-fatiguing, submaximal working sets.
The most obvious detriment this leads to is being partially fatigued before our actual working sets take place. Ultimately leading to less total workload at the intensity we’re focusing on with that given session. The less considered issue however, is the total additional volume we’re accumulating over the course of a week or given training block. Let’s continue with this lower body example, and say we’re programming two leg sessions each week and squats are our first exercise in both sessions. Performing warm up sets prior to both sessions, we mistakenly perform 2 additional warm up sets that happen to be just a bit less than the load planned for our first working sets. Although a good intention of getting used to loads very near the working load for a better transition, we’ve instead performed 4 extra, submaximal sets on top of our actual working sets…on top of the rest of our lower body sessions.
“Four extra sets per week, so what?” is probably going through your mind right now. You’re right, 4 sets isn’t anything to necessarily lose sleep over from time to time. However, as training experience develops, and training sessions deal with greater and greater absolute intensities, 4 unaccounted-for sets can begin hindering total recovery as training volume is cycled from lower to higher volume blocks. The point being, if we’re doing additional volume, we want it to be due to programming decisions and in a manner that’s most ideal for our goals, not unintentional sets that likely only hinder progress toward the bigger picture.
Later in this article, I’ll outline a general rule of thumb for warm up sets along with other general warm up suggestions.
Stretching Your Limits
For many readers, this may be beating a dead horse, but for others that may be unaware, it’s worth briefly mentioning the types of stretches that are more ideal for pre-workout and others that are likely best avoided until after training or separate from workouts.
It may seem like a good idea to work through some quad stretches and toe touch stretches before getting into a workout. However, static stretches (holding a muscle in a stretched position for 15-45 seconds) has been shown to acutely diminish absolute strength output in athletes when performed just prior to weight training . The loss in strength isn’t anything to be concerned with over the long term, since it’s only an acute effect. Instead, it’s better to just leave your static stretches for either right after your workout while you’re still thoroughly warmed up, or other times throughout the week.
As you finish your general warm up, dynamic stretches are a good option to explore prior to getting into your warm up sets . These don’t need to be anything extravagant since, again, our objective it to warm up just enough to enter your training session in a productive spot without wasting time or energy with excess. Simply choose 2-3 dynamic stretches for the muscle groups that are the focus of that day’s session as solid primers for your upcoming movements.
Dynamic Lower Body Movements
Walking High Knees
Walking Butt Kicks
Walking Lunges (or lunge with torso twist)
Bodyweight Glute Bridges
Upper Body Movements
Light Bicep Curls, Lateral Raises and Kickbacks
Bodyweight Push Ups
“Inch Worm” Stretch
Warm Up Issue or Lifestyle Issue?
If you find yourself needing increasingly more warm up time, it may be a better idea to evaluate your lifestyle activities outside of the gym rather than your warm up routine itself. If you’re sedentary, you may notice increasing stiffness as you prepare for your leg sessions especially. Tight hips, stiff lower back, hard time engaging your glutes- these are all things you can expect if you spend the majority of your day sitting in a fixed position, and something I can say from personal experience is that they won’t likely be remedied by simply increasing your warm up time.
Walk it Out
If you’re like most of us that spend much of your working life at a desk, it can be tough to go from sitting nearly all day, to working at full speed once entering the gym. This isn’t to suggest quitting your job for a more physical alternative. Instead, it’s just a matter of finding time throughout the work week to get some light activity in to help combat the everyday stiffness and make it easier to get going with your workouts once it’s gym time. One of the best things I’ve found to personally work well is just simply finding 1-2 instances during my workday where I can take a 10-15 minute break to go on a very casual walk and break up my desk time.
Taking 20-30 minutes away from work each day may not sound very doable for those of you that have a consistently demanding workload. That’s why I’ve become a big fan of batching work tasks together that I can complete with my phone. Between desk-related tasks, I simply leave emails that don’t require attachments, social media needs, scheduling, or personal calls/texts to be performed during my brief walks. As a result, I can continue being productive while still getting to move around enough to reduce stiffness created by sitting for long periods of time. If that’s not realistic for your particular job, even just taking time during lunch breaks can be of benefit.
Working in a desk job can usually lead to frequent upper back and neck stiffness, something which can be a nagging issue when it comes time to train. Investing in a small, dense recovery roller can be great to keep around the home office or for use after getting home from a long day at work. Spending some time rolling out the common problem areas a few times during the week can help serve as an economical and more convenient alternative to a massage for reducing tightness.
Warm Up Template
1. General Warm Up (Estimated Time: 5-10min)
Light aerobic activity to increase heart rate and blood flow to muscle tissue. Great options are treadmill walking, spin bikes, machine rower, or similar activities.
2. Dynamic Warm Up (Estimated Time: 5min)
2-3 movements involving muscle groups you’re about to train. An example being butt kicks, high knees and walking lunges prior to a lower body session.
3. Acclimation Sets (Estimated Time: 5-8min)
Actual warm up sets of the first exercise in the training session. A good rule of thumb would be 2-3 sets split evenly leading into your working sets. The example below could be used for a 315lbs barbell squat. As load increases, reps performed decrease to minimize fatigue.
- Warm Up Set 1: 135lbs x 8 reps
- Warm Up Set 2: 205lbs x 4 reps
- Warm Up Set 3: 275lbs x 2 reps
First Working Set: 315lbs
Total Warm Up Time: Approximately 15 minutes
Warming up to the Idea
Warming up in itself is a great idea. Not only that, but each person’s warm up routine will vary based on particular needs and scheduling differences. That said, the common trait in any warm up is simply evaluating our approach from time to time to make sure we’re performing it as efficiently as possible throughout our training careers.
Just like with our training, there are a lot of ways to make progress. However, training isn’t our only responsibility throughout the week. Keeping certain principles in mind, we should periodically try out different tweaks to our routine to make sure we’re leaving as much energy as possible toward getting bigger, stronger and saving time to devote to other important matters throughout the week.
- Page, P. (2012). CURRENT CONCEPTS IN MUSCLE STRETCHING FOR EXERCISE AND REHABILITATION. International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy, 7(1), 109-119. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3273886/.
- Ayala, F., Calderón-López, A., Delgado-Gosálbez, J. C., Parra-Sánchez, S., Pomares-Noguera, C., Hernández-Sánchez, S., . . . Croix, M. D. (2017). Acute Effects of Three Neuromuscular Warm-Up Strategies on Several Physical Performance Measures in Football Players. Plos One, 12(1). doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0169660