Look around your gym and you’ll see a lot of bad warm-up routines.
People often walk-around for a while. They’ll chit-chatt, maybe copy whatever stretching move looks popular that day, then they’ll jump right into the workout. That’s alright exercise, I guess, but it’s nowhere close to optimal.
Likewise, I have so many people tell me that they don’t need to warm-up. They prefer to save their energy for the workout. I can understand they feel alright for now, but if you fail to warm-up properly then you won’t ever experience the immediate performance benefits. Even worse, it’s likely that your longevity in the gym is going to suffer because of it.
You need a good plan. To get stronger you have to lift progressively heavier barbells with intent and purpose. To do that well you must prepare, so warm-up with the intent of improving the quality of your training sessions.
Apart from sleeping and eating enough, this is the easiest way to make progress.
General warm-up guidelines
At my gym we usually take about 20-30 minutes to warm-up. Here’s a quick rundown of what is addressed before every training session:
- 5-10 min: Literally get warm with aerobic movement
- 5-10 min: Mobility and stability work
- 5-10 min: Rehab, preventive exercises for weaknesses
- 2-10 min: Grease the Groove
- 2-5 min: Easy repetitions with an empty barbell before training
You can be as creative or boring as you want to be with this warm-up template. Often, especially for beginners, it’s a good idea to start simple.
You may do the exact same warm-up every day for a month. In fact, I recommend giving that a try. You’ll be surprised how much you’ll improve by just adding 10-15 min of focused, consistent work every day.
1. Stimulate the sympathetic
You may see some people sit down and stretch right when they get to the gym. They might roll around for a while on a foam roller or lacrosse ball. Again, the intent is good, but these are activities that stimulate the Parasympathetic Nervous System.
This system regulates feeding, digestion, breeding behavior, basically everything you might do during rest. We obviously DON’T want to do that before trying to lift heavy or move fast. We want to stimulate the Sympathetic Nervous System, which is responsible for regulating our “Fight or Flight” response. This is how we get ready to attack threats, which in this case is a tough workout.
An proper aerobic warm-up can be as simple as rowing, biking, running or jumping rope for 5-10 min. Just gently elevate your heart rate, increase blood flow, and break a sweat. Vary the movement by mixing in things like bear and crab crawls, Turkish get-ups, light kettlebell swings, the list is endless. Like I said, in the beginning just keep it as simple as possible. Once you get comfortable feel free to get creative and try different things.
Just keep it short and aerobic.
Learn more about how to program strength work and metcons
2. Address both mobility and stability
I’m a big fan of including warm-up exercises that improve both mobility and stability.
It’s pretty common to find athletes who are plenty strong, but they lack flexibility in some key position. It’s great to then work some specific mobility drills to improve range of motion, but you’re going to expose a new weakness when you do this. After all, you’ve never exerted force at all really through this range. Before you can do that you need to achieve stability.
For proper mobility/stability progression let’s consider the really common example of a tight thoracic spine with limited shoulder flexion. I like to start with thoracic extensions while laying across a rumble roller. Next, we’ll do some shoulder distraction exercises with a band to loosen the shoulders up and promote range of motion. After we work on mobility for a while I like to address shoulder stability with kettlebell windmills and arm-bars, also plenty of handstand walks and holds.
3. Address weaknesses with isolation work
My first priority is to work complex activation and stability exercises like the windmills and handstands in order to get the whole system prepped and ready to work. That said, you very well might have an injury history or weakness that requires some more specific work.
Keeping with our example, this is a good time to “prime” the shoulder with raises, pulls to the face, external rotation drills, etc. Just be careful not to fatigue the smaller muscles. That could expose your shoulder to injury later on during heavy lifting.
Use dumbbells, kettlebells, medicine balls or small plates. Whatever you have. If you can get a hold of a system like Crossover Symmetry then do so, especially if you are working with groups. Having some dedicated, weighted, multi-purpose bands for this work makes it quick and easy.
4. Grease the groove
This is a technique presented by Pavel Tsatsouline in his book Power to the People.
The idea is to train and improve a particular motor pathway efficiently, without inducing fatigue or muscle damage. Think of it as high-quality practice for movements that you need to improve.
Some great options might include:
- Toes to bar
- Push press
- Overhead squats
- Box jumps, etc.
Generally speaking, we want to stay around 50% effort during these greasing sets. The work should be easy, but still give it maximal focus. Make sure you execute each repetition efficiently and with intent.
After you complete this practice you can move right into your programmed strength work or WOD.
Here are some sample warm-ups for reference.
One is harder than the other, but both include all of the key components we’ve discussed. Keep it simple. Start light with a few repetitions and build from there.
I think it will make a big difference in your training.
- 7 min of
- 30 seconds of bike @ 75% effort
- 30 seconds easy spin
- T-Spine mobility on roller for 2 minutes
- Couch stretch, hip flexor stretch for 2 min/leg
- Overhead squat hold at bottom position – 3 x 10 seconds perfect hold
- 3 sets not for time:
- 5-8 Ring rows, focus on squeezing scaps in the back
- 20 seconds of front leaning rest on floor or on the Rings, focus on tight core and externally rotated shoulders
- 10 Perfect air squats
- 2 sets @ easy pace:
- Row 2 minutes
- Bike 2 minutes
- T-spine mobility on foam roller – 2 minutes total
- Banded hip external rotation atretch – 2 min/side
- 2 sets of 3 kettlebell arm bars, slow and steady focusing on getting deeper into that stretch every rep
- 3 rounds not for time:
- 3-5 Unbroken muscle-ups
- 8-12 Toes to Bar
- 40 Unbroken double-unders
A photo posted by Faction Strength&Conditioning (@faction_sc) on
A final note
Remember, as you work on mobility and activation always test and retest along the way, before and after the drills. You should see improvement after each step. If you don’t, try a different exercise or ask a pro to check you out.
Train hard, stay warm.
- Mike McElroy is a competitive athlete, Barbell Shrugged Program Coach, and Head Coach and Owner of Crossfit 27:17.
- Barbell Shrugged is putting together a Weightlifting team. Learn more and get a free training guide HERE.
- Learn how to improve mobility and performance with the Maximum Mobility Seminar.