It’s time to pump some iron! It’s everyone’s favorite time of the day. It was a long, hard day of work, but it’s finally over. Now it’s time for a little gym therapy. The training program says that it is squat day, and the thought of smashing some heavy sets is exciting. It’s something any gym rat like myself looks forward to everyday. But, slow your roll, meathead. Before loading the barbell with 405 and dropping into a deep squat, there is a simple but important prerequisite that must be satisfied: a proper warm up. It doesn’t matter how good or excited someone feels before heavy lifting. A warmup is absolutely necessary before intense training sessions. “But I’ll just start with 135. I’ll be fine,” is said all too many times in the gym. It’s likely to get away with that line of thinking for a while, but at some point it’ll blow back with a vengeance. As a lifter progresses in their training, their ability to lift more weight will obviously increase. Anyone who has experience in the gym will tell you that those increases in strength are produced after an extended time of training. The body requires time and proper training to yield gains in strength. So, why would anyone think that it’s appropriate to lift heavy weights without taking some time to prime and prepare the body? A proper warmup is also necessary for people as they age. No one wants to hear it, but Father Time is undefeated. Age makes things harder for all of us. Taking the time to warm up properly will keep you in the game longer.
Soft Tissue Work
The warmup is the perfect opportunity to do some soft tissue work. If someone is feeling tight, utilizing some good old fashioned yoga would be greatly beneficial. Before you big boys break out into sweats and stress about having to turn yourself into a pretzel, relax. No one is expecting strength athletes to do the splits. Using something like a tennis ball, lacrosse ball, bands and some stretches can greatly reduce feelings of “tightness” and stiffness in the body. For example, if it’s time to do some deadlifts, use a lacrosse ball to loosen up the upper back and get those traps and lats feeling great to help lock in that posterior chain. For those of you lightweights and middleweights who likely have a greater range of flexibility, be very careful. For strength athletes, it is possible to be too flexible. Lifting explosively and under heavy load requires a degree of strong muscle tension. Diving too deep into soft tissue work can take away from explosiveness and power. The key is to only be as flexible and loose as needed. Do what is necessary to be effective and reach optimal performance, but no more.
Mobility and Range of Motion
During a warmup routine, everyone should be paying close attention to how well they move and the range of that movement. For example, if someone is preparing to train the squat, it would be advantageous to perform bodyweight squats to assess if it’s possible to move in that manner without pain or impingements. That person should be noticing their hips, their ankles, their posterior chain and their core. From there, deficiencies and impingements can be addressed. If someone was having trouble getting tight and locking in their spine during the movement, they could perform McGill’s Big Three (bird dog, modified curl ups and side planks) to properly activate their core and posterior chain. If that person is having trouble activating their glutes and driving their hips, he or she can use heavy resistance bands. Wrap one end of the band around a fixed position, like a squat rack, then while on one knee, wrap the other end inside the upper thigh. From there, squeeze the glutes and lean slightly forward to feel those hip flexors stretch and activate the glutes. To address ankle mobility, put one foot on a bench and lean forward to stretch the achilles tendon while keeping that foot flat. Do that for both feet, and it should help open up the range of motion for the ankles. Addressing mobility and range of motion before loading the body will help everyone train with optimal performance and greatly reduce the chances of injury.
Break a Sweat
A great way to prepare the body for intense training is to get the heart pumping. This is where a dynamic warmup takes place. There are many ways to accomplish a dynamic warmup, but the general guideline is to do something that will reflect the prescribed exercises for the day. First, I would always advise to get the hips moving. Every major lift will involve the hips to some degree, and that includes the bench press and overhead press. Doing box jumps or kettlebell swings can help get the hips warm and ready to fire. From there, doing things like high knees, lunges, reverse lunges or shuffles can help elevate the heart rate. Pushing a prowler, dragging a sled or flipping tires are all great for a dynamic warm up that help prepare for deadlifts and squats. You can also do a quick weight routine to get the blood moving as well. For example, I like to do a circuit of face pulls, ab pull downs, hanging leg raises and reverse hypers to prepare for deadlifts. For bench press, I like to do a circuit of tricep pushdowns, face pulls, ab pull downs and hanging leg lifts. Using those routines help me prime the body parts that are going to be utilized the most in their respective lifts, and, as a bonus, I make sure I get in some ab work that we all neglect. However you decide to create your dynamic warm up, make sure it carries over to what you are going to do. Just keep in mind that the dynamic warmup is not the objective for the day. Don’t fatigue yourself doing a warmup. Only do what is necessary to prime the body.
Work Slowly to the Working Sets
So, you’re loose, mobile and broke a good sweat. Now you’re ready to stack on plates and bend barbells, right? Wrong. The body still needs a little more priming before it’s truly ready to push heavy weights. Training with high intensity puts a lot of strain on the body. It is absolutely necessary to make sure all systems are working before ramping up the intensity. Let’s use the bench press as an example. Like with all exercises, it’s best to start off with just the bar. Even though the bar is only forty five pounds, treat the bar as if it weighs 500 pounds. Get your feet into position, pack your back and make sure your posterior chain is locked into place, put your lats in your back pocket, drive the upper back into the bench and squeeze the bar like it owes you money. From there, perform the bench press for a set of five or so. If everything feels good, progress incrementally. The increments will vary based on a person’s strength level, but making small to moderate jumps in weight up to the prescribed intensity will help you make sure your technique is dialed in and weaknesses are addressed. This phase of the warmup sounds tedious, less than exciting and doesn’t make for a sexy Instagram post, but ask any reputable strength coach or experienced lifter, and they will tell you that it is important to make sure that the technique is sound before pushing heavy weights. Take the time to do this properly, or risk possible injuries.
What Should a Warm Up Routine Look Like?
There are a lot of things that factor into a good warmup, and it does take some time to do it properly. However, doing a good warmup will always be beneficial. You’re probably thinking that an extended warmup will cut into your training, and that assumption would be correct. However, what is the point of training if the training is suboptimal? Which trainee is going to have a more productive training session: the trainee who has a half-assed five minute warmup and fifty five minutes of dog shit reps, or the trainee with a strong, thought out twenty minute warmup and forty minutes of high quality reps? My money is on the latter. When creating a warm up routine, it is important to know that everyone will have specific needs. Take the time to analyze your technique and body movements to select the appropriate exercise. A combination of soft tissue work, mobility exercises and dynamic exercises are the general foundation. The exercises selection for each should reflect the main lift of the day. For an example, I will share how I prepare for a deadlift session. I like to use a tennis ball to loosen up my hips, glutes and upper back. Then, I will use bands to stretch my hips flexors since my hip flexors are usually stiff and have a tendency to displace load to my lower back. ThenI will perform McGill’s Big Three to make sure that my posterior chain is ready for heavy loading. For a dynamic warmup, I will perform a circuit of face pulls, ab pulldowns, hanging leg raises and reverse hypers. For good measure, I will push the prowler for a few minutes to elevate my heart rate. Finally I will progress with a barbell incrementally up to my working sets, paying attention to my brace, posterior chain, hips and glutes. The whole process takes me around fifteen to twenty minutes, but when done correctly, I feel ready….and a dose of Strikeforce energy helps to move things along, too. Your needs to warm up for the deadlift will probably be different than mine. I have stiff hip flexors, maybe you don’t. Maybe you have a stiff upper back, or you pull sumo and your quads need more priming. The key is to address your individual needs, and that takes a little time and practice. With experience and careful attention to your technique, you will develop a sense of what is strong and what isn’t. From there, you’ll be better able to prescribe your own warm up exercises.
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