Prior to lifting heavy, a warm-up is a damn good idea.
A warm-up doesn’t only increase muscle extensibility and joint range of motion, making lifting a much more comfortable endeavour, but it will also augment force and power output, enabling you to get a lot more from your training session.
However, with each lifter having their own set of movement limitations, brief and generalised warm-ups may not cut it for everyone.
On the flip side, with so many drills and exercises available to choose from, it’s easy to waste time performing every mobility drill under the sun, when in fact, you can determine the key areas you need to work on, and then get them done.
The warm-up should address the specific needs of the lifter, as well as the training session, and worked through at a fairly quick pace, so you’re left fully prepared and in an energised state to train.
If it takes you longer than 15 minutes, then you’re wasting time on unnecessary movement drills that will contribute to fatigue and kill training drive – so ensure that you pick the right tools to get the job done.
Building your warm-up
The purpose of the warm-up is to prepare you for lifting by increasing the following:
- Joint range of motion
- Muscle extensibility
- Comfort during lifting i.e. elimination of aches and pains
- Neural excitation
There are a number of different components that can be used to achieve all of the above, with each component being based on individual requirements.
– Getting warm
– Core activation
– Soft tissue
– Muscle mobilisation
– Joint mobilisation
– Muscle activation
– Integrated mobility
With so many components, and with each one containing a whole library of exercise options, it’s no surprise that people can be overwhelmed.
However, it’s crucial to understand that you don’t have to address each component. For example, if you’re about to perform a skin-splitting arm-pump routine, explosive work may not be required and if your gym happens to be hotter than the earth’s core, then you probably don’t need to worry about ‘getting warm’.
Remember, the warm-up will be determined by the training session as well as your own specific needs. Choose the components that are most relevant for you and assign the appropriate exercise/drill to get the job done.
#1 Getting warm
When to use it:
If stress levels are high or your gym is colder than the depths of your ex-girlfriend’s heart.
Physiologically – training in a cold environment will decrease force and power output, due to slower neural impulses, so the quicker you can get warmer, the better.
Psychologically – taking a few minutes to switch off from the world will allow you to re-direct your energy from worrying about day-to-day stresses to focusing on the upcoming tasks instead. This can be very helpful for those times when you turn up to the gym with a lot of stress and a very clouded mind.
2-5 minutes of:
- Low intensity cardio i.e. treadmill, bike, elliptical etc.
- Jump rope
- Shadow boxing
When to do it:
If a lack of core function is limiting shoulder/hip range of motion. This is common is those who have acquired an ‘office worker posture’ i.e. excessive anterior pelvic tilt, lumbar lordosis and/or thoracic khyposis and poor breathing patterns.
Decreased activation from the core muscles involved in lumbo-pelvic stability can cause other muscles, such as the lats and hip flexors, to take up the slack, which can limit hip and shoulder range of motion, due to the increased tension. These muscles can be stretched all day long, but without providing the signal to ‘calm down’; you’ll be fighting an uphill battle.
Therefore, performing some core activation work at the beginning of the warm-up can make the subsequent mobilisation drills much more effective.
Additionally, firing up the core prior to performing heavy sets of squats and deadlifts can be a fantastic way to generate some of the essential stability required for the spine during these lifts.
- Plank variations (3-4 x 10 second holds)
- Loaded carries (1-2 x 20 metre carries)
- Loaded holds (3-4 x 10 second holds)
- Deadbug variations (1-2 x 10 reps/side)
- Pallof press/iso-hold variations (1-2 x 10 reps / 3-4 x 10 second holds)
Note that the purpose of performing core exercises in the warm-up is not to fatigue the muscles, but rather to potentiate them prior to training.
When to use it:
If muscular tension limits your movement capabilities and/or causes discomfort.
Soft tissue work i.e. foam rollers, massage sticks etc. has been shown to improve range of motion, by reducing tension in restrictive muscles, without having a negative effect on force output.
This can enable you to perform your mobility drills and strength training exercises with a lot more comfort and through a much ‘smoother’ range of motion.
However, one problem with soft-tissue work is that, because it feels good, it can be incredibly addictive, which means that time can easily be wasted.
This tends to happen when it’s placed right at the beginning of the warm-up i.e. if you’re not feeling 100% ready to train, you may find yourself prolonging getting started by spending too much time foam rolling.
But once you’re in ‘the zone’, you’ll have a greater urge for any soft tissue work to be over and done as quickly as possible – exactly as it’s meant to be.
30 seconds on the foam roller/baseball address problem areas, which may include:
- Hip flexors/TFL
- Rotator cuff
Time is limited – just pick the most restrictive areas and target them.
You should notice an immediate improvement as a result of performing soft-tissue work – if not, then skip it.
#4 Muscle mobilisation
When to use it:
If muscles cannot be extended to their full length, and are in a constant state of tension.
If a muscle has poor extensibility, it can restrict range of motion at a joint, hindering proper movement patterns, and potentially result in pain or discomfort during lifting, which will limit performance.
Performing some mobilisation drills can help improve extensibility and a return to normal length, thus enabling better movement quality to occur.
Muscle mobilisation drills involve repeatedly taking a muscle from a fully shortened to a fully lengthened position, with the intention of relaxing the tight muscle and gaining more range as the repetitions continue.
#5 Joint mobilisations
When to use it:
If a joint has limited range of motion, joint mobilisation drills can be used after all other methods have been used to decrease muscular tension to help open up the joint and groove movement.
Why use it?
Joint mobilisation drills will groove the desired movement at the joint, as well as lubricating it with synovial fluid and preparing it for more complex movements.
Joint mobilisation drills target joints in isolation, and can be used with any problematic areas, where mobility is limited, or for simply preparing the joints for lifting.
Note that joint mobilisation drills focuses on the movement at the joint, as opposed to individual muscles responsible for the movement.
#6 Muscle activation
When to use it:
If you have poor joint stability during compound exercises, or if you’re unable to ‘feel’ a muscle, either isometrically or during movement.
If you’re unable to fully activate and use the prime mover, then you’ll struggle to complete the lift, or will need to make a compensation that increases injury risk. A common example is being unable to finish the deadlift with the glutes, and instead relying on lumbar hyperextension.
If the stabilising muscles are weak, then there will be reduced neural drive to the prime movers, due to more effort being put into stabilising the joint. For example, a weak rotator cuff will fail to stabilise the glenohumeral joint during the bench press, and make the lift significantly harder.
Therefore, providing a stimulus to areas of weakness during the warm-up will create a potentiating effect and can help increase their recruitment during exercises, which creates a stronger movement.
There are 3 ways to activate a muscle group in the warm-up:
- End-range contractions
- Constant tension
- Sensorimotor tasks
End-range contractions are when the muscle is shortened as much as possible and a maximal voluntary contraction is performed. This will help you ‘feel’ the muscle and become aware of its existence, thus facilitating recruitment during an exercise.
For example, activating the glutes in isolation can help you become of aware of how to use them during a hip hinge movement, which can then enable you to perform the deadlift properly and spare yourself from trying to finish the lift with the lower back.
Constant tension exercises help you become aware of ‘feeling’ the muscle and how it’s involved in a movement. For example, mini band walks can help stimulate the hip abductors and external rotators, which can help you to keep your knees out during the squat.
Sensorimotor exercises involve placing a stabilisation demand on the muscles, which forces them to resist movement. These drills are much more suitable for targeting muscle groups and their role in more complex movement patterns. They differ from maximal contraction and constant tension drills in that they and don’t require the conscious activation, instead contracting as a reaction to the instability demand placed on them.
#7 Integrated mobility
When to use it:
Before you perform any multi-joint exercises.
When we perform compound exercises, there is well-synchronised movement between multiple joints. For example, during the squat, knee extension occurs with simultaneous hip extension and ankle plantarflexion.
Therefore, the warm-up should include some mobility drills that integrate multiple joints at once in order to fully prepare the body for the upcoming task.
Perform 1-2 drills that mobilise multiple joints at once, examples include:
When to use it:
Prior to a heavy lifting session, especially if you don’t feel ‘switched on’ enough for it.
Performing some explosive work prior to getting under the bar can help to increase force and power production by:
- Enhancing motor unit excitability
- Increasing neural transmission
- Decreasing inhibition from antagonist muscles
Since explosive work will up-regulate the neural activity, it will mostly benefit lower rep strength training sessions, which are more dependent on the nervous system. The increase neural excitation can help you move heavier weights, enabling you to build strength faster.
Another reason to perform explosive work is that it can help wake you up and get you more ‘switched on’ for training sessions when you’re feeling particularly sluggish.
Pick 1 explosive movement, relevant to your training session, and perform 3-5 reps for up to 3-5 sets at the end of your warm-up:
- Box jumps
- Broad jumps
- Kettlebell swings
- Depth jumps
- Explosive push-ups
- Medicine ball throws
- Medicine ball slams
Fatigue must be avoided at all costs – just do enough to wake yourself up.
When designed and performed properly, you should be able to move better and have more energy to train, resulting in a much more beneficial training session i.e. improved technique, motor unit recruitment, and less risk of getting injured.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of this blog will give you some specific warm-ups you can use prior to your own lifting session.
Once you’ve completed your warm-up, you will want to make sure that you’re lifting properly and with excellent technique.
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