For the vast majority of people, warmups have seem to taken to two extremes. There is the 30 second arm waving back and forth before a bench session or a 20 minute warmup that is so involved and complex that the athlete is tired before they even touch a weight. Obviously, the answer lies somewhere in the middle and finding a warmup for each person can be difficult. Some will need less, some will need more but there will always be a few truths for each warmup. The first involves preparing the tissue itself for stress and load. Foam rolling does this as it helps to break up adhesions in the muscle, bring some blood flow to the areas worked and even acts a slight analgesic, so workouts do not “feel” as painful or strenuous.
The second involves mobilizing a joint complex or muscle group so you can properly get into the intended positions during your workout. Wouldn't it make sense that before a squat workout involving lots of hip flexion that we would try to mobilize and ensure proper movement patterns in unweighted hip flexion first? Jumping jacks work great for getting the heart rate up and preparing the cardiovascular system for some work but they are performed in complete extension, so something else must be done instead.
The third is preparing your muscular, nervous and respiratory systems for the intended work. This is where you must choose some appropriate exercises that activate the right systems. Broad jumps might not do much before a jog but they are perfect before a deadlift session because they help activate and ingrain explosive hip extension in a hinge pattern.
Form Matters From the Start
Choosing the greatest warmup in the world sounds good but we need to make sure we pay as much attention to the mobility and activation exercises as we do to our main lifts. A 600lb deadlift is certainly serious and worthy of maintaining proper form, but if we are doing broad jumps to prepare ourselves for the deadlift, we want to get as much out of that exercise as well. After all, what use is it wasting energy on a warmup exercise that we do improperly and in turn it fails to achieve its goal?
Thankfully, most exercises lend themselves to feel and look methods of understanding. Having someone perform a glute mobilization and saying “You feel it in your glutes, right?” prompts them to say yes even if they don't. Rather, asking where they feel it reveals a lot. Second, simply watching the exercise being performed can be all we need. Even if you have never seen an exercises before, if someone is trying to mobilize their glutes on hands and knees and their arms are bent, back twisted and head is dropped it just looks bad. It looks like you glued them to the floor and were trying to touch them with a lit cigarette; they are staying on the ground but doing everything they can to back away.
Bending the arms, extending the back, and dropping the head are all examples of compensations for not finding the proper position. All you are doing here is reinforcing bad technique and neglecting the muscles that need to be prepared for the workout. For every person I see perform a deadlift with a completely rounded back, I can probably find someone blasting through their thoracic spine mobilizations like getting them done quicker is just as good as doing them right. (Or maybe they really want to get home soon for The Walking Dead? In which case I almost let it slide).
If you still think activating the right muscles and mobilizing a joint are useless, the squat with a plate held at arms length goes a long way to proving my point. Nearly everyone I have assessed who can't maintain a proper lumbar position when squatting instantly improves when holding a weight out in front of them. Why? Because it activates the anterior core, controls hip internal rotation and teaches them to sit back. One simple drill activates a muscle, makes a joint more mobile and ingrains proper positioning.
And oh, by the way? Improving just feels good. Don't tell me you haven't improved on squats, pushups or deadlifts in an entire year when you are completely ignoring your warmup. If you can't do a body-weight squat correctly, how on earth would you expect to do it with weight on your back? When you do your warmup the right way, you will feel confident and prepared for the workout. You'll know you can get into good positions and maintain them.
Hearing and Listening are NOT the Same
That last part wasn't to guilt you into thinking any lack of progress in the gym is directly your fault but hopefully it encourages you to be more mindful. In all honesty, there was a time when I considered my warmup a waste of time and energy. Maybe I'd bang out 12 hip circles on one side and then 10 on the other....after all, 10 is basically 12, right? I wish this were a joke but my first couple years in the gym were largely wasted, from the moment I started warming up until the moment I left. This is a trap a lot of people fall in, they show up and put the same time in as others, on compound exercises, maybe even burn the same number of calories (if that's your thing) but don't get a great training effect because they don't use good form.
What I've noticed is that most people listen to about the first 5 seconds of your description of an exercise and then tune the rest out. They get the general picture but miss the fine points that make the exercise successful. At its most general, a squat is basically sitting down with a bar on your back, but have you seen the way some people sit on chairs? Some people dive bomb like they are going to pull a parachute to slow them down before they hit the seat. So, even sitting down means different things to different people.
During a typical explanation of quadruped extension/rotation most people hear these three cues:
- On hands and knees
- Touch elbow to elbow
- Aim your armpit to the ceiling
However, it takes a little more effort to listen to the finer points:
- Follow your elbow with your eyes
- Get all of your movement from your upper back
- Keep the lower back flat
- Arms stay straight
The first three get us in the general area of what we are looking for and there are definitely some who intuitively find the correct positioning, so that may be all it takes. But the finer points can make a difference between gaining come thoracic mobility and flapping the arm like you might take flight.
In writing this last part, it reminded me of a situation where I had to go to the Emergency Dept. because I was bit on the chest and wrist by a dog. The nurse admitted me and checked my pulse, pupils, blood pressure and sign of excessive bleeding. She then checked my hands and they were cold and my knuckles were red. She started to say to another nurse that I may have slight shock and they were discussing what to do. I had to repeat several times that my hands are ALWAYS cold and my knuckles are often red. They heard me but didn't really listen. What could have been taken as something far more serious just happened to be a coincidence. For most people cold hands might have been the sign of something more serious but for me it was business as usual; the point being they heard me before they listened and it affected the situation.
I am saying dog attack = warmup? (No, but being chased by a dog would probably get you pretty warmed up, so maybe I'll work it into my next training session). The point being that details affect the outcome, not matter the situation.
Making it Work for You
Some things to consider next time you are preparing for a workout:
- Where are you feeling it? Ask the coach (if it happens to be me) where you are supposed to feel it.
- Play with positioning. When someone says flat lower back, move a bit into flexion, then extension so you can actually feel what neutral is between the two.
- Slow down. Most warmups need to be deliberate, slowing down also helps give you more feedback of your positioning.
- Brace the core. MANY warmup exercises demand good core control to keep from compensating elsewhere. Providing stability here allows you to work the intended areas correctly.
- Practice. 5 reps once a week just won't cut it. 8-12 reps a few times a week is better. Try it at home everyday, it only takes a few minutes. Gaining mobility and stability is always a good thing.
- Carry-over. Remember how you needed to get your chest up and hips down for squat to stands? A goblet squat is similar; feel the same positioning here and it will likely result in one fine looking goblet squat.
Possibly the most important point here it to ask for help and/or further explanation. Understanding what you are doing and why you are doing it can help connect the dots. Warmups should be relatively (based on the limits of the training session) specific if not very specific if you have time to train by yourself or with a small group. Keep in mind that doing an exercise twice will not “fix” some physical problem you have but takes patience and time, just like you didn't deadlift 315 or jump on a 40” box your second training session.
Be patient, be persistent and be mindful. After all, you reap all the benefit.
(Thank you again, Taylor)