You want to know a little secret?
The title is a lie. That’s right.
There is really no such thing as a perfect warm-up routine. Sorry.
I’ve seen way too many articles recommending that you always do one specific warm-up, which is cool if your workouts are always exactly the same.
But, often they’re not. If one day you’re doing some serious jump rope training and the next day you’re killing it with some hill sprints, your warm ups should differ. They should cater to the activity you’re about to perform.
Now while there may not be a one-size-fits all warm-up routine, there is a common structure – a template shall I say – that you can use to construct your very own perfect warm-up routine. And while the structure may remain the same, the details will always change depending on the specific activity you’re warming up for.
In a moment we’re going to break things down. I’m going to show you how to construct the perfect warm-up routine to get your body ready for action.
Let’s get started.
What’s the Point of Warming Up?
After all, why would you do something if you don’t know what you’re doing it for?
Too many people are lazying through this whole warm-up routine thing without actually understanding its purpose and function. Even worse, more people are completely skipping out on the warm-up all-together (probably for the same reason as I just mentioned).
And that, I can assure you, is not the greatest idea.
A good, effective warm-up will do two primary things:
- Improve your performance in the activity that you will be doing,
- Minimize your chances of getting injured while doing that activity.
Researchers at the Department of Exercise Science at Bloomsburg University in Pennsylvania conducted 32 studies [see here] to examine effects of warming up on training performance. They found that a good warm-up routine can improve performance in 79% of the criterion examined.
Another study conducted by researchers in Norway found that by including a good warm-up session before your workout can reduce the incidence of knee and ankle injuries by at least 50%.
But a good warm-up routine is worth more than that.
A good warm up routine helps increase your heart rate, blood flow, body temperature (particularly deep muscle temperature), and respiration and perspiration rate.
It helps prep your joints for action, effectively increasing your flexibility and allowing you to pull off exercises with better form (think deep squats or the hip hinge for kettlebell swings).
A good, solid warm up session will activate the nervous system, prepping your body for particular movement patterns and helping you execute them more efficiently.
So that’ the purpose of your warm-up.
But how do you structure the your perfect warm up routine?
I got you covered.
3 Elements of an Effective Warm-up
I’ve broken down the perfect warm-up routine into three parts.
Together, they make up the perfect warm-up series.
As you’ll soon discover, each part of the warm-up series is designed for a specific function and the series is meant to be performed in the order presented below (since each part leads into the next).
Important Note: I want you to use this as a template. You’re welcome to follow it strictly at first, but I encourage you to make modifications as you begin to figure out what works best for your body. Play around with the warm up exercises presented and see which ones prep your body well. It will take some time, but eventually you’ll figure out what warm up is perfect for your body.
OK. Let’s look at each step in a little more detail.
Step 1: Light Aerobic Activity
Each and every warm up session should begin with some form of light aerobic exercise.
From all I know, you could be strolling into that gym after 10 hours of sitting in front of a computer. Or you live in Canada (like me) and it’s minus 2 million degrees outside. Either way, your muscles are nowhere near ready to be stressed and stretched by an intense workout.
They need to be eased into the workout.
Steve Kamb from Nerd Fitness made a great analogy in his own warm-up post:
“Think of your muscles like rubber bands.
If you spend all day sitting at a desk, hunched over a keyboard, those rubber bands have gone almost completely unused. Now, combine this lack of movement with some cold winter weather – your bands are now extra tight and constricted. Then, go to a gym and immediately start lifting heavy weights or sprinting really fast – those cold, unstretched rubber bands get pulled apart very quickly and will snap. #Fail”
(Follow @Steve…he’s a cool dude and provides insightful tips)
So this is why we always want to start with a light aerobic component.
It’s the part of the warm up routine that increases your body temperature, heart rate, and blood flow and causes your muscles to become loose and more elastic while also lubricating your joints. And it effectively prepares you for the subsequent steps without causing much fatigue.
So what are your options?
While there are a gajillion and one ways to do this, here’s a video that outlines two short and simple options for light aerobic exercise:
You have many options to play around with in this step.
As long as the activity you choose gets your blood flowing and helps you break a sweat without fatiguing you, you’re free to use it!
Got it? Let’s move to step two.
Step 2: Corrective Stretching
The second step of your warm up session is optional.
Only do it if you find that your body needs it. But my (very wise) guess is that 99.75% of the working population desperately needs it.
Let me explain.
Corrective stretching is actually just a specific, or should I say strategic, form of static stretching.
