Optimizing Your Warm-Up
Today’s post comes to you fresh off a long hiatus from writing for me that involved my wife and I having our first baby! Combine that with a busy summer and fall, and little time was left for writing about random fitness things.
However, I’ve had many ideas floating around inside my head, and one of them is with regard to optimizing the warm-up. I feel like the warm-up routine is one of the most underused tools of a good training routine, and with a proper warm-up routine in place, you can set yourself up for not only a great workout, but also a lifetime of good movement! So today I’ll dive into some discussion on what makes for an ideal warm-up and how you can optimize your routine to make it the best for you. Read on to find out more…
Walk into most gyms and there’s one thing that you’re almost certain to see: Nobody doing a proper warm-up! Instead, what you’re much more likely to see is some guy who walks in the door, puts his gym bag down, walks right over to the bench press area, lays down on the bench and begins to bench press his body weight. That can hardly be considered an adequate warm-up!
Unfortunately, similar scenes to the one described above play out every day in gyms around the world. People who don’t know what they’re doing in the gym tend to jump right into their favorite exercise without even a hint of a warm-up. At best, you may see someone hop on the treadmill or elliptical for 5 minutes before walking over to that bench press.
What they don’t fully understand is that a complete warm-up will help them to stay injury free. What’s more, a complete warm-up will help them to be more successful in the gym. That’s because going in cold to a strength exercise, like the bench press, does not allow the muscular system to get primed and ready for heavy loads. Taking the time to go through the warm-up serves the dual purpose of staving off injury and increasing performance. Who wouldn’t want that?
Now, while I could sit here and expound upon the dangers of not warming up, and the benefits of taking the time to go through a proper warm-up, I won’t. I’d rather spend time giving you the tools you need to go through a successful warm-up. Many people skip the warm-up, not because they’re morally against it, but simply because they don’t know what to do. I’d like to help you out with that today.
Goals of a Successful Warm-Up:
If you want to know whether or not you have a successful warm-up routine in place, you should start by considering what the goals of the warm-up are:
The warm-up should elevate your heart rate and blood flow throughout the body.
An elevated heart rate, and thus an increased rate of blood flow throughout the body leads to increased nutrient and oxygen delivery to working muscles, and speeds up the removal of waste products that are by-products of muscular contractions.
It should elevate body temperature (you know, literally warm you up!). Elevated body temperature has three main effects:
It enhances the speed of nerve impulses which tell the muscles to contract, thus making muscular contractions more efficient and powerful. Translation: That bench press gets a whole lot easier than if you hadn’t warmed up!
The higher a muscle’s temperature, the better it can contract, so a warmer muscle has the ability to produce more force than a cool muscle. Once again, making the Bench Press or any other exercise more effective.
The last effect takes advantage of the fact that temperature is one of the main factors that influences whether oxygen will bond or release from hemoglobin, which carries oxygen in the blood from the lungs to the working muscles. A lower temperature encourages oxygen to bond to hemoglobin, as is the case in the lungs where cooler air is breathed in, and hemoglobin molecules easily pick up oxygen to deliver to the rest of the body. A higher temperature encourages oxygen to be released from hemoglobin, as is seen in the core of the body and the working muscles, where oxygen is released and used by the muscles for energy. Because of this, the warmer the muscle, the more readily oxygen will be released to allow for greater and faster replenishing of energy.
It should decrease joint and muscle viscosity
Picture room temperature honey vs. honey that has been warmed up in the microwave. The warmed-up honey has a lower viscosity, and thus flows much more easily. Synovial fluid in the joints works much the same way. The warmer the temperature of the body, the more easily fluid is released into the joint and lubricates the joint during motion. The result is that your joints stop creaking, crackling, and aching, and they start to move more smoothly.
Similar to the joints, gradually increasing range of motion in the muscles allows them to extend and contract more easily without risk of injury. This allows you to put out more force with the muscles without risking a strained muscle.
The warm-up provides an opportunity to work on movement limitations and weaknesses
Each person, no matter how fit they are, has movement limitations or weaknesses that can and should be addressed as part of the warm-up.
