“Go warm up…5 minutes on the treadmill, then we’ll go workout!”
A common phrase tossed around the gym by some newer and even some experienced trainers.
What is the point of a warm-up?
A good warm-up should contribute to all aspects of your workouts, including the physical and mental aspects. If jogging on a treadmill for 5 minutes at a moderate pace makes you feel prepared for heavy squats or deadlifts, go for it. Otherwise, aim for something that includes all of these:
Work on movements that mimic or compliment what is about to be performed
Increase neural activity in the muscles about to be worked
Reduce restrictions in muscle/fascial tissue allowing increased blood flow to muscles being worked
What difference does it make?
If you’re about to hit the bench for a heavy chest day, does it make sense to do a sitting leg crossover stretch to warm up? No, of course not; that wouldn’t help you prepare for a chest press in the slightest. If your goal is aimed at making your bench better, wouldn’t it make more sense to warm up with some work on shoulder stability, core engagement and some active chest mobility exercises? All stuff that you would need to do your bench press efficiently.
The point is to prepare your body for the workout and since you only have a finite amount of time in the gym each day, why waste a minute doing things that don’t help you get better. The process is actually quite simple, there are generally two variables to warm ups that are necessary:
Joint stability/Muscle activation
Changing neural tone of muscles/joint mobility
The determinant to which one you need, depends on you. If you are hyper-mobile, stretching is unnecessary and can sometimes be harmful to the joints if you continually stretch them past what is supposed to be end range of motion. You would be better off working on maintaining stability to the joint’s neutral position and back to fully flexed, so that you can reduce your risk of injury and get stronger in those joints.
On the other hand, if you are restricted in certain joints from sitting all day, you may want to try creating more mobility in those areas. Take the shoulders for example. Since we live a sedentary age where a large population presents with “upper cross syndrome” (a term coined for people presenting with rounding in the upper back), you would look at the affected areas, such as limited mobility in the upper back and generally excessive low back curve, and work on that with something like the “sphinx arm slide” and the “band resisted deadbug“.
hese exercises together help create a neutral spine, while allowing you to push out your chest in thoracic extension during a chest press rather than yourlow back in lumbar extension. This saves you from all sorts of low back and shoulder issues down the road, all while building up your chest strength and size.
So where does neural activity come in?
The brain is the center for all muscle activation, both contractions and relaxations concurrently. If the neural tone (level of muscle activity) is extremely high in your quads, and extremely low in your hamstrings from sitting at a desk all day, what is the likeliness that’s going to change just because you jumped into the squat rack with 135 on your back after a short stint on the treadmill? Not good.
Foam rolling (everyone’s favourite torture device) actually does provide some form of change when it comes to “resetting” neural tone in chronically tight muscles that occur from strength imbalances between agonist and antagonist muscles, or just lack of neural stimulation in them. You can read a bit more about what foam rolling does to neural tone in Dean Somerset’s article HERE.
Research goes back and forth on whether its effects are necessary or not. However, I’ve been able to see immediate change in a client’s range of motion and rigidity of muscles through a couple of minutes of rolling, not just once, butmany times. It can be somewhat anecdotal because not everyone responds the same to it; but if it works, use it.
It comes in handy when preparing for a hard workout, especially for clients who work slouched over a desk for a living. It’s commonly seen where one muscle group (generally the back and hamstrings) is constantly being stretched out and the other is constantly in a contracted position (generally the chest and hip flexors) from sitting in a hinged hip position all day.
Once you’ve done your rolling, work on getting all the previously “inactive or chronically tight” muscles to fire them up in preparation for some of the movements performed in your workout. Some 5 second holds to increase activation on the muscle a couple of times, or a lighter set of the exercise, will make a huge difference in whether or not they’re able to perform it well.
Signs to know you did it right
If you’ve done these things properly, you should see a pretty quick increase in your range of motion, simply due to the change in the tissue’s ability to relax and getting into a deeper stretch throughout the exercise. Likely, you’ll also notice a difference in how much control you have with the movements. Not saying you won’t still have any restrictions (because this isn’t magic, it’s progressive improvement), just stating that there should be some improvements. This simply comes from increased nervous system activity in the muscles being worked, meaning you are more aware or “connected” with what’s going on than you were before (mind-muscle connection).
Feeling strong is a big plus when it comes to getting a good workout in, but feeling stable is an essential component to knowing you’re performing an exercise correctly. Nobody wants to try to hit a deep squat feeling like Wobbly Willy, especially a heavy one. You should feel like you are able to, again,control the exercise and not feel like you’re going to break under whatever the load may be.
If this isn’t the case, take a step back, practice the movements a bit more and use those warm up techniques. Improve activation and control in those muscles being worked, as well as increasing range of motion if you don’t have enough to do it properly– your workout will be much easier to get through and you’ll get more out of it.
Remember, instability needs stability, neural activity regulates movement proficiency and mobility comes through lots of practice and time spent improving technique and working on removing muscular restrictions.
So get out on the floor and start working on it.
James Harris is the founder of Titanium Strength Systems, as well as the head writer and coach. He trains online and in person in Chilliwack, BC. You can find his writing around the internet on websites such as Muscle & Strength, The PTDC, Fitness Pollenator, PTBIZ, and Deansomerset.com.