- Prepare the body for the intended activity intensity by increasing blood circulation and body temperature.
- Prepare specific movement patterns.
Most of us benefit from having a transitional period from jumping out of the car and walking into the gym. Most of us also generally feel some degree of stiffness here and there and feel better after some form of foam rolling and stretching. While this article won't be an exhaustive resource for stretching, foam rolling, and drills for a warm up, it will give you a better idea of how to make the best of your warm up and how you would want to structure one for yourself.
In the context of lifting, an extensive warm up lasting more than 15 minutes generally isn't necessary. For most people, a few bodyweight exercises such as air squats or lunge variations, push up variations, and empty barbell movements for 2-3 sets of 5-10 reps is adequate before beginning the specific warm up to work set weights with the actual exercise or movement to be trained. At the same time, some of us are too stiff to squat, pull, or press effectively without some kind of movement-focused stretching or foam rolling.
Chris and I are believers in a little soft tissue mobilization and mild stretching pre-workout. There was a time where both of us would spend a good 20-30 minutes working the stiffness out of our legs and hips before jumping into our actual workouts. And a lot of people new to lifting and exercise are going to be admittedly very stiff with limited mobility - they will need to spend at least a little time doing some basic hip, leg, and shoulder stretches for most of the movements performed in a good barbell workout. Foam rolling, while often tedious, can have a positive impact on range of motion when applied correctly.
However, too much stretching or foam rolling is not only a relatively big time investment, but it may be detrimental to your strength if done too intensively before a workout. Good foam rolling, which is a layman's term for self myofascial release, is about finding tight spots in musculature and attempting to "release" that tight musculature using controlled breathing and intentional relaxation. The same can be said for most stretching - a good stretch involves controlled breathing and "relaxing" with an exhale into the stretch.
Rationally speaking, if our goal in a warm up is to prepare our muscles to support and move heavy weights, the entirety of our warm up should not consist of stretches and soft tissue mobilizations that only relax us.
Another thing to consider is that limited mobility is not only a function of tight or stiff muscles, but may also be a symptom of weak muscles, or muscles that aren't being used correctly. The upper arm only gives us 120 degrees of flexion when going overhead - it's the movement of the scapula that makes up the difference to get us to 180 degrees (or very close to it). It's not uncommon for benching or desk jobs to reduce your scapular movement, and thus learning to use the muscles that move the scapula into better positions when going overhead like scapular push ups can make "tight" shoulders feel more mobile. Often, new lifters have trouble squatting to adequate depth with only bodyweight resistance, but when given a kettlebell or other small weight to hold in front of them, can sink deeper into a squat position as a result of adequate tension in the trunk and hips. The point is, the answer to poor positions or stiffness isn't always stretching and relaxing, and mindful usage of the right muscles can play an equally important role in good mobility and movement.
For most people, the following template would be the ideal progression for a short warm up:
- Self myofascial release (or foam rolling) first. SMR has been shown to increase range of motion by small amounts. Every little bit counts! That being said, don't spend more than a few minutes here.
- Short, mild stretches second. You will be able to stretch a little deeper with less resistance after you've done some foam rolling. As with foam rolling, you don't want to stretch too extensively, and you don't want to be holding any stretch for longer than a minute.
- Activation or movement prep drills third. Now that you can move around more freely, make sure you're using the right muscles in the right positions with your glute activation, scapular push ups, split squats, goblet squats, etc. Spending more time here is okay - you want to make sure all the small details in your movement like glute activation, trunk stability, and scapular movement are turned on before you get into big, complex, heavy movements.
- Elevate body temperature via bar warm ups, bodyweight exercises, the airdyne, KB swings, etc.
This progression allows for a rational progression from relaxing restrictive muscles, stretching into the slightly freer range of movement, then stabilizing the joints that have been affected. If you stretch and release the lower body, stabilizing with glute activation or goblet squats would be appropriate, and if you spend time foam rolling the upper back and/or the musculature around the shoulders, scapular movement drills like scapular push ups or forearm wall slides would make sense. Then, once you're ready to go, start moving with the bar to get ready to work.
Author: Brent Kim
Brent is the weightlifting coach at Dallas Strength and Conditioning. He has competed at USAW Nationals in 2015 and has been active in competition since 2006.