When the time comes to prepare the body for a weight-training workout, most trainees have some sort of inherent inclination that the muscles need a warm up. Unfortunately, due to the layperson’s limited understanding of physiology and the poor information distributed in mainstream fitness magazines, most people take one or two steps back during their warm up by working against the body. A warm up can undoubtedly be advantageous if done properly, and in accordance to your desired training effect.
I’ll cover four basic categories based on repetition schemes. If you are using multiple loading parameters in the same workout, you’ll most likely want to use one or both of the first two warm up categories.
- Athletic Performance;
- Absolute Strength/Hypertrophy/Relative Strength (Low rep training);
- Classic Hypertrophy (Mid-rep ranges); and
- Muscular Endurance/Metabolic Training/Capillary Density Training, etc.
Fat loss training can occur in any of these rep brackets, and will be a product of many other factors.
Warming Up for…Athletic Performance
This is a tricky one, because it can be highly sport specific and covering all of the popular sports is definitely not the direction I want to take here. So I want to briefly introduce General Physical Preparedness (GPP), inner unit activation, and general dynamic warm ups. The following can be applied to any sport, pre-workout to serve as a general systemic warm up. Some may seem a bit off kilter, but believe me they are tried and true methods of some of the most successful strength coaches and athletes on the planet. These are a few of my favorites:
On the Field:
1. Wheelbarrow Push – Just like it sounds, load up a wheelbarrow with sand, dirt, chains, x-girlfriends, whatever you like. Pick a weight and a distance, and then add a little bit more each workout, which will do wonders for your core strength, grip strength, and increasing work capacity. This can be done in a parking lot, on a track, a construction site (which would be a great place to score a wheelbarrow, just make sure you ask to borrow it).
2. Sled Dragging – Used by many pro football teams, this contraption is basically a flat piece of steel with a pole sticking out of the middle, attached to a harness and waist strap. Load up the weight, and drag it a given distance.
In the Gym:
Many people won’t have access to the above equipment, so here are some simple things to do in the gym:
3. Iron Cross Squats – This one can be done in any weight room. Grab a pair of dumbbells, stand up and hold them out at your sides at arms length. Squat down as far as flexibility allows, and as you descend bring you arms in front of your body, still outstretched. At your bottom position hopefully your butt is almost on the ground, and the dumbbells are extended directly in front of you at eye level. Now reverse the motion as you stand up.
4. Jump Lunge w/ a Twist- Grasp a dumbbell (or plyoball) with two hands, and get into the bottom position of a lunge. Hold the object to the outside of your leading leg, with a good twist at the torso (in other words your belly button should be pointing in the same direction as your fists). Now jump as high as you can, switch your lead leg in the air, and twist your torso and fists to finish at the outside of your new leading leg.
5. Swiss Ball Inner Unit Drills – A few basic exercises to help activate the inner unit (core) muscles of your torso and hip region:
Barbell Rollouts or Forward Ball Rollouts: Get on your knees, place your fists on a swiss ball in front of you. Extend your arms/hips/knees concurrently and stretch your body out to the point right before your back becomes hyperlordotic (excessive lumbar arch). Pause for one second, and return to start position. Ensure that your abdominal region remains ‘braced’ and tight throughout the movement. Don’t allow yourself to relax the core even for a second.
Pic courtesy of www.chekinstitute.com
Transverse ball roll: Lay back on a swiss ball with your arms outstretched and knees bent to a 90 degree angle, feet planted firmly on the ground. Brace the abdominal region, and slide your body off to one side, remaining parallel to the floor. Once you’ve hit your end point, go slowly back across the ball and extend yourself off the other direction.
Pic courtesy of www.chekinstitute.com
For a full rundown on dynamic warm ups, the recent video “Magnificent Mobility” by Eric Cressey and Mike Robertson has received great feedback.
Warming Up for…Strength (1-6 reps)
When referring to strength I choose the traditional definition of absolute strength, meaning to move the most weight possible, regardless of time or any other factor. If benching 450lbs and/or doing a pull up with a Buick strapped to your waist may cause you to raise an intrigued eyebrow, this is for you.
I see this one screwed up every time I go to the gym, so a bit of physiology is necessary to understand the implications of a proper (or improper) strength warm up. First off maximal strength is a product of the size and number of Type IIB muscle fibers, and the ability of your nervous system to activate them. These are the most sensitive of all of your fibers and are referred to as ‘high threshold’.
Many trainees never achieve even their current strength potential because of flawed workout design. In other words, your body might be capable of bench pressing 350lbs right now, but because of the way you design your workouts/warm ups, you are only able to move 330lbs or so. The difference between a poor or nonexistent warm up and a well designed one can lead to as much as a 5-10% immediate increase in strength.
Mistake #1: High Rep Warm Ups- High reps (10 and above) will cause your body to release lactic acid into the blood stream which significantly impairs the nervous system’s ability to activate high threshold (think strength) motor units. Lactic acid can have some beneficial functions in the body with regards to hormone output and connective tissue health, but it has no benefit to you as a substrate for maximal strength training. Keep the reps in your warm up sets at six or below (see examples below).
Mistake #2: Low Set Warm Ups- Knock out 10 reps with the bar, 10 reps with some plates on each side, and hit it…right? Nope. Let your nervous system know what’s coming. The closer you are working to your one rep max during your work sets, the more warm up sets you’ll need. I recommend about 3-5 warm up sets, each with progressively heavier weight, but never excessively fatiguing yourself for your real sets.
