Pre-Workout Warm-Up Steps You Can't Afford to Skip

STACK Expert Tony Gentilcore explains why warming up properly is important for athletes and offers a 2-part program to get the job done.

Pre-Workout Warm-Up

You're a young athlete—and you actually play a real live sport, rather than just "pretending" to play one on your Xbox or PlayStation for six hours a day. You've taken it upon yourself to hit the weight room "x" times per week in an effort to get bigger, faster, stronger, or to dominate your competition.

Kudos to you. If I could give you a high-five right now, I totally would. Anyone who's more interested in their Deadlift performance than how fast they can send a text message is cool in my book.

That said, despite your hard work and dedication, you're in a bit of a funk trying to figure out why you're not getting the results you want.

Chances are you may be glossing over the most important component of all—the warm-up.

Not warming up properly, Part 1 (Yes, there are two parts. And yes, you're going to read them both)

When most people think of a well-rounded, bulletproof program, they think of optimal set/rep schemes, rest intervals, exercise selection (and in what order), and of course, how many days per week they should train given their goals.

It's interesting, though, that the last thing to enter the discussion—although it is arguably the most important—is the first thing that most athletes tend to dismiss altogether: the warm-up.

Yeah, yeah I get it. You're in too much of a rush, and warming up is about as exciting as watching paint dry, or worse: Twilight.

But even if you're one of the few who actually takes the time to warm up, all those hamstring stretches, arm circles and endless laps around the track aren't doing you any favors (despite conventional wisdom). Taking the time to warm up properly is crucial not only for optimal performance on the field, but also for continued progress in the gym—and it serves several functions:

  • Increases body temperature.
  • Improves joint lubrication.
  • Engages the nervous system to a larger degree.
  • Improves extensibility/flexibility of muscles.
  • Grooves movement patterns.
  • Better prepares you for a back-alley fight against a pack of zombies. You know, just in case.

Given that many of us spend an inordinate amount of time hunched over a desk in front of a computer on a daily basis, the warm-up should target the areas of the body that tend to be most problematic: the glutes, hips, thoracic spine, shoulders and core, to name a few.

First is foam rolling. You can think of it as a less awesome (albeit much cheaper) way of getting a massage. It helps to address tissue quality.

As we train, practice and play sports, we tend to accumulate knots, adhesions and scar tissue in our muscles, which affect their extensibility, or ability to lengthen fully. If left unattended, these knots can become problematic and lead to muscle strains and other injuries.

Just stretching won't suffice. You can stretch until you're blue in the face, but unless you get those knots out of the way, the muscle won't be able to fully lengthen in the first place.

Check out the Cressey Performance Foam Rolling Series.

Following foam-rolling, we want to perform what's called a dynamic warm-up. Meaning, we're actually going to move rather than just stand in one spot twiddling our thumbs.

Here we address all the problematic areas noted above, but we also work through a full range of motion as well as activate and stimulate the nervous system to a higher degree.

The entire warm-up should take 10 to 15 minutes. You should break a light sweat, and you'll feel like a million bucks.

Not warming up properly (Part 2)

One of my biggest pet peeves is when I see an athlete walk up to the squat rack (or deadlift platform or bench press) and start with a low weight, then I turn around for 30 seconds, and the next thing I know he's attempting a max effort lift.

The conversation typically goes like this:

Me: Did you warm up?

Athlete: Um, yeah ... over there. [Points to foam rolling, warm-up area].

Me: OK, great, but you still need to perform like 2 or 3 warm-up (or build-up) sets before you start your actual first set here.

Athlete (looking at me as if I'm speaking Klingon or I just asked him to recite the alphabet backwards): So, wait, you mean I have to do six total sets instead of four? But my program says to do four!

Me: No, not exactly. You just need to progressively increase the weight with each warm-up set to better prepare your body for the heavier loads you use for your work sets. It's like this: Do you think your car would perform optimally if you walked out on a 20-degree day, turned on the ignition, and then ramped it up to 60 mph on the highway without first letting it warm up?

Athlete: No.

Me: The same can be said here. Much like I wouldn't walk up to a bar loaded with 500 pounds and lift it up without building up to it. First, I need to perform three to four progressively heavier sets to "wake up" my nervous system and ensure that I'm less likely to hurt myself.

Putting this into action, let's say the first exercise of the day asks for three sets of five squats at 80 percent of one's 1-rep max.

In this case, the athlete's 1-rep max is 275 pounds. So, the goal for this particular day would be to perform 3x5 at 220 pounds.

An appropriate warm-up could look something like this:

  • Bar x whatever (fewer than 1o reps) just to groove technique.
  • 95 x 5
  • 135 x 3
  • 185 x 3
  • 205 x 1 (this is the end of the "build-up" sets)
  • 220 x 5
  • 220 x 5 (this felt easy)
  • 230 x 5

Far too often, athletes make the mistake of either:

  • Performing too much volume before they start their actual work sets. Not surprisingly, they're usually exhausted before they even begin.
  • Performing too little volume, either by performing no build-up sets or taking too large a jump (e.g., going from the bar to 135 and straight to 220 pounds).

Neither scenario is ideal and will more than likely affect performance in the long run. The key is to stimulate, not annihilate, your body.

You don't need to perform the same warm-up routine with every exercise on the docket for a given day. Typically, each day should start with a "main movement" (think: Squat, Deadlift, Bench Press, Overhead Press or Chin-Up variation), in which you should follow a similar protocol.

Once you get to your accessory movements for the day (whatever is left over), you should be good to go and don't need to perform as many build-up sets. You should be able to go right into your work sets.

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Photo Credit: Getty Images // Thinkstock

Topics: WARM-UP