Some people really overcomplicate their warm-ups.
I’m not sure if this is a global trend, or just isolated to Japan, but I get questions in the comments about it often enough that it makes me think we have a worldwide issue.
Take the gym I train at as an example. They’ve just expanded the matted flooring area for stretching due to such popular demand. It’s now not uncommon to find an equal number of bodies lying on there as there are down the iron end of the gym.
Do they all have issues that require a 30-minute complex of body pretzeling before hitting the weights?
I think not.
The majority are just mimicking others, avoiding getting the real work done.
I’m going to throw out a hot take here: if your warm-up takes you longer than 15 minutes, you’re doing it wrong. Almost certainly, you’ve got some unnecessary stuff in there, unless you have some unique issues.
How To Warm Up
Here’s the low-fuss version of how to warm up (and how I do it myself).
1. Do some light cardio until you break a sweat.
I do 6.5 km/h on a 7-degree inclined treadmill. This takes me ~5 minutes in summer, ~8 minutes in winter, and it passes in the blink of an eye as I answer Instagram comment trolls. The increase in body temperature will help with blood flow, flexibility, and reduces injury risk.
2. Stretch any tight areas as necessary to gain a full range of motion.
You may find that you can skip this. Many people will find that performing a few warm-up sets will work to stretch them sufficiently well. If you feel a difference from using a lacrosse ball or foam roller for ‘myofascial release,’ feel free, but don’t spend so long on the floor doing it that you get cold.
3. Perform as many warm-up sets as is needed so that you’re ready for your working sets; avoid being fatigued in a way that detracts from them.
This will typically be 2–4 warm-up sets for the squat, bench, deadlift, and similarly complex compound exercises.
Once a muscle group is warm (you’ve already trained it in that session), typically just the one warm-up set is sufficient. This will also help build the ‘mind-muscle connection.’ So, for example, if you’ve already squatted and your next exercise is the leg press, one warm-up set will likely be sufficient, assuming you’re familiar with that piece of equipment. Similarly, if you’ve just done a set of chin-ups, you don’t likely need more than one warm-up set for your rows.
Keep it simple. Add something in only when necessary to get the job you came to the gym for, done.
For a more detailed look at warming-up, here’s an excerpt from my book with Dr. Eric Helms and Andrea Valdez.
The Purposes of A Warm-Up
The purposes of a warm-up are to prepare you for the training to come, potentially enhance the performance of training, and also to hopefully reduce the risk of injury.
One of the primary mechanisms by which a warm-up provides these benefits is an increase in body temperature, which has beneficial physiological effects that include increasing muscle blood flow and oxygen availability and also increasing the speed and sensitivity of the neuromuscular system 1.
While static stretching to enhance flexibility has been traditionally performed as a part of a warm-up, stretching to the point where flexibility is increased acutely prior to training can reduce muscular performance 2 3 4.
If you think about it, making a muscle-tendon unit more compliant and forcing it to ‘relax’ so that it elongates, intuitively seems to conflict with the goal of making it contract against heavy loads.
Does Stretching Reduce Performance?
However, you could make an argument that this reduction in performance may be worth it, since static stretching has also been proposed to reduce the risk of injury. Unfortunately, the data on whether or not static stretching reduces the occurrence of injury is mixed at best 5 6 7.
The likelihood that static stretching reduces the risk of injury is inconclusive, and if it does, it likely does not reduce injury risk to any greater degree than an active or ‘dynamic’ warm-up.
However, even if static stretching does not provide any additional benefit in regards to injury prevention from what is provided by a dynamic warm-up, there may be some individuals who find it necessary to improve flexibility prior to training in some cases. For example, if inflexible calves prevent the completion of a full range of motion squat without coming up onto the toes or causing premature ‘butt wink’ before you reach depth, it may be advisable to attempt to increase calf flexibility prior to training.
Other examples exist such as, tight pecs or shoulders preventing pain-free positioning of the bar during low-bar squats, or tight triceps and forearms preventing pain-free positioning of the bar during front squats. In these cases, static stretching prior to training may be a consideration despite the potential to reduce the performance capability of the stretched muscle.