Mistake #3: Stretching- Healthy muscles remain at optimum contraction length in a resting position (healthy being the key word). When you stretch them, you cause them to go into a suboptimal contraction length, hence weakening the fibers (temporarily). Don’t get me wrong, stretching is great, just not before you are going to call upon a muscle to perform at peak output levels. Numerous studies have been conducted to demonstrate this ‘weakening effect’ of stretching. So save the stretching for post workout (4-6 hours after), or better yet…stretch the antagonist (opposite) to the muscle you are going to use. Benching heavy- stretch the lats. Squatting heavy- stretch the hip flexors. You will find that this can enhance the effects of the stretch shortening cycle, and make your bench press/squat stronger. Exceptions do exist, however; if the muscle you are about to train is chronically tight (usually due to a posture deviation or residual tension from an injury), by all means stretch it first, because it is probably at a suboptimal contraction length at the other end of the spectrum. I am not going to discuss specifics, but for those of you familiar with PNF stretching, studies have shown it to cause short-term gains in strength, so feel free to give it a try pre-workout if you have a partner competent in the process.
Mistake #4: General Warm Ups- The nervous system picks up patterns, and running on the treadmill, or pedal pushing for 5-10min to ‘get the blood flowing’ or whatever rationale you use does nothing to prepare the C.N.S. for a highly specific task like benching, squatting, rows or any other exercise for that matter (other than running or biking). So do yourself a favor and don’t waste time and energy on something that isn’t going to help your body complete the task at hand. If you’re going to squat, warm up by squatting, stay away from the treadmill. You wouldn’t warm up your car for a trip to the neighborhood grocery store by hopping on the highway would you?
Example Warm Up Routines
*Keep a constant moderate tempo on all reps, about 3 seconds down, 3 seconds up (3030)
*Only perform warm up sets for the 1st exercise per cold muscle group
*Rest only as long as it takes to change the weights between warm up sets
(This is the one I use most commonly with myself/clients)
Planned Work Sets- 4 sets of 6 reps @ 225lbs
Warm up set 1: 50% 6RM =110lbs x 6 reps
Warm up set 2: 70% 6RM =160lbs x 4 reps
Warm up set 3: 90% 6RM =205lbs x 2 reps
Planned Work Sets- 8 sets of 3 reps @ 275lbs
Warm up set 1: 50% 3RM =135lbs x 4 reps
Warm up set 2: 75% 3RM =205lbs x 3 reps
Warm up set 3: 90% 3RM =245lbs x 2 reps
Warm up set 4: 95% 3RM =260lbs x 1 rep
Warming Up for…Moderate Rep Ranges (6-12 reps)
When using mid-rep ranges, your warm up will be similar to a strength warm up. You still want to avoid excessive lactic acid release because of high threshold motor unit contribution, so again keep warm up reps at six or below. Sets should be less since the body will be performing at a lower intensity (% of 1 rep max, not how loud you scream) therefore needing less preparation. Tempo should be about the same as for strength. Again, stretching would be counter-productive unless injury/chronic tightness exists, in which case PNF would be the most effective pre workout modality, done right after the specific warm up. A general warm up is still not necessary, like strength training go right to the 1st exercise of your workout and commence the specific warm up.
Example Warm Up Routine
Planned Work Sets- 3 sets of 8-10 reps @ 185lbs
Warm up set 1: 50% 10RM =95lbs x 6 reps
Warm up set 2: 80% 10RM =150lbs x 4 reps
You may also want to experiment with using heavier weights and lower reps than your planned work sets to jump start your nervous system. Just don’t overdo it, shoot for your last warm up set to only be about 10-15% more load than you will be using for your work sets.
Example Neural Pre-Load Warm Up
Planned Work Sets- 3 sets of 8-10 reps @ 185lbs
Warm up set 1: 60% 10RM =110lbs x 6 reps
Warm up set 2: 90% 10RM =165lbs x 3 reps
Warm up set 3: 113% 10RM =210lbs x 1 rep
Warming Up for…Endurance/High Rep Training (12+ reps)
Individual response will determine the best warm up for endurance weight training- at least more so than the other categories. More often than not, I recommend only one set for a specific endurance warm up. If you are performing an exercise unfamiliar to you, more warm up sets can be beneficial, and the less comfortable you are at performing the movement, the more reps you should use in the warm up set(s).
While physiologically it is arguable whether a warm up set is even necessary at all for high rep training, it does serve as a nice transition from your daily routine to help you get focused on the workout, while also providing an opportunity to assess any possible injuries or joint discomfort and get an idea for how strong you feel. Higher reps are fine, no need to worry about excessive lactic acid since that will be unavoidable (and actually beneficial) in an endurance workout. General warm ups are optional, if five minutes on a treadmill helps you to have a better work out, by all means do it. Just don’t feel like it’s necessary if you see no benefit. Stretching is optional as well; your muscles are contracting with a relatively low force output, so no harm will be done. Again, only stretch first if you feel it contributes to enhanced performance- try one workout stretching first; and the next stretching after and assess performance differences.
Example Warm Up Routine
General: 5 minutes on treadmill (optional), 5 minutes stretching (optional)
Specific: Planned Work Sets- 2 sets of 15 reps @ 100lbs
Warm up set: 60% of 15RM =60lbs x 10 reps
Whether this article has reinforced your old warm-up habits or offered you some new warm-up strategies, I suggest you make full use of them. Applying these techniques to your workouts will offer the benefits of better workouts, faster progress, and fewer injuries.
This article is an updated version of an article that appeared on www.johnberardi.com