The Ultimate Weight Training Warm-Up Key points:
- Do your warm-up every day to battle “sticky” movement patterns from a sedentary lifestyle.
- Focus on improving mobility, then reinforcing movement with activation for stability.
- Once you finish your weight training warm-up use ascending sets to optimize lifting performance.
Performing a simple weight training warm-up daily is the key to restoring mobility, wiping out pain and dysfunction, and making pain-free progress in the gym.
Think it’s too simple to be true? Think again.
While simple doesn’t mean easy, this article breaks down why you need to warm up every day. It details what to do. And it explains how warm-ups will improve your gym performance and quality of life.
Sound good? Let’s get started with what might be your typical day.
Why You Need To Warm Up
On a typical day, you’re stuck in traffic for forty-five minutes with glazed-over, sleep-deprived eyes.
Your shoulders are slumped over your steering wheel like Quasimodo between sips of coffee. You stroll into the office as caffeine floods your system, giving you a sudden burst of energy.
You’ve plopped into your office chair to attack the ole’ inbox. Soon, you’ve inched closer to the screen, rounding your shoulders, jetting your head forward like a decrepit turtle.
Forty-five minutes later, already stiff and tight from years of sitting, you walk to the water cooler.
Next up: Meetings. Then, more meetings. Rinse, repeat, and recycle for hours on end until the day concludes.
You hit the gym (if you’re not too tired) then drive home. Oh, the joys of modern society.
The above scenario is a bit melodramatic. But you get the point. We spend most days hunched over our phones and laptops like Quasimodo examining his first Hustler magazine. Hours, days, and weeks pass.
The postural positions you spend the majority of your time in getting hard-wired into your body and becomes the new normal.
Before you know it, your shoulders curve like a banana, your head pops forward like a turtle, and your once plump ass is flatter and less active than a flaccid…pancake. Improving tissue quality, activation, and mobility takes months, not days and weeks.
Most people spend over one-third of their days sitting. It takes time to overcome the damages from sitting. Your body needs time to familiarize yourself with these new movements and realize they’re safe and improve your posture.
This leads to my key point: To undue the “locked-in” movements of everyday life, you need to move often and warm-up daily, even when you’re not exercising.
How should I warm up before lifting weights?
There are three phases to an intelligent weight training warm-up:
Mobilize, activate, and stabilize.
Mobilize and Activate
Ever notice how your muscles feel tight and uncomfortable when you’re doing a new stretch or after a long time sitting?
Tightness is rarely a case of a muscle being unable to move through a range of motion. Tightness is a neural protective mechanism from your brain telling your muscles to “slow down.” When your body can’t properly stabilize through a range of motion your body fires these signals to protect your body from injury.
The key to reducing tightness in stiff muscles isn’t as simple as doing a few stretches. You need to activate the correct muscles to provide a layer of stability so your brain turns off the brakes.
The Science Version:
Muscle spindles and Golgi-tendon organs (GTO’s) are two important proprioceptors that regulate muscle stiffness. When triggered, the GTO causes muscles to relax the contraction, a process called autogenic inhibition.
When a muscle spindle contracts the muscle slides back together, contracting and preventing the muscle from overstretching. This is the stretch reflex. Combined, these proprioceptors relay signals back to your Central Nervous System to help you stretch and mobilize safely and effectively and prevent snappin’ yo shit, as the scientists say.
To overcome your body’s natural protective mechanisms you need to first practice the movements consistently to acclimate to the stress.
Then, reinforce new ranges of motion with activation to provide support to a greater range of motion and tell your body, “this is okay.”
The combination of mobilizing then reinforcing the range of motion with activation improves movement quality for pain-free performance. Think of it with the analogy of…
As we just discussed, mobility is dictated by your brain and your ability to control a range of motion. Mobility or your ability to move a joint through a full range of motion provides a basic structural foundation for your body.
