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Warming Up For the Weight Room Part 1

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Warming up is a critical aspect of training that, because it’s really not very sexy, often isn’t discussed nearly enough.  Watching people in the weight room, people seem to fall into one of two categories when it comes to warm ups, either they warm up for ever and ever (exhausting themselves in the process) or come in and try to lift near maximum weights without any warm up at all.  Neither is ideal.

In this article, I want to look at warm ups, specifically focusing on weight room performance, I want to look briefly at the goals of the warm up along with how to practically program a warm up for optimal performance and results.


Purposes of Warming Up

As with most aspects of training, warming up is done to achieve a certain set of goals and looking at them is a good first step to determining what an optimal warmup should be.

The first purpose of warming up is exactly what the name suggests: warming the body and/or tissues that are going to be trained. There are a number of reasons that this is important.

One is that warmer tissues tend to be less likely to injure as they tend to be more pliable when warm. A second is that warmer tissues generally perform better than colder ones.  Related to this is establishing sufficient ranges of motion such that the movements being trained can be done safely and effectively.

An additional aspect of warming up is to practice and reinforce good technique and ‘groove’ movement patterns. This tends to be relatively more important for beginners and intermediates but it’s interesting to note that you’ll usually find top level athletes going through basic drills daily as part of their warm up.

It’s also important to note that those same athletes put just as much focus into doing their warm up drills properly as they do during the workout itself.  This is a key aspect that I find is often missed, too many people simply ‘go through the motions’ when they warm up rather than using it as an excellent time to accumulate more perfectly done reps (which is a key aspect of motor learning).

Finally, there is an aspect of warming up the nervous system that is often ignored in warm ups. Many find that nervous system activity ‘ramps up’ gradually with progressive sets. Getting the most out of a workout, and this tends to be more important for individuals handling very heavy loads or those using lower repetitions, means ensuring that the nervous system is firing effectively.


Parts of the Warm Up

Traditionally, warm ups have been divided into a general warm up and a specific warm up and I see little reason to deviate from that terminology.

The general warm up is exactly that and encompasses any general activities that are done to prepare the body for the upcoming workout. This might include low level aerobic activity or some form calisthenics; I’d also place any pre-workout stretching here. A somewhat recent addition to the general warm up is the use of foam rollers to work on connective tissue or trigger points.

The specific warm up are those activities specific to what is being done and generally entails progressively more intense variations of whatever movement is going to be done. In terms of the weight room, this generally means the performance of several sets of the exercise to be performed during that workout.  I’ll address the specific weight room workout in Part 2 of this article.


The General Warm Up: Cardio Portion

Most people, for their general warm up will do some type of aerobic activity although this is far from universal. Whether it’s walking on the treadmill, a few minutes on the bike or jogging or whatever, some type of light cardio-type activity is commonly done. This is done simply to raise body temperature and, in general, is unlikely to hurt anything unless it’s done to excess.  Many, of course do this, they try to get in a full cardiovascular workout prior to lifting and then wonder why they don’t perform well.

Generally speaking, I feel that the least amount of this type of work that is done, the better.  Go until you break a light sweat or ‘feel’ yourself warm up and then stop.

Usually, 5-10′ of low intensity activity (or until a slight sweat is broken) is sufficient at which point this portion of the warm up can be stopped. I’d note that, in colder weather, it will often take relatively longer for the body to warm up. By the same token, when it’s warmer, it will often take only a few minutes of light activity to break a sweat.  This is why using a specific endpoint like ‘breaking a light sweat’ is probably better than some fixed time.   If you’ve broken a sweat after three minutes, you can stop; if you haven’t broken a sweat at the 15 minute mark, you should keep going.

I’d note that empirically, older trainees tend to take longer to get through their general warm up; as well, the more highly trained (especially aerobically) an individual is, the longer this part often takes before the body warms up.

I’d also point out that there is no fundamental requirement to do aerobic type activities for a general warm up. Sled dragging, bar circuits or calisthenics can also be used; one trainee of mine would swing a sledgehammer against a tire and that would warm him up just fine.   Many lifters warm up by simply doing a couple of high rep sets of their first exercise and this can work just fine under certain circumstances.


The General Warm Up: Foam Rolling

Depending on what types of things you read and what type of gym you train at you may or may not be familiar with foam rolling. In short, it described a variety of movements performed by rolling around on a fairly hard piece of foam to work kinks out of connective tissue; it can also be used to release trigger points.

Rather than try to describe it in much more detail than that (or try to describe the movements verbally), I’ll simply link out to an excellent article by Eric Cressey and Mike Robertson about the topic.

Foam rolling can be useful, especially when trainees have long-standing injury or connective tissue problems and can be a useful way of checking for any small problems before they become larger problems.  I’d only note that foam rolling can’t take the place of the general warm up (as it won’t do much to warm the tissues) but should generally be done (if at all) prior to stretching.