There are some ways to work around this potential conundrum. First, if you need to increase the flexibility of a muscle group for exercise performance but you aren’t training that muscle (such as the pecs and delts during low bar squats), feel free to statically stretch the muscle as this won’t degrade performance.
Increasing Flexibility Without Compromising Performance
However, if you need to enhance the flexibility of a muscle group you are going to train, you have a few options:
- You can stretch for a short period of time (less than 60 seconds), and not to the point of discomfort as this appears to prevent any decrease in muscular performance. However, this is also unlikely to improve your flexibility very much.
- You can perform foam rolling, AKA ‘self-myofascial release’ (not that this is actually ‘releasing’ fascia) on a muscle group, which has been shown to increase the range of motion without decreasing force production 8.
- You can perform a dynamic, sport-specific warm-up (which we will discuss in a moment) after static stretching which will likely negate any performance decrement due to static stretching 9.
Finally, let’s clearly define what should be done for a complete warm up.
What Should Be Done For A Complete Warm-Up
Arguably the most reasonable recommendation for a complete warm-up is to perform submaximal-intensity aerobic activity followed by general dynamic movement prep and then finish with sport-specific dynamic activities.
The purpose of the submaximal aerobic exercise is to aid in increasing body temperature; however, personally, I find this a bit redundant as a full-body dynamic movement prep also serves this role. With that said, if you find you are slow to warm up, or if you exercise in a cold environment feel free to include it.
The full-body dynamic warm-up should consist of a full range of motion, explosive movements to prepare you for the high force output resistance training to come, that in totality incorporate the entire body. Unlike static stretching that has the potential to degrade performance, a dynamic warm-up has the potential to improve it.
Finally, as a strength or physique athlete, the ‘sport-specific’ warm up simply consists of your warm-up sets on each lift.
Below is a sample warm up to perform before training (feel free to modify it to your own preferences, there is not one “magic” warm up):
Working Set Rep Target 1–5
Working Set Rep Target 6+
|Set 1||5–10||Bar if applicable (optional)||Set 1||8||50% Working Weight|
|Set 2||5||50% Working Weight|
|Set 3||4||60% Working Weight||Set 2||4||70% Working Weight|
|Set 4||3||70% Working Weight|
|Set 5||2||80% Working Weight||Set 3||2||90% Working Weight|
|Set 6||1||90% Working Weight|
If you have found this helpful, you might be pleased to know it is just a small section taken from our Muscle and Strength Training Pyramid book. The second edition, along with the Nutrition companion book, was released this January 3rd, 2019.
Join 16,000+ other readers, get your copies here.
Thank you for reading. Questions welcomed in the comments.
» Reference List
- Shellock, F.G. and W.E. Prentice, Warming-up and stretching for improved physical performance and prevention of sports-related injuries. Sports Med, 1985. 2(4): p. 267-78.
- Kay, A.D. and A.J. Blazevich, Effect of acute static stretch on maximal muscle performance: a systematic review. Med Sci Sports Exerc, 2012. 44(1): p. 154-164.
- McHugh, M.P. and C.H. Cosgrave, To stretch or not to stretch: the role of stretching in injury prevention and performance. Scand J Med Sci Sports, 2010. 20(2): p. 169-81.
- Behm, D.G. and A. Chaouachi, A review of the acute effects of static and dynamic stretching on performance. Eur J Appl Physiol, 2011. 111(11): p. 2633–51.
- Witvrouw, E., et al., Stretching and injury prevention: an obscure relationship. Sports Med, 2004. 34(7): p. 443-9.
- Pope, R.P., et al., A randomized trial of pre-exercise stretching for prevention of lower- limb injury. Med Sci Sports Exerc, 2000. 32(2): p. 271-7.
- Amako, M., et al., Effect of static stretching on prevention of injuries for military recruits. Mil Med, 2003. 168(6): p. 442-6.
- MacDonald, G.Z., et al., An acute bout of self-myofascial release increases range of motion without a subsequent decrease in muscle activation or force. J Strength Cond Res, 2013. 27(3): p. 812-821.
- Taylor, K.L., et al., Negative effect of static stretching restored when combined with a sport specific warm-up component. J Sci Med Sport, 2009. 12(6): p. 657-61.