Think of your body like a tower. With your ability providing the foundation, your ability to activate and stabilize muscles and movements helps stabilize the tower while it’s being built.
Without activation and stabilization, a building topples under high winds and millions of pounds. Your body develops its own chinks and issues without a strong base of mobilized joints, active and stabilized muscles.
38997190 – two lifting crane and building under construction
Each day you’ll need to attack mobility on trouble spots. For most people, this comes down to thoracic mobility, hip mobility, and ankle mobility.
How should I warm up before lifting weights?
Every day (training or not) make it a ritual to warm up, mobilize, and activate.
Most lifters work the typical desk job, sitting in the same position for 8-12 hours a day, 300 days per year. After sitting, the muscles responsible for preventing unwanted movement and transferring force to your core are relatively deactivated. They’ve had no reason to move, so they take a nap.
This makes jumping into a similar flexed position (deadlift, squat) risky. By training the core first in the workout, you’re activating dormant muscles so you can perform safely and effectively.
If these muscles aren’t firing, how can you expect them to prevent your spine from folding like the Bills in the Super Bowl once you add heavy weight?
On off days, wake up five minutes early and do this warm-up first in the morning. If you wake up five minutes early, you have no excuse NOT to do it.
What should you do before lifting weights?
Below is my warm-up everyday protocol. Perform each exercise for one set of six reps, with exception of jumping rope.
Jump Rope/Jumping Jack/ANYTHING to get the blood flowing
Why: The goal of the first activity is to improve blood flow, and increase body temperature. I prefer the jump rope to improve coordination, footwork, and athleticism. If you play any sports or fancy yourself an athlete, the jump rope is much better than a bike.
Using the jump rope prepares the Achilles tendon for rapid contractions and teaches the core to stay rigid and transfer force without buckling like the 1-35W bridge every time you move like an athlete. S
P.S.This is purely anecdotal, but I believe there are more Achilles tendon issues with weekend warriors playing rec sports than anywhere else due to poorly prepared tissues.
Quadruped Fire Hydrant
This exercise has been a staple in my warm-ups since I learned them from Denver Broncos strength coach Loren Landow.
The fire hydrant provides a low-stress exercise to resist rotation through your spine while firing up your gluteus medius–an often neglected glute muscle essential to providing support to your hip, knee, and ankle. If you have knee issues or notice your knee diving in when you land a jump, lunge, or squat, it could be due to a weak or underactive gluteus medius.
The quadruped position has reduced lumbar loads–a metaphorical “orgasm” for your spine after sitting all day–while simultaneously improving muscle activation in your thoracic extensors, glutes, lats, and obliques (McGill, 2002).
When performing this drill imagine pushing your hands through the floor to keep your elbows locked out.
Minimize any rotation in your lower back and initiate all movement through your hips.
The goal of the quadruped fire hydrant isn’t to get the biggest range of motion possible; rather, move through a controlled range of motion and only activate the target muscles. Otherwise, you’re teaching your back to compensate for a job your spinal stabilizers should be doing.
Quadruped Hip Extension
The quadruped hip extension activates deep core stabilizers while training hip flexion (bringing your knee forward in this case) and hip extension to activate your glutes.
Many people suffer from gluteal amnesia, a term created to characterize de-activate glutes from, you guessed it, sitting on our asses all day.
Activating your glutes is crucial because your glutes are among the biggest, most powerful muscles in your body. If you don’t function properly, the role of the glutes (hip extension) will begin to be taken over by other muscles that aren’t prepared to handle the demands.
The most common examples are substituting hip extension for spinal hyperextension, causing issues with your lower back. Less obvious is the potential for your hamstrings to be overloaded due to inactive glutes.
Hip extensions will lead to less back pain and better glute activation, which can help you build bigger and more powerful glutes.
Assume the quadruped position with your spine neutral and actively pushing through the floor for the entire set.
