Warming Up for Strength Training - It's Not That Complicated
The warm up is often over complicated on social media and by personal trainers. Go on Instagram or Youtube and you’ll see plenty of videos titled “the perfect warmup”, that include a bunch of different stretches and activation drills that hit the full body. In most cases, this is overkill. The most important part of a warm up is just that, increasing your core body temperature. You can do this through whatever modality you prefer. Walking on a treadmill, using an elliptical, riding a bike, or sticking to lightweight exercises and rowing machines. The goal being to Increase your body temperature without tiring out the muscles you’re going to train that day. Raising your core body temperature increases blood flow, oxygen intake, the muscles ability to produce energy, and range of motion (or flexibility). Oftentimes this, along with ramping sets (gradually increasing in weight), are all you need before a workout.
Ramping Sets (Dynamic Stretching)
Dynamic stretches, as commonly practiced, are useless in the weight room. Dynamic stretches are good to prep muscles to produce explosive force, especially for athletes. But a strength trainee should use their ramping sets to replace dynamic stretching. Before lifting heavy weights, perform 1-3 sets of your main exercise for the day with light weight, increasing the weight for each set. Use a full range of motion, stretch the worked muscle at the bottom, and squeeze at the top. For example, if your main exercise of the day is stiff leg deadlifts, grab an empty barbell and do stiff leg deadlifts. Stretch your hamstrings at the bottom, squeeze your glutes at the top. Make sure your technique is perfect and you’re using a full range of motion. Add some weight, repeat 1 or 2 more times until you’re at your working weight for the day. If you notice a lack of range of motion, feel tight muscles, knots, or pain, you will want to add some steps to your warmup.
Static stretching is an extremely common pre-workout practice, but it is often misused and overdone. Many influencers and trainers teach to stretch all major muscles groups that will be used on a given workout day. This is usually overkill, and can actually be detrimental to performance in the weight room.
A stretched muscle actually loses some of it’s capability to produce force. Basically, if you stretch, you temporarily get weaker. Strength training is the time you want to be at full capacity in order to get the most out of your workout. The more weight you lift and more repetitions you accomplish, the more physical gains you will get in return. If you bench press 135 pounds for 3 sets of 10 reps, you will benefit more than from doing 3 sets of 8 reps at the same weight, given you maintain proper technique. Though static stretching can hurt performance, there is a time and place to implement the practice. Even more important than total mass lifted, is training with a full ROM (range of motion).
Static stretching should be used to increase a shortened muscles active ROM. After doing your cardio warmup you still can’t perform a full ROM on a dumbbell bench press, you need to stretch. In this case, you may need to stretch your pectoral muscles. After your warm up, stretch your pecs and you should have a slightly increased range of motion on your dumbbell press. Keep note of this, and remember to stretch your pecs in future workouts, until you can perform a full ROM without needing to stretch beforehand.
The same strategy can be used for foam rolling. As you begin to perform your ramping sets, and you feel a knot in your muscle, then foam roll that area, and keep note for your next workout to foam roll the same area. Eventually, after a few workouts, you won’t need to foam roll that area anymore if you’re performing your weighted exercises properly.
Muscle activation is a way to prevent injury and improve exercise mechanics. If dumbbell bench pressing hurts your shoulder, you may need to activate muscles that stabilize the shoulder joint. In this case, a commonly weak muscle is the serratus anterior. Do some arm circles and feel the muscle work, before doing your ramping sets. If your shoulder feels better, then keep arm circles in your routine for a few weeks. Eventually the dumbbell bench press itself will work your serratus enough, so that you don’t need activation drills anymore.
Make sure you’re not doing too much muscle activation though. If you do pec flyes to “wake up” your pecs before dumbbell bench pressing, you’re just going to wear out the muscle before you get to the main portion of your workout. This means you’ll be weaker when doing the dumbbell bench press, not perform as well, and not get as many physical gains. You should not activate the main muscle in an exercise, unless it improves technique. Muscle activation is great when used properly, but can easily be misused and detrimental to exercise performance.
Improving fitness involves learning about our bodies, finding what we’re bad at, and getting better at it. We should start with the most basic warm up, and build from there. Increase your body's core temperature by walking on the treadmill or riding a bike for 10 minutes. If you feel warm, nice job! You did it right. Next, go straight into your ramping sets for your main exercise of the day. Perform 1-3 ramping sets, move explosively, use proper technique with a full range of motion and increase in weight. If you feel a knot in a muscle, foam roll the area. If a muscle is tight and/or ROM is short, stretch the offending muscles. If your technique is poor or pain is present, perform muscle activation drills. When warming up, focus only on what will improve your workout, being mindful not to decrease your performance. Remember keep this simple, there’s no need to overcomplicate.
Side Note: I always want to leave these articles with an open discussion. If you disagree with how I interpret information, think my information is wrong, or have any questions, let me know. If you want to make a case for other processes for warming up, I’d love to hear your ideas. Open discussion is how we progress the fitness community. Many people are in their own bubble, claiming to have the magic formula. Let’s create understanding for the common goal of improving our health. And getting jacked :D