Some people need to work on their mobility and flexibility, while others need to work on muscular stability around unstable joints.
Sometimes, a specific movement pattern needs to be relearned so that optimal movement can be practiced both in the workout and in regular life.
Other times, there are postural problems that can be corrected.
The warm-up is an ideal time to work on these limitations because it’s done before every workout so there’s a high enough frequency to make the necessary changes. Working on these deficits in the warm-up also prepares the body to move at a more optimal level during the workout.
Put all of those points together – elevating body temperature, increasing heart rate and blood flow, decreasing joint and muscle viscosity, and correcting movement limitations – and you have a successful warm-up that prepares the body for optimal performance without the risk of injury. So, how do you do all that?
Well, like most things there’s more than one way to successfully warm-up, but I’ll tell you how I approach it.
When I think about warming-up, I break it down into two main categories: The General Warm-Up and The Specific Warm-Up.
The General Warm-Up:
I call the first section of the warm-up the general warm-up. The goal with this section of the warm-up is, just as the name indicates, to generally warm-up the body. To do this, virtually any activity that gets the heart rate up and the muscles moving will work. Often, a 5-10-minute walk on the treadmill, or a brief ride on a stationary bike will get the job done.
After that, I like to have most people perform a circuit of foam rolling to work on releasing tension from the muscular system and further prepping the body for bigger, more intense movement.
In some cases, I’ll have people skip the 5-10-minute bout of walking or biking and just go right to foam rolling, if I think the rest of the warm-up will be sufficient to elevate their heart rate and body temperature. In other cases, I’ll have people do the walking or biking and skip most or all of the foam rolling, especially if they can’t very easily get down on the floor and roll around on the roller. Either way, it all depends on the individual and what works best for them. The important thing is that the goals of generally warming and loosening the body get accomplished, while also getting the heart rate up from its resting state.
The Specific Warm-Up:
After the general warm-up, we move into what I call the specific warm-up. This is your opportunity to practice targeted mobility and stability drills that work to correct specific limitations for each individual. I also like to give my clients movements that will help to prepare their bodies for the specific challenges of the workout that day, whether that’s squatting or deadlifting heavy weights, performing plyometric and agility drills, running, or any other kind of workout routine.
Because I am certified in the Functional Movement Screen (FMS), I tend to use the results from my client’s screens to help drive my approach to correcting movement limitations. For example, if there is a shoulder mobility or active straight leg raise deficit on the FMS, I’ll focus on correcting that deficit with exercises designed to improve shoulder mobility and straight leg raise mobility. Whereas, if there is a deficit in the Trunk Stability Push-Up screen, then I will utilize core stability and push-up correctives to improve that deficit.
Now, while it’s always optimal to use a movement screen like the FMS to develop individualized warm-up routines, there are many cases in which a more general approach will get the job done. In fact, we know that different joints in the body often have the same common needs, regardless of the individual. This is because the anatomy of each joint throughout the body dictates what the job of that joint is. Based on a thorough understanding of the anatomy of the different joints in the body, we can develop a mobility and stability routine that targets each joint’s need.
In addition to understanding the anatomy of the joints, it also helps to understand common postural tendencies of different populations. For example, people who sit at a desk all day will often present with common postural tendencies, and people who stand all day will often present with different tendencies. On top of that, athletes will present with unique postural tendencies based on the demands and repetitive movements involved in their sport.
The joint-by-joint approach – discussed in more detail in this article – developed and popularized by Gray Cook and Mike Boyle, is based on this idea that each joint in the body tends to have specific needs, and that these needs are the same across a large portion of the population. I go back to this approach quite frequently when building warm-up routines because it encompasses all of the major joints in the body and what usually needs to be addressed at each of those joints.
The joint-by-joint approach is as follows:
Ankle–Mobility (sagittal) Knee–Stability Hip–Mobility (multi-planar) Lumbar Spine–Stability Thoracic Spine–Mobility Scapula–Stability Gleno-humeral–Mobility
Let’s take a moment to look at each of these joints and how we can address their common needs in a warm-up routine.