Bring the working knee past the “down knee” into hip flexion before bringing the leg back. This pre-stretch allows a better muscular contraction during the exercise.
This drill grooves the squat pattern, aiding mobility through your hips, knees, and ankles. I recommend performing with a shoulder-width stance and NO wider.
Allow the knees to drift past the toes as long as your heels stay planted. This improves active dorsiflexion through your ankle, allowing better movement mechanics through your lower body and in particular, on squat movements.
P.S. For a more advanced option, try the goblet squat.
Do you spend a lot of time sitting and hunched over at your desk or cell phone?
The T-Push warms-up your chest, shoulders, arms, and back while engaging the core to control rotation.
This exercise will help break up the stiffness in your upper back and shoulders. As with many exercises, most lifters do t-push ups way too fast. Stay slow and controlled, following your hand with your eyes on each push-up.
Why: Lunges prepares your body for sagittal plane (front and back) movements, loosening the hip, knee, and ankle. Similar to your squat, I want you to intentionally push your knee past your toe to improve ankle mobility.
Groiner with T-Rotation
Why: Crappy hip mobility leads to back and knee issues, poor posture, and hinders your ability to stay healthy and athletic.
Use the groiner to unlock your hips and add the t-rotation to improve thoracic mobility. Make sure you keep the front heel down on each “step” to minimize shear stress on the knee.
Sumo Squat Toe Grab
Why: Keep a wide stance and allow the elbows to drop inside the hips, pushing the knees out with your elbows. This drill grooves the squat pattern, aiding mobility through your hips, knees, and ankles. You’ll loosen and warm up your glutes, hamstrings, quads, and groin.
With this movement combo, I’ve seen incredible improvements with client movement patterns, pain, and performance. But the underlying key is focus, discipline, and consistency in following the ultimate weight training warm-up.
How do you warm up for heavy weights?
Once you’ve performed the warm-up above you’re ready to jump into heavy lifting, right?
Many lifters jump directly into a “working set” in the gym. You don’t need to spend all day warming up, but you should do 2-3 ramping sets.
Let me give you an example on a bench press. Let’s say you have 3×5, or three sets of five reps on your workout and you can bench 225×5.
If you throw 225 on the bar for the first set you’ve gone from ZERO resistance to very heavy resistance. You’re not going to perform your best and your chance of injury is much higher. But if you do 135×5 and 185×5 for your first sets and ONLY one set at 225×5 the first two sets aren’t heavy enough to qualify as work sets.
Here’s a better option:
Do 2 sets of progressively heavier weight that you don’t count as work sets.
185 x5 reps.
235 x5 reps.
Here’s an example on a Romanian Deadlift:
Ascending loading schemes allow you to:
- refine technique
- reinforce coordination
- manage fatigue
- ramp the nervous system
You’ll lift increasingly heavier weights, driving your high-performance training forward. Your workouts may take slightly longer; however, they’ll be exponentially more effective. If you’re short on time, don’t skip the warm-up. Dial back volume later in the workout instead.
Weight Training Warm Up Takeaway
It’s time to treat movement like medicine. Unless you want to keel over a walker, suffer through bad-boners (bad for everyone), and live on a drug cocktail that would make Charlie Sheen envious.
It’s on us to move every day and empower lifelong movement, health, and vitality.
Hitting the gym three to five times a week isn’t enough. You need a daily movement practice to undo the sedentary lifestyle we’ve created like our ultimate weight training warm up.
I advise my army of high-performance clients to walk 10,000 steps per day regardless of their goal to improve health and have a movement practice. I suggest you do the same.
Then, do the basic warm-up above to improve movement quality, fire up dormant muscles, prime your CNS for strength, athleticism, and muscle.
If you’re looking for a proven guide to help you build your best body, grab one of SIX free guides I’ve created for you here: Bach Performance Guides
McGill S. Low Back Disorders – Evidence Based Prevention and Rehabilitation. 2nd ed. Human Kinetics; 2002
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