The General Warm Up: Stretching

If there is a single aspect of training and warm-up mired in more argument and debate these days, it’s the issue of stretching prior to workout.

To understand why, I need to define a few different kinds of stretching. They are:

  • Static Stretching: this is what most think of as stretching and entails holding a stretch for extended periods (15-60 seconds or longer) without movement.
  • Dynamic Stretching: This is a type of stretching involving controlled movement where the body is taken through progressively greater ranges of motion for a number of repetitions. Various walking lunges, Spidermans and the other host of active mobility drills that have become popular could probably be placed under this heading as well.
  • Ballistic Stretching: often confused with dynamic stretching, this type of stretching entails essentially ‘throwing’ a limb through a given range of motion without control. This type of stretching has generally fallen out of favor in recent years.

The United States has long had an almost pathological obsession with static stretching and claims that you need to stretch for 10-20 minutes before training are still heard; it’s quite common to see folks going through extended static stretching routines prior to all manners of workouts as well.

In contrast, there has been a recent backlash against static stretching prior to training with emerging research that extended static stretching can impair power and strength production. Based on this research, many will state without qualification that static stretching should never be done prior to lifting weights and that only dynamic stretching should be done.

Admittedly, there are merits to the idea of using dynamic stretching pre-workout and saving static stretching for later (either after the workout or later in the day); research certainly supports that idea.  Without going into excessive detail, excessive static stretching appears to ‘damp down’ certain neural processes involved in optimal strength and power performance.

At the same time, there are a few problems with the dogma that static stretching is always bad. For example, many studies have used fairly excessive amounts of stretching, at least one study found that only extended static stretching (longer than 30 seconds per stretch) had a negative impact on performance, shorter stretches cause no problems; other research suggests that any length of static stretching can impair performance.

Another issue, however, is that many of the study protocols often don’t really represent a realistic approach to training in the first place.  Typically, the subjects are given extensive static stretching routines and then expected to perform some type of maximal strength or power test; this isn’t usually how people train in the real-world.

Rather, most would perform their stretching following a general warm-up but would follow the stretching with some type of specific warm up such as progressively heavier sets of an exercise that should, in premise, reactivate any inhibited neural mechanisms. To my knowledge, that type of sequencing hasn’t been tested.

Additionally, there are times when static stretching may be absolutely required prior to weight training; usually this occurs when someone has a severe flexibility limitation that prevents them from performing an exercise in good form.

A common example would be someone for whom tight hamstrings or glutes might cause low back rounding in the bottom of the squat. Another would be someone who, due to poor posture (from sitting in front of a computer for example), had problems properly performing a safe and proper bench press without static stretching their pecs and delts.

Clearly, in this case, any small loss in strength or performance is far outweighed by being able to perform the exercise safely and effectively.  In the short-term, avoiding injury is far more important than any acute loss of performance.

That said, my general preference is to use dynamic stretching pre-workout and save static stretching for post-workout or later in the day (a hot shower followed by gentle static stretching can be a good way to relax the body and prepare for sleep). Just keep in mind that the whole ‘never static stretch before workout’ isn’t quite as absolute as many are making it sound.

I’d also note that the need for stretching can vary drastically. Someone with a large number of major inflexibility issues will need proportionally more stretching prior to training than someone who has no such limitations and relatively good flexibility.

The former trainee might need a fairly extensive stretching program prior to training while the latter might need, at most, a quick spot check of the muscles to ensure everything is as loose as it needs to be.


Summing Up the General Warm Up

So a full blown comprehensive general warm up might consist of the following:

  1. 5-10 minutes of low-intensity aerobic or full body activities (bar complex, calisthenics, rope jumping)
  2. Foam rolling (under specific circumstances)
  3. Some type of stretching

Overall, this might take roughly 10-20 minutes to complete prior to the main part of the workout.

However, I’d like to note that, for some trainees, none of the above may be necessary in the first place and many trainees (especially those without joint injury or flexibility issues) find that they can use the first warm up sets of their weight exercises to accomplish everything I’ve described above.

It’s fairly rare to see most strength athletes going through extended warm ups of the cardio/stretching type, although, as trainees get older it tends to become more prevalent and necessary.

For younger trainees with no major inflexibility issues or other problems, simply starting light and performing slightly higher repetitions for their first sets (a topic I’ll address in more detail in Part 2) will serve to warm the tissue by increasing blood flow. Ranges of motion can be progressively increased at the same time; you might argue that this stretches the tissues in a way far more specific to the movements being done in the first place.

That is, compared to performing dynamic stretching for the quads, glutes and hamstrings, performing several sets of progressively deeper squats will stretch everything involved in squatting in a far more specific way. Performing one or two light sets of bench presses with just the bar for high reps both warms and stretches the pecs, delts and triceps in the fashion that they are going to be used.

Continued in Warming Up for the Weight Room: Part 2.

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