As you can see from the above list, the ankles tend to require more mobility in the sagittal plane. For most people, this translates to needing more ankle dorsiflexion, which is a fancy way to say that their calves and Achilles tendons are too tight, and they can’t flex their toe up towards their knee far enough. From a functional perspective, this means that with the foot planted on the ground, they can’t flex their knee forward over their toe very far without letting their heel come off the ground.
This deficit in forward ankle mobility can lead to problems up the chain as the knees and hips tend to compensate for this lack of range of motion causing poor movement mechanics. To work on this, your warm-up routine should involve some calf/Achilles stretches, and some knee over toe ankle mobility exercises.
Moving up the chain, the knee tends to require more stability. The knee is a joint that is not meant to have an excessive amount of mobility, and when it has too much mobility, it tends to get unhappy (and by unhappy, I mean painful!). The knee’s job is to simply hinge forward and backward. It’s not meant to rotate very much or move side to side.
Unfortunately, for many people there’s not enough stability at the knee joint. This is especially the case for those with a certain degree of joint hypermobility, or previous injury to the knee. In those cases, the knee joint itself (e.g. the bones, ligaments and cartilage that make up the joint) is inherently unstable. It’s structurally unsound.
However, there are also many cases where the lack of stability at the knee isn’t necessarily caused by the structure of the knee, but by a lack of stability in the muscles surrounding the knee. This is usually caused by weakness in the muscles that have a direct impact on the knee, including the quadriceps, hamstrings, and a number of hip muscles, which have a crucial impact on the stability of the knee. The bottom line is that if any of these muscles are especially weak, they cannot stabilize the knee upon impact with the ground, and misalignment at the joint occurs.
So, when it comes to training for knee health, your best bet is to ensure that there is adequate strength, not only of the quadriceps and hamstrings, but often more importantly of the hip muscles. In particular, focus on the hip muscles that create hip external rotation and hip abduction, and control against hip internal rotation and adduction. These muscles control against valgus (inward) movement of the knee during movements like walking, running, squatting, and any other lower body activity. If those muscles are weak or inhibited, then the knee tends to take the brunt of it, and some pain on the inside/anterior portions of the knee can develop.
Exercises like a Side-Lying Clam (with or without a band around the knees), or a Band-Resisted Side Step work well to train these muscles:
Band-Resisted Side Steps:
Going from the knee to the hip, we once again encounter a joint that tends to require greater mobility. The hips are the first ball and socket joint that we come to while moving up the chain. The structure of this joint dictates that it is supposed to move through a larger range of motion in multiple planes. The hips can flex, extend, abduct, adduct, externally rotate, and internally rotate. That’s a lot more than the knee which mainly just flexes and extends!
Unfortunately for many people, the hips tend to get locked down with excessive tightness and limited range of motion. Often, this is because there is instability at other parts of the body (usually the low back and the knees), and so the hips are trying to put on the brakes and make up for the unstable parts by becoming excessively stable. In other words, they’re forced to give up range of motion to make up for another joint or joints that have too much range of motion.
Because this is the case, returning the hip joint to its normal mobile state usually requires a multi-faceted approach. First, it’s important to think about why the hips are tight in the first place. If they’re tight because they’re making up for instability elsewhere in the body, then simply stretching the hips is like putting a band-aid on the issue without dealing with the root cause.
Most of the time, the lumbar spine (low back) is what becomes unstable because many people have a lack of core strength and stability. Combine that with sitting all day in a posture that promotes rolling through the lumbar spine, and bending to pick things up with poor mechanics, and this instability at the low back is perpetuated.
The hips being the joints right below the low back, they tend to lock down to provide some stability. So, many times the first thing to correct when someone presents with really tight hips is core strength and stability, along with good movement mechanics that teach people how to move through their hips and not their low back.
Once this is corrected, then hip mobility drills (when done properly!) will have a much greater impact on hip mobility, and you will be able to gain and hold onto much more mobility at the hips.
