I’m continually shocked by the number of people I see in community gyms, who stroll in, do a few arms circles, and a couple of bouncing pec stretches against a power rack.
Maybe a cross body tricep stretch, a lat stretch or two and boom! Let's do this. 135 lbs on the bar for bench press, not far off their max!
What are these people thinking? 🤔
"You know what I need today? An injury or a crappy workout.?..?.?"
I get that we're all time constrained and no one wants to (needs to?) warm-up the way professional athletes do but you absolutely should warm-up for your resistance training sessions.
And while it doesn't have to take you 25 minutes or include every warm-up drill you can think of off the top of your head. It should be more than a brief series of unloaded movements followed by a stretch or two.
You should absolutely warm-up before you lift!
Why Warm Up?
Let's clear up what a warm-up is first. A warm-up is the initial progressive sequence in a training session (or performance session) that typically last a minimum of a few minutes and can last upwards of maybe as long as 45 minutes!
It'd be rare for such a long warm-up to exist outside of a highly technical activity like sport performance. i.e. a powerlifting or track meet.
I often term it 'Movement Preparation' or 'Movement Prep' to provide people with a better idea of the intent. These are synonymous terms to 'Warm-Up.'
Most typically in a resistance training your warm-up will last 5-15 minutes.
It can include but is not just getting your body warm. It's preparing your body for what's about to come in the training or competition.
It is not stretching. At least not statically holding any stretches, like we used to when I was in high school. You know, hold the heel to your glute for a bit, get into a hurdler's stretch for your hammies. That sort of thing.
No. I'll discuss the time and place for that, but when I talk about warming up (or Movement Preparation) I'm talking about four specific things your warm-up should accomplish:
- Raise your core tissue temperature
- Prime the mobility you have,
- Rehearse your intended training movements
- Prepare your nervous system for what’s about to come
1) Increase Tissue Temperature
Arguably the most misunderstood element of a good warm-up.
How do I know? Well, I see it daily...
If you're not waltzing into the gym for your arm circles and some stretches first, you're hopping on a cardio machine for 3-5 minutes and throwing 135 lbs on the bar.
This might be better than no warm up, but it doesn’t do anything for the next 3 elements, unless your training session for that day is sticking to the machine you’re at. In which case, that's all the warm-up you likely need.
One study found that you might need upwards of 15 minutes of low intensity aerobic exercise (40% V02max) to increase 1RM in the leg press, but 5 minutes was about as effective as the control group that didn't warm-up. However moderate intensity aerobic activity (70% V02max) for 15 min, lead to a decrease in performance.
Another study has shown that 5, or 10 minutes on the elliptical machine didn't lead to any detriments, nor improvement in upper body performance, but might lead to a detrimental performance in the lower body. Possibly because the elliptical is weight-bearing? Or the intensity was too high?
Choose your method wisely...
In any case, simply doing cardio before a workout leads to no additional injury prevention on it’s own. Whereas a warm up like the FIFA 11+ has been shown to reduce injury occurrence in far more chaotic athletic training environments.
Yes, FIFA 11 is specific to soccer, not resistance training, but there are a lot of similarities worth considering. Mainly that the warm-up tools for raising body temperature, mimic the sport itself.
Increasing the extensibility of human tissue via thermal change is fairly reliable and useful prior to motions calling for strength, fatigue tolerance or power.
Yet lifting weights is not walking, cycling, rowing or the elliptical. These tools can succeed at raising your core temperature but the specificity of these movements does not adequately prepare you to lift.
If you want to warm-up for resistance training then your movement selection should mimic (to some degree) what you are planning on doing later in the training session. Otherwise, you're warming up for a cardiovascular training workout, not resistance training.
If a cardiovascular modality appeals to you and has worked for you in the past, great. You can still do your 2-5 minutes, but I would give serious consideration to adding more specificity to the next part of that warm-up. I will also make a strong case for dropping it entirely to save you time before this article is done.
2) Prime The Mobility You Have
A point of distinction is priming the mobility you currently have, not creating a level of mobility you would like.
The warm-up should not be viewed as an opportunity to actively increase flexibility or mobility. Leave that work for after the workout, as part of the cool-down, or as a separate session.
The adaptation for improving mobility (or flexibility) is different from the adaptation you're seeking from the resistance training.
It's unlikely you'll invoke any meaningful flexibility or mobility changes within that 5-15 minute warm-up period and still be capable of achieving the other three things your warm-up should accomplish.
Instead, your warm-up should establish proprioception for the range of motion you currently possess. You want to prime that combination of stability and mobility within the range of motion you expect to need in the workout itself.
This will permit more efficient control of what your tissues are already physiologically capable of. Effectively what I'd call stability. Stability is control in the presence of change.
Your choice of exercise(s) or drills in your warm-up should serve as a rehearsal, a proprioceptive reminder if you will, of a previously acquired skill.
3) Rehearse the Intended Movements
This is ultimately and arguably the most crucial element that the majority of you have historically skipped.
Early in each training session you are neurologically fresh. Meaning there is very little fatigue that has been accumulated in any given muscle group. This makes the warm-up the ideal opportunity for practicing movements.
Arm circles and some shoulder stretches obviously aren't even close to bench pressing. Yes, they would move some of the same muscles involved but in a non-specific way. And you likely don't need any of that range of motion to implement a horizontal pressing action.
