When it comes to warming up prior to exercise there are a few different options to choose from. On one extreme you have people who don’t warm up at all – whether the workout is lifting or cardio, they just go right into it regardless of the movements or intensity. On the other end of the spectrum you have people who literally spend 40+ minutes on warming up and causing the actual workout to be less effective as a result. Finally, you have some people who do their version of a warm up which is a quick stretch of some kind regardless of the workout.
This article will hopefully clear up some of the confusion and explain why a proper warm up is important, how it affects the workout, and finally an example of an ideal warm up you can use right away. As a bonus commonly asked questions will be answered.
There are many benefits to warming up. However, the most important one is it can decrease the chances of injury. In the world we live in today most people spend the majority of their day sitting. Examples of this include, driving in a car, checking emails, doing administrative work, going to meetings, watching TV, and surfing the internet. When all of these activities are added up, most people sit for 8+ hours/day.
Unfortunately the human body was not designed to sit as much as we do today and it causes the following things to happen in the body: First the muscles of the butt (Gluteus Maximus, Medius and Minimus) turn off and the muscles on the front of the hips (Illio Psoas) and thighs (Rectus Femoris) get tight. This is one of the main causes of low back pain. Next, the muscles of the upper back (Rear Deltoids, Rhomboids and Rear Delts) are less active and this causes the muscles around the shoulders (Pec Major, Pec Minor and Lats) to get tight causing shoulder discomfort. Luckily both of these issues can be easily prevented by doing the right warm up, which will be discussed later in this article.
A second benefit to doing a well-designed warm up is it ‘Primes the Pump’ for a more efficient metabolism while working out. Most Metabolic Techs will agree that if a fitness enthusiast does a progressive warm up with cardiovascular activity where the intensity is gradually increased every 2-minutes, it can lead to better fat burning metabolism during the actual workout. Doing this can be not only an effective way to increase calorie burn, but also a ‘Hack’ to make sure the right fuel is being utilized.
Now that the benefits of the warm up have been explained, the components of the warm up will be discussed with the optimal order they should be done.
Components of a Dynamic Warm Up
General Warm Up: This is the part of the warm up where you do some sort of cardio activity for 5-15 minutes. The goal of this is to get increased blood flow to the muscles, increase the body temperature and if done right (As explained above) can make the body more efficient at burning fat as an energy source. The nice part about this warm-up component is there are a lot of varieties to choose from regarding equipment (Treadmill, Bike, Elliptical, Jump Rope, etc.)
Breathing Reset: This is the odd-looking part of the warm up. However, it can be a very simple, effective and time efficient (it only takes 1-2 minutes to do) way to get the shoulder blades and rib cage in better alignment so the body moves better during exercise. It is also a great way to de-stress the body both mentally and physically to get it better prepared for the workout. Here is a link to a past article that explains why they are important and different ones to try.
Self Myofacial Release (SMR): The best way to describe SMR is to think of it as a self-massage. It can be beneficial for most people as it is a simple way to help improve movement prior the workout. Traditional tools like the Foam Roller, Stick, etc. can be used as well as newer equipment like the Vyper, Sphere and Hypervolt. When used during the warm up, pick 1-2 muscle groups that are extra tight and use the tool of choice on them for 20-30 seconds at a time.
Dynamic Stretching/Mobility Work: For most people reading this article, Dynamic Stretching is a better option than Static Stretching prior to working out as it is more movement specific. Think of Dynamic stretching exercises (Also known as ‘Movement Prep’ or Mobility Work’) as old school calisthenics that were done in high school gym class. However, even though they are old many of these exercises are very effective for getting the body to move better. Pick 1-2 exercises/workout and do 2 sets of 10-12 reps each with each rep lasting 1-2 seconds.
Activation Exercises: As mentioned early in this article many people sit for the majority of the day and certain muscles are inactive and don’t work as efficiently as they can. Doing Activation Exercises is a great way to get these muscles working better. Activation exercises are lighter strength-based exercises (Usually done with Body Weight, Resistance Bands, etc.) that are done with higher reps. An example of one is doing a Resistance Band Pull Apart to strengthen the upper back muscles after the tight muscles of the chest and shoulder area have been stretched.
Specific Warm Up: This is for resistance training exercises only. It is doing a couple of sets with lighter resistance prior to doing the working sets that require heavier resistance. For example, if you are doing a Barbell Bench Press with working sets of 185 lbs. done for 3 sets of 8 reps, a specific warm up might include a set of 15 Reps at 95 lbs., a set of 12 reps at 115 lbs. and a set of 10 reps with 135 lbs. all done prior the working sets.