Because the hips are meant to move in many different planes of motion, doing a variety of drills that move the hips through flexion, extension, abduction, adduction, internal rotation, and external rotation can all be beneficial. The key is to determine if there is one motion that is particularly limited, or if you need greater mobility in all directions.
I love the following series of hip mobility drills by Physical Therapist, Mike Reinold to cover all of your basic hip mobility needs:
The Lumbar Spine:
Okay, so I’ve already spoiled the lumbar spine a little when talking about the hip, but only because all of the joints in the body are interconnected and depend on one another to create good movement. If there is a limitation at one joint, then there tend to be problems that arise at other joints, particularly the ones immediately above and below the effected joint in the kinetic chain.
The lumbar spine is one of the most frequently effected areas of the body by poor movement mechanics and a lack of core strength, stability, and endurance. There are many reasons why the lumbar spine may end up with problems, but usually the cause is some kind of lack of stability.
If you think about it from an anatomical perspective, the lumbar vertebrae are much larger than the thoracic and cervical vertebrae. This makes sense because they are near the base of the spinal column, so they provide much more of a structural foundation for the rest of the spinal column. Because of that, the cervical and thoracic regions of the spine are meant to have a good deal of motion available to them, while the lumber spine is meant to have very little motion.
Therefore, problems arise when we create motion through the lumbar spine instead of stability. The more mobile your lumbar spine is, the greater chance there is that you’ll be in pain there at some point.
This tells us two main things about how the body should function, and how we should train it.
Number 1, the abdominal/core muscles which are all at the level of the lumbar spine should be trained to brace and maintain stability around the lumbar spine. Core muscles that are not strong enough, cannot be engaged properly, or simply don’t have the requisite endurance lead to low back pain. Unfortunately, the way the core has been trained for many years is completely backwards. Exercises like crunches, sit-ups, side bending, and twisting motions all work to create an unstable lumbar spine, instead of promoting stability.
Number 2, the joints above and below the lumbar spine, the hips and the thoracic spine/shoulder region, should be much more mobile than the lumbar spine. People who create motion and power at their shoulders and hips while keeping their lumbar spine stable tend not to have back pain. But, stiffness through the hips and upper back/shoulders forces people to create more mobility at their lumbar spine, which leads to pain. Additionally, poor movement patterns in which people move through their lumbar spine while keeping their hips stable also lead to mobility and pain at the low back.
So, with all that in mind, we want to focus on stability in all of the core muscles without motion through the lumbar spine. To do this, we train the core muscles to brace around a neutral spine, in which it’s not bending or twisting in any direction. Exercises that resist extension, flexion, side bending, and twisting at the lumbar spine are all good choices for promoting a stable lumbar spine.
Here are a few of my favorites:
The Thoracic Spine:
As I mentioned when talking about the lumbar spine, the thoracic spine is meant to have a much greater ability to move. Unfortunately, because many people tend to do a lot of activities that force stiffness through the upper back, like sitting at a desk, driving a car, looking at their phone with shoulders rolled forward, most people lose thoracic spine mobility over time.
In order to protect the low back and also have the ability to move well through the upper body and shoulders, it is essential to promote thoracic spine mobility.
While it’s not universal, most people tend to spend too much time in a flexed/kyphotic upper back position due to the activities mentioned above. This means that they lose the ability to extend through their upper back. So, thoracic spine extension is a key movement to regain in many people.
Additionally, rotation through the thoracic spine is often limited, so it’s important to work on thoracic spine rotation in addition to extension.
The only problem that I see when many people try to work on these issues is that they fail to target the thoracic spine for mobility while maintaining stability at the lumbar spine. For example, instead of extending through the thoracic spine during a thoracic spine extension over a foam roller, they substitute extension at the lumbar spine, or the thoraco-lumbar junction. This just leads to more issues instead of helping with the problem. So, make sure when you perform thoracic mobility drills, you are bracing the core and keeping the lumbar spine (as well as the cervical spine) in a neutral position.
