If you would have asked my 10 or even 2 years ago what I did to warm up before lifting I would have said either nothing or a few warmup sets before my working sets.  Looking back I believe that this approach is about as useful man with no arms with an itchy ass.

Although there is some validity to doing a few warmup sets I was missing other and potentially more significant aspects.  For one I was only randomly stretching in between sets which I found out years later would cause much male patter tightness from doing heavy bench and leg presses.  The other key ingredient I missed out on was any time of mobility work to help ensure I maintained proper stability and range-of-motion (ROM).

A great analogy to skipping a proper warmup would be starting your car in the dead of winter and hopping on the highway without giving it adequate time to warm up.  It’s a good idea to let the oil circulate and start down the road slow before taking off like a bat out of hell.

I believe that only temporary success can be achieved by taking shortcuts.  To that extent I have put together the 3 Ms of a good warmup:

  1. Movement
  2. Mobility
  3. Muscle Activation (Stability)

“To be ignorant of motion is to be ignorant of nature.” – Aristotle

Gray Cook wrote in his book Athletic Body in Balance that modern science tells us that the brain does not recognize individual muscle activity-it doesn’t need to.  Instead, the brain looks at movement patterns and creates coordination between all the muscles needed.

Movement defines us as humans and athletes and yet we are moving less and less.  We sit at during our commute, sit at a desk at work then go home and sit on the couch to watch prime time T.V. and Sports Center.  Even worse are those who make the effort to go to the gym then sit down on the machines and bikes.  No wonder your hips are tight, your back hurts and your ass is flat and/or fat.

Isolation is all fine and dandy for gaining size and strength but the goal of training should be to improve how the body moves as well.  At the very least we should get the body moving in multiple ways to counteract all the sitting that we do all day.  Allowing your body to move before your workout (whatever it may be) is an integral part to warming up muscle tissue which has been shown to help prevent injury and increase the effectiveness of your workout.

This leads right into the next component which is mobility. Mobility can be described as freedom of movement through the intended movement or exercise without restrictions with strength and stability.  Your body is designed for mobility and due to a mostly sedentary lifestyle, muscles such as your hamstrings and hip flexors become tight and restricted.  Dynamic stretches and mobility work will help these muscles return to their original length to aid in posture, correct techniqe, and to help prevent injuries.

Mobility warm-ups can include soft tissue work, stretching and mobility exercises designed to increase joint ROM.  If you are not mobile during your workout, the risk for injury significantly increases.

Personally, I begin every workout by spending time on soft tissue work such as foam rolling and using other implements such as a soft tissue or tennis ball.  Not only are you enhancing the quality of the tissue but you are on the ground and moving.  Next, I include several mobility and/or flexibility exercises focusing on generally tight areas such as the hip flexors.

These exercises might include:

  • Half-kneeling hip flexor stretch or mobilization
  • Spiderman lung with overhead reach
  • Wall slides
  • Split squats
  • Leg swings

The final hallmark of a proper warm-up is muscle activation in which I will include stability work.  There are varying studies on whether or not muscle activation is necessary or even beneficial when done prior to a workout.  My own personal belief which stems from what I have seen with my own clients is that by warming up the stabilizers such as the glute medius prior to doing an exercise such as the squat will cause them to fire more efficiently.

I included stability in this category not only to make your exercise more efficient but to also aid in injury prevention.  If your smaller stabilizers are not doing their job then your prime movers are likely to take over causing a certain amount of stiffness.  If that made no sense to you then keep this in mind: if you are stiff during your workout you could end up like this guy

Some great muscle activation warm-ups include:

  • Lateral Mini-Band Walks
  • Shoulder-Tap Pushups
  • Single-Leg Glute Bridge

Overall, a proper warm-up should take anywhere from 5-15 minutes depending on your workout, time, and current abilities.  Your in the gym to move and feel better so a solid base is essential to your overall success and longevity.

Written by Steve