As you read above there are six different components to a warm up that can be used. Based off of your goal and the time you have to work out, feel free to adjust and prioritize them accordingly. A few things to keep in mind when putting together a warm up:
- The General Warm Up benefits are really important for people who are doing cardio and have fat loss goals. Also, if these fitness enthusiasts are not doing resistance training exercises, the Specific Warm Up wouldn’t be needed.
- For people who have strength/power improvement goals, it may not be necessary to do a full 8-12 minutes of cardio prior to lifting (2-3 minutes of Jumping Rope or Assault Bike might be enough to get the blood moving). In this case it might make sense to focus on the other five parts more.
To help you incorporate a dynamic warm-up into your own fitness routine, I’m sharing a couple examples to get you going. The first is a 20-minute total body warm up, while the other is a modified example for when time may be a little tight.
The 20-minute Total Body Warm Up:
Most people reading this will think 20-minutes is a long time for a warm up. However, when you break it all down, you’ll notice each component has a specific and beneficial purpose that is meant to enhance the workout that is bound to take place. The goal is to injury-proof your body and make your metabolism more efficient.
- Minutes 1-10: General Warm Up
- Minutes 11-12: Breathing Reset
- Minutes 13-15: Self Myofacial Release (SMR) – Foam Roll
- Minutes 16-18: Mobility Work
- Minutes 19-20: Activation Exercises
- *Specific Warm Up (If doing resistance training): Do 2-3 Progressive Warm Ups on the first 1-2 major exercises
The 3-5 Minute Warm Up:
If you are limited to only 3-5 minutes, I recommend doing a Dynamic Stretching Circuit such as:
- If you are doing a total body workout: Pick 4 dynamic stretching exercises (2 for upper body and 2 for lower body) and do them as a circuit where you do 10-12 reps of each stretch for 2-3 sets.
- If your workout is an upper or lower body routine: Select two dynamic stretches followed by an activation exercise for 2-3 sets of 10-12 reps each.
Dynamic Warm Up Q&A
In my experience, there can be a lot of questions and debate when discussing proper warm-up techniques. Here are some of the most common questions I get on warming up with answers that address each of them.
Question: What is better, dynamic or static stretching?
Answer: In my education and experience Dynamic Stretching is best prior to exercise and Static Stretching is best after. In addition, Static Stretching is really effective outside of workouts for recovery. Whether it is doing a few sets of Static Stretching prior to going to bed or going to a basic Yoga class, Static Stretching is great for fitness, just not right before doing workouts.
Question: How many movements are ideal?
Answer: This is highly based on your individual goals and current fitness level. For most people, try to get at least 3 movements (Pick something from Breathing Reset, Foam Roll, Mobility Work, or Activation Exercise) to start with. From there, add additional movements as needed based on the time you have in your workout.
Question: How much time should you spend on the warm up?
Answer: This really depends on the goal, but try to aim for at least 5 minutes. For example, if you are doing a Resistance Training workout, doing a Breathing Reset for 1-minute, 1-2 Dynamic Stretches for 2-3 minutes and an Activation Exercise for 1-minute (5-minutes total) can be REALLY beneficial.
Question: Should the warm up be different if you are doing cardio or strength training? If you are doing strength training can you do upper body as well as lower body warm ups?
Answer: Regarding the cardio or strength workout question, the main difference here is that a workout with resistance training will include a Specific Warm Up exercise based on the lifting you are doing. Also, the General Warm Up will not have to be as long if cardio is the main focus of the workout. When doing only cardio-based exercise, there should be a greater focus on the General Warm Up.
If you are doing strength training workouts for upper body, lower body or total body, the warm up can be customized based on the time you have. The upper body and lower body warm ups will only include exercises for those respective muscle groups. The total body can include warm up exercises for the both upper and lower body.
Question: If certain muscles are already sore from the working out the day before, does that change anything?
Answer: Not really. Even though you are sore, doing parts of the warm up in this article will help improve how well you move, in addition to how quickly you recover.
I hope by reading this you have a better understanding of how important and influential a dynamic warm up is when it comes to preparing for your workout. Based on your personal workout regime and goals, I encourage to leverage this information and the examples provided above so that you can take advantage of all the benefits a proper warm-up has to offer.
In health, Corey Grenz — Program Specialist and Master Trainer — Life Time, Chanhassen
This article is not intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor as a substitute for medical treatment, nor as an alternative to medical advice. Use of recommendations in this and other articles is at the choice and risk of the reader.