Rather than jumping right into 135 lbs, which is the weight you can handle for 3 sets of roughly 8, you want to 'work-up-to-it.'
This might mean some practice reps with just the barbell and then slowly adding some weight for additional 'warm-up sets' until you get to 135 lbs.
But I prefer to start with about half of the weight you expect to be working with and work up. At a minimum I'd do one more warm-up set with about 75% of your anticipated "working weight."
Your working weight is the resistance you'll be using to complete your 3 sets of 8 or 3 sets of 5, or whatever your set/rep sequence might be. In this example 135 lbs. The term "working weight" distinguishes between your warm-up weights and the sets that 'count.'
Here's how that looks for a 135 lbs working weight:
- Warm-Up Set #1: 70lbs
- Warm-Up Set #2: 105 lbs
Is that ideal or perfect for everyone in every resistance training situation? No...
But it's a good starting point for many of you who don't use warm-up sets.
Of note, this can shift the "warm-up" outside what many of us would normally consider the "warm-up." A warm-up does not need to exclusively happen in the first 10 minutes of your training session. Warm-up sets can happen at other places your training session.
If you had a fairly technically demanding exercise towards the middle of your training session, you may want to implement a similar warm-up protocol just before doing that exercise.
If you needed to use a weight considerably higher than 135 lbs (say 315 or 405 lbs?), then you might want double or even triple the number of warm-up sets and a slower progression.
If you needed a high speed exercise like throwing a med ball or jumping, then you'd use effort increases (50% of max effort, 75% of max effort, etc...) to effectively warm-up for those types of exercises.
And I'm not sure you need much (if any) warm-up practice for most isolation exercises like curls, lateral raises, calf raises, leg curls, etc...etc...
They just don't have high neurological demands and are more typically used later in a training session anyway after you're fairly prepared for them.
Truth be told, I can't really give you the specifics of what to rehearse without also knowing what your training session will entail. Making it difficult to pre-package a recommended warm-up sequence that applies to any and all resistance training situation. That's why I'm talking broad principles.
I have plenty of ideas about warming up that I plan to share in a follow up on how to warm-up for resistance training, this is just the why for now.
Needless to say you should probably have some kind of bodyweight or alternative exercise variation (maybe some alternative tools) to your primary training session exercises somewhere in your warm-up.
These movements can be progressed from unloaded to loaded, or from slow to fast, and ultimately enhance performance in your workout by improving neurological function progressively.
4) Prepare the Nervous System
It's a bit challenging to adequately describe this in layman's terms.
CNS = Central Nervous System, which is a popular acronym in the fitness training world. Your CNS is effectively your brain, brainstem and spinal cord.
Your CNS governs your PNS (Peripheral Nervous System), or the nerves in the rest of your body that aren't part of the CNS. Making the CNS sort of the boss of your nervous system.
Your CNS sends the signal to your your PNS, and your PNS carries out the local transaction at the motor unit level at the muscular level.
When you've practiced something well it can become almost instinctual. That's because that kind of signal bypasses your brain and can be instantiated at the spinal level.
When you haven't practiced something well enough, your brain has to be involved in the process. We call this 'motor learning.'
Motor learning is specific to the intent of your training. Meaning it changes based on:
- the speed of the action
- the complexity of the action (remember that isolation exercises are easier to just do without warming up than more complex movements?)
- the plane of action (force vectors, sagittal, frontal or transverse actions)
- closed vs open interpretation loops (closed loops are pre-defined movements, open loops are reactive and more commonly seen in chaotic environments like most team sports)
- training history (more advanced/exposed trainees have a bigger movement pool to draw information from)
- And so on...
Rehearsing movements that are similar to the training movements, is like making newer better highways or repairing old ones. You improve their ability to manage more traffic with fewer problems, in any case.
You can think of preparing the nervous system for activity as widening a highway opening more lanes or reducing traffic volume on an existing highway. The more weight you can move, the more complex a movement, the more open loop it is, or the faster you can move it, the wider that highway needs to be, the more lanes are open or less traffic is competing on the road available.
People with better training history have wider highways built, or more open lanes or they can easily reduce traffic.
Any of those metaphors work.
You might start your first warm-up drill with a 2 lane highway and plenty of other traffic, but by warm-up drill number ten you're on the 401 (an 18-lane highway in Toronto, Canada) with very little traffic to slow you down.
By warming up with a sensible approach you're potentiating (increasing) your ability to crush your workout. You'll likely reduce injury potential in doing so, but performance improvements are the main gain.
Are you a bad person because you didn't know any of this?
Of course not!
It's my job (and people like me) to help educate you on the rationale for certain ideas as they pertain to fitness.
Warming up well is about a lot more than doing a few stretches before you lift. It isn't just hopping on a piece of cardio equipment and hitting the weights.
Those 5 minutes are likely better spent on preparing or rehearsing movements, or related movements to what you plan to do in your resistance training session. This more adequately prepares your body for the specificity of the stress you plan to apply.
When that specificity is applied we see reductions in injuries and improvements in performance. And yes, it could be as little as 5 minutes but you might want to do more if you have the time. All of this leading into an article I've had in the draft pile for quite some time.
*Hat tip to Mark Verstegen who simplified this framework nearly two decades ago.