Static stretching: one of the most commonly used forms of stretching that involves holding a muscle in a stretched position for a certain amount of time (usually around 20-30 seconds).
Now I know that in the past few years the Internet has absolutely blown up with studies claiming that performing static stretches before a workout can hinder your performance in the post-warm up activity.
Here’s what was written in a popular NY Times article about stretching:
“One, a study being published this month in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, concluded that if you stretch before you lift weights, you may find yourself feeling weaker and wobblier than you expect during your workout. Those findings join those of another new study from Croatia, a bogglingly comprehensive re-analysis of data from earlier experiments that was published in The Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports. Together, the studies augment a growing scientific consensus that pre-exercise stretching is generally unnecessary and likely counterproductive.” – NY Times [Reasons Not to Stretch]
Hmmm. Lots of bad news bears right there.
It doesn’t sound like the static-stretching-before-a-workout routine is getting much love these days.
So it begs the question: should you completely avoid static stretching before workout?
Well, it depends.
Before I introduce the concept of corrective stretching, let me give you a quick analogy.
I want you to imagine for a second that you own a high performance sports car (maybe you really do, in which case I relieve you of your imagining duties).A high performance sports car is designed with the highest quality materials and the tiniest tolerances known to man. There’s not a lot of room for error when it comes to designing and building these things.
In order for your high performance vehicle to reach its highest possible performance during a race, everything needs to be in balance. Everything needs to be tightly tuned. If something was to be off (even by a micrometer) and you were to push the car to its limits, the potential for something going wrong goes up. Way up.
This is why high performance race cars get tuned up before every race. Everything is checked, gauged, and re-balanced if necessary.
Now I want you to think of your body as if it was a high-performance machine.
If you’re suffering from some muscular imbalances (i.e. something is out of spec) and you suddenly push your body to the limits with intense training, what do you think would happen?
The likelihood of an injury occurring increases BIG time.
This is where corrective stretching comes into play.
To continue with the analogy, corrective stretching would be the act of tuning your body before pushing it to its limits.
We use corrective stretches to re-balance and re-align the body before we expose it to serious stress. They help reduce the nervous energy inside those muscles (since we don’t want them to be tight when during our training).
Note: These are all principles I picked up from Elliott Hulse, whose research is based on the works of Vladimir Janda. If you’re interested in this corrective stretching stuff, I highly recommend you check out Elliott’s Muscle Virus Solution (when it opens up again). It will teach you how to find and correct your muscle imbalances. Another great resource on corrective stretching is Dr. Janda’s book Assessment and Treatment of Muscle Imbalance: The Janda Approach.
To help you visualize some of these corrective stretches, I put together a short video to outline some of the most important ones.
The first few of these exercises utilize a technique known as the contract and relax method.
Contract and relax method: inhale deeply, hold your breath, and contract the muscle you want to stretch (for instance, pressing your head against your hand to contract the neck muscles); then exhale and relax the muscle while pulling it into an even deeper stretch.
When used properly, this is some really powerful stuff.
Here’s what Elliott says in his course:
“After doing your corrective stretches, you’re going to feel so much better. You improve your nervous system’s ability to move freely through your muscles. You’ll be more free to perform your activities. You can’t perform a skill in the proper fashion if your muscles are being recruited in an improper pattern. So we want to correct the imbalance first by isolating and then integrating them in the exercises.”
Elliott, Muscle Virus Solution
Now you don’t necessarily have to do all of these corrective stretches before every workout.
You’ll have to go based on how you feel.
If you feel that certain areas are tight and out of balance, use specific corrective stretches to make the necessary re-alignments.
For example, because I spend a lot of time sitting in the office (who doesn’t?), I regularly use corrective stretches like the McKenzie press, upper hamstring stretch, pec minor stretch, and hip flexor stretch before I get into any serious training.
Like I said, this stuff is optional, but I highly recommend you play around with some of the corrective exercises presented and see how they make you feel. If you find that they help, keep doing them. If you find that they take away from your performance, get rid of them (but not before reading the next step…there’s a surprise).
Remember that you’re crafting your perfect warm-up routine so use what works best for your body.
Once you’re ready, you can move on to the third and final part of the perfect warm-up routine.
Step 3: Mobility/Dynamic Movements
The third and final part of the perfect warm-up routine is a series of mobility and dynamic movements.
Mobility and dynamic exercises (sometimes considered one and the same) are designed to take your joints – particularly those that you are going to use in your workout - through their full range of motion.
Or, as Steve Kamb from Nerd Fitness puts so elegantly:
“Think of a dynