In a previous post, I discussed my philosophy on movement and promised to post tips and tricks for how to structure a workout (movement) program.
With this being my first post on developing a workout program – it makes sense to start with first thing you should be doing in your routine – warming up. Ugh…boring right?
Warm-ups tend get a bad rap as being boring or a waste of time, but I want to dispel that garbage reputation through this post, explaining why warming-up is a critical first-step to any physical activity and can also be a fun and dynamic addition to your workout.
So, why warm up?:
Warm-ups prime your body for more rigorous physical activity by kick-starting your cardiovascular system. A proper warm-up increases blood flow to your muscles, and increases the elasticity and mobility of your muscles, joints, and ligaments.
Warm-ups are important for all physical activity but are especially important for complex total-body movements. Adding weight to the equation (i.e. barbell squat and bench press) increases the importance of a sufficient warm-up as well.
If you are anything like I was, you may think of warm-ups as unnecessary or a chore. Since most of us don’t fully appreciate the value and efficacy of a warm-up, we are much more likely to skip it. This is exacerbated dramatically for people who don’t have much time to spend in the gym – if we have less than an hour to devote to exercise each day, its easy to mistake your warm-up as something that takes away precious time from your workout routine.
The catch, is that most people who don’t have much time to devote to exercise (me included), lack the time due to a demanding job which keeps us sitting in a desk for extended periods of time (again, this post is based on my personal experience as a management consultant. Newly minted mothers, like my sister, also lack the time due to a completely different type of demanding job that keeps them from sitting for extended periods of time – if you’re reading this Gina, warming up is still important!)
Anyway, for those of us who sit for extended periods of time, think about the impact:
- Our muscles, joints, and ligaments tighten up
- Our blood flow slows down
- Our metabolic rate slows down (especially when you’ve been living this lifestyle for a while)
Now, think about what happens when you exercise:
- You engage your muscles, joints, and ligaments across multiple planes of motion (often times with added weight – i.e. lunges with a barbell on your back)
- Blood flows throughout your body at an increased rate to push oxygen-rich blood to your muscles
- Your metabolic rate increases as your muscles expend much more energy to meet the increased demands
So, what happens when you combine the impact of a mostly sedentary lifestyle with the physical demands of exercise?
Picture your body as a piece of dough (not a fat joke). When the dough sits still for an extended period of time, it becomes brittle. Now, it’s time to exercise. If you take that brittle dough and immediately start to try and pull it, bend it, or twist it to its maximum, it’s going to break and crumble. Conversely, if you start to gently work with the dough, add some moisture (aka blood flow) warm it up, and kneed it – after a few minutes that dough will do whatever you want it to do. You can pull it, stretch it, fold it, twist it, bop it, spin it…whatever.
That may not be the best metaphor, and maybe we all want a piece of bread now but the point is that if you are putting increased stress on your physical body before your it is ready for that stress, you raise your risk for injury. In addition to increased risk for injury, if you are trying to move weight around (weights, or your body), your muscles need oxygen to do so – trying to move weight without sufficient blood flow to your muscles is like trying to run on ice – you’re not maximizing your potential.
How to properly warm-up:
There is also a misconception for how to warm up. A warm-up isn’t just about stretching, its about loosening up and getting blood pumping throughout the body.
I’ll often see people warming up at the gym by static stretching – staying in a stretch for an extended period of time. Not only is this boring, this type of stretching can actually be detrimental to your workout as static stretching can reduce elasticity and inhibit power generation in your muscles (think of a rubber band that you pull too far that doesn’t spring back the way it used to.) It’s better to save static stretching for a post-workout cool-down to bring length back to your muscles.
Warm-ups should be active and dynamic. They don’t have to be long (5-10 minutes is fine) and they don’t need be a waste of time – if done properly, a warm-up can be an opportunity to improve your strength, balance, and flexibility.
There are so many ways you can warm-up and many different movements you can incorporate – however, while creating your warm-up, you should try to adhere to the guidelines below.
- Stay active and dynamic: Again, a warm-up isn’t the place for static stretching. Your warm-up should consist of more active and dynamic stretching to increase mobility and also improve blood flow to the muscles. Check out my latest post on Instagram to see a quick example of a dynamic total-body warm-up. If you don’t feel like checking my Insta, FU you, JK…some quick yoga flows (i.e. sun salutations) are a great way to warm up
- Incorporate your whole body: I see this at the gym all of the time…someone will walk in, head straight to the bench press and do this thing where they swing their arms back and forth 5 times and proceed to load weight on the bar. That is not a warm-up. When warming up, you should focus on the main muscles you plan on working for the day but also aim to activate your entire body – it gets the blood flowing better and faster.
- Move through all 3 planes of motion: Our bodies were designed for complex movement. Our joints and ligaments enable us to flow easily through 3 planes of motion, front to back, side to side, and twisting/rotating. While warming up, its important to incorporate movement across all the planes of motion. Even if your workout will occur in a single plane of motion (bench, squat, deadlift, etc.) your body still needs that mobility – a good warm-up could satisfy that need.
- Start slow: I know you want to maximize your time in the gym, but going HAM during a warm-up defeats the purpose of priming your body for the added stress. Going too hard, too fast, during a warm-up can put your heart rate in a zone you don’t want to yet be in and can also cause you to sacrifice good form (yes, it’s possible to injure yourself during a warm-up!) Focus instead on controlled movements. You will have plenty of time to get to your max heart rate zone, a warm-up is not the time. (Caveat – this tip is specifically in reference for starting a workout. After I do my full body warm-up, if I am doing squats next, I will do ~5 explosive jumps to activate my fast-twitch muscle fibers before loading weight on the bar)
All it takes is a few minutes! Giving yourself that time at the beginning of your workouts will help you maximize the rest of your time while exercising. Also, have fun with it! I love warming up because I know why I do it and I can make it fun and creative. That’s why I wasn’t prescriptive about what exactly to do in your warm-up. I’ve given you the parameters – now it’s up to you to fill in the rest.
Enjoy it and let me know how it goes!
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