Here’s a good drill to work on some thoracic spine mobility while maintaining lumbar spine stability:
The scapulae, or shoulder blades, are very unique in that they sit flush on the rib cage at the level of the thoracic spine, and they connect directly to the shoulder joint because the glenoid fossa, which the upper arm attaches to, is part of the scapulae. So, the scapula has a direct effect on the shoulder, and it is directly affected by the thoracic spine.
For that reason, the scapula is the go between from the thoracic spine to the shoulder joint, and it needs a unique blend of stability and mobility. It has to be mobile enough to move with the shoulder when reaching in all directions, but it also has to be stable enough to provide a foundation for the shoulder to move on top of.
In many cases where someone presents with an issue at their shoulder, there is a tie in to the shoulder blades being unstable. When you have an unstable shoulder blade, it’s like trying to lift weights while standing on ice, the surface is unstable, so you’ll probably just fall over. Likewise, the shoulder requires a stable foundation at the shoulder blade, before it can effectively do anything that requires great amounts of strength.
A stable shoulder blade should have balanced muscular strength around it to maintain stability while under force. If there is an imbalance of muscular strength surrounding the shoulder blade, then there will be inadequate stability at the shoulder blade when a movement like a push-up, or plank is performed. This leads to things like the shoulder blade winging away from the rib cage or elevating in a shrugging motion when under load. Basically, it’s trying to find stability in the wrong way.
To promote a stable shoulder blade, we want to make sure that the surrounding muscles, in particular, the trapezius (including the upper, middle, and lower portion of the trapezius), the rhomboids, and serratus anterior muscles are equally strong. If one of these muscles is weak, then there will be an imbalance of strength around the shoulder blade.
In some cases, there will be a weakness in one of these muscles in particular, and in other cases they all may need to be strengthened to a certain degree. In any case, doing exercises like wall slides, prone trap raises, and planks can all help to promote shoulder blade stability.
The Gleno-Humeral Joint:
Finally, the gleno-humeral joint, commonly known as the shoulder joint is another ball and socket joint that is supposed to be very mobile. When compared to the hip, the socket of the shoulder joint is much smaller, so that allows for even greater range of motion.
Now, while there are numerous cases in which people have an unstable shoulder joint, it’s more often the case that the shoulder joint is not mobile enough. Many people tend to lack range of motion in shoulder rotation and especially shoulder flexion (raising the arms overhead). This shoulder flexion limitation is significant since that lack of range of motion at the shoulder joint means that they’ll need to find motion somewhere else, and that’s usually at the low back.
If you watch most people go to raise their arms overhead, they’ll often get to a certain point and then substitute low back extension and a forward head posture for shoulder flexion. This is problematic in that it can lead to issues at both the low back and the neck area since they are compensating for the shoulder.
So, working on good, pain-free shoulder flexion range of motion can be key to maintaining health throughout the body. To do this, it’s not only important to work on shoulder movement itself, but thoracic spine extension also comes into play. If you stand in a flexed forward posture with a rounded upper back, you’ll be even more limited when trying to raise the arms overhead. So, getting out of the forward rounded posture and being able to extend through the upper back is key to creating good shoulder flexion.
Exercises like the thoracic spine mobility exercises mentioned above are key as well as exercises that practice shoulder flexion while forcing the low back and neck to remain in neutral positions. Exercises like supine and back to wall shoulder flexion work well for this.
Wrapping it Up:
Hopefully now you can see why simply going right to the bench press to warm-up or hopping on the cardio equipment for 5 minutes can hardly be considered an optimal warm-up. Instead, you should spend time not only warming up the body, but also focusing on specific movement limitations and weaknesses.
Using things like the Functional Movement Screen and the joint-by-joint approach to target warm-up exercises that are right for each person can go a long way in developing good movement quality. This also allows each person to better prepare their body for the task at hand, whether that’s performing in a sport or going through a workout.
So, the next time you go into the gym, take a minute to plan out what you’ll be doing for your warm-up. Don’t just jump on that bench press or hop on the treadmill. Instead, spend some time foam rolling and working on movement drills that will help you move better during your workout and in everyday life.
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