Like most everything related to health and fitness, there are quite a few opinions on warming up for your workouts.
Some people say it’s vital. That skipping it not only impairs your workout performance but greatly increases the risk of injury.
Others say it looks like a waste of time because it is. I mean, have you ever seen a lion “warm up” before it takes down a gazelle?
Well, both are, to a degree.
What many people do to warm up is rather pointless. You know, twenty minutes on the treadmill, followed by stretching, rubber banded twisting, hopping, and bending, and so forth.
There are much more productive ways to use that time, and that’s what we’re going to talk about in this article.
As you’ll soon see, a proper warm-up routine is an essential part of gaining muscle and strength safely and effectively.
You can take heart, too, because it’s easier and faster than you probably think. A good warm-up is short and simple, and helps you have noticeably better workouts.
So, let’s get to it.
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Table of Contents
Most people think that you warm up to make sure that your muscles don’t tear when you work out. That, by raising its temperature slightly, your muscle tissue is less injury prone.s
It seems to make sense on the surface, but how true is it, really?
We’re not big rabbits, though, which is why animal research can’t be applied directly to humans.
You see, when you work out, your body isn’t just whistling Dixie while you load it with heavier and heavier weights until it breaks. It has a complex system to manage how its muscles contract, and it involves a lot more than muscle temperature.
In other words, we don’t know if warming up muscle tissue before loading it actually makes it more resistant to injury.
Some studies indicate that it does, while others suggest otherwise. When viewed as a whole, there seems to be a slight trend toward the former position, but it’s insignificant in the bigger picture.
That doesn’t mean that warming up can’t decrease your risk of injury, though.
While warming up may not help prevent an acute injury to muscle fibers, it absolutely does help prevent injury on the whole.
The reason for this is simple: it helps you improve your technique.
If you’ve ever done any heavy compound weightlifting, you know how hard it can be to maintain proper form as the weight gets heavy.
You’ve probably felt your knees cave in while you squat, your wrists go crooked while benching, and your lower back go round while deadlifting.
These common mistakes can lead to serious injury and should be carefully avoided.
Well, one of the best ways to do this is to use warm-up sets to troubleshoot your form and “groove in” proper movement patterns.
Think of your warm-up sets as practice, which is, of course, the best way to get better at just about anything.
The more times you squat, bench, and deadlift perfectly, the more that becomes your default way to squat, bench, and deadlift. It’s that simple.
This is especially important for beginners, by the way.
When you first start weightlifting, you can get away with bad technique because you’re not strong enough to cause major damage. It’s hard to get hurt when you’re squatting half your body weight for 10 reps.
As you get stronger, though, that all changes. Weights get heavier, and poor form becomes more dangerous.
So, think of your warm-up sets as insurance against injury. If you want to get as strong as possible without getting hurt, you want to keep paying that bill.
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Studies show that a short warm-up routine can significantly boost performance levels.
Your muscle cells are powered by tiny chemical reactions that are affected by temperature, and a little warmer than normal appears to be better.
In other words, your muscles are able to contract more effectively when they’re warmer.
Warming up also increases blood flow to your muscles, which enables your body to deliver them more oxygen and nutrients that are needed for generating energy.
Basically, warming up your muscles is similar to letting your car warm up on a cold day. It works best if all the moving parts are warm and the oil is flowing smoothly.
So, that’s how warming up helps you gain strength. What about muscle?
Well, as the best way to gain muscle is to get stronger, the connection here is obvious.
The better you perform in your workouts, the better you can progressively overload your muscles over time, and the better they’re going to respond to your workouts.
It’s that simple.
You now know that warming up is worthwhile…when done correctly.
We’re going to talk more about that in a minute, but first, let’s look at the five most common warm-up mistakes that people make.
Most people think that the best way to warm up is to simply get their heart rate up.
That’s why they do things like walking or jogging on the treadmill before heading over the weights.
Well, while this may be slightly better than nothing, you now know it’s far from ideal.
The best way to get your muscles primed to do a certain exercise is…you guessed it…doing the exercise.
Anything else more or less wastes time.
This mistake usually goes hand-in-hand with the first, because many people believe they should “break a sweat” before getting into the meat of their workouts.
This is not only a waste of time, but a waste of energy, as well.
The same can be said for doing an extensive mobility routine before hitting the weights. Mobility exercises are a fantastic tool for improving form and performance, but doing twenty minutes of mobility work before stepping up to squat is silly.
This mistake includes doing too many warm-up sets on a given exercise, too.
Most people do this by starting with very light weights and slowly move up in 10- or 20-pound increments toward something heavy.
This can entail a dozen or more warm-up sets before the workout really begins, which is great for practice, but not so great for performance (by the time you get to your heavy, muscle-building sets, you’re worn out).
Doing too many warm-up sets also eats up tremendous amounts of time that can be used on other things, like working sets, accessory work, cardio, or, uh, not being in the gym.
Back pain, you say? Let’s strengthen that core.
Creaky knees? Must be core instability.
Squat problems? Not firing your core hard enough.
Exhausted halfway through your workouts? Gotta step up that plank game.
This preoccupation is silly.
Yes, you need a strong core to do many different exercises well, but that doesn’t mean you need to spend much time training it.
Studies show that any exercise takes your hips through a full range of motion, like squats or lunges, engages the core, so if you’re following a halfway decently programmed workout program, this just takes care of itself. Your core gets stronger with the rest of your body.
That said, core exercises do have one legitimate use: for bringing up your core, and especially abdominal, definition. Check out this article to learn more.
We’ve been hearing that we should stretch before exercise since elementary school gym classes.
Well, it turns out that it’s basically useless.
One of the reasons for this is many muscles and connective tissues involved in exercise can’t even be stretched, like the iliotibial (IT) band. They’re just too strong and rigid.
Stretching won’t improve your performance, either.
In fact, research shows that holding stretches longer than about 60 seconds before doing an exercise can impair your performance.
Now, one reason to include light stretching (which won’t harm performance) in your warm-up routine is if it helps you improve your technique.
For instance, if stretching your shoulders out helps you get them in the right position for your squat, then it makes sense to do it.
Some people claim that simply holding heavy weights in the beginning of your workout will improve performance.
This is known as “post-activation potentiation,” or “PAP,” and the idea is that it primes your nervous system for what’s to come.
Well, while the theory sounds interesting, there isn’t much evidence it works.
There also aren’t any standardized, evidence-based guidelines on how to do it, which means you have to just wing it and see what happens.
So, as there aren’t any clear benefits or standard methodologies, I’d say there’s no reason to include PAP in your warm-up routine.
You’ve probably already figured this out, but the key to a proper warm-up is to warm up the muscles you’ll actually be using.
Jogging on the treadmill for fifteen minutes isn’t going to help your bench press. Bench pressing will.
The same goes for any other exercise, of course.
You warm up for a squat by squatting, for a military press by pressing, for a deadlift by deadlifting, and so on.
This will help you refine your technique, reduce the risk of injury, and get more out of your working sets.
In terms of how to do it, exactly, here’s a simple and effective method of warming up for a given exercise:
- Do 12 reps with about 50% of your working (heavy) weight, and rest for a minute.
- Do 10 reps with the same weight at a slightly faster pace, and rest for a minute.
- Do 4 reps with about 70% of your working weight, and rest for a minute.
- Do 1 rep with about 90% of your working weight, and rest for two minutes.
And that’s it. You’re now ready to do your working sets.
If you’d like to include some light stretching or mobility work as well, do it while you’re resting in between your warm-up sets.
Oh and I should also mention that you don’t necessarily need to warm up for every exercise that you do in your workouts.
The idea is to warm up the muscle group before training it, so if you’re moving from one chest exercise to another, for example, you only need to warm up on the first.
A good warm-up routine improves exercise technique and performance and reduces the risk of injury.
In this way, warming up can help you gain muscle and strength faster and get more out of your workouts.
Unfortunately, most people get it all wrong.
They spend too much time warming up, do the wrong types of exercise (cardio), and often get in their own way with things like excessive stretching.
Well, if you follow the simple advice in this article, you’ll not only avoid those mistakes, you’ll reap all the significant benefits that warming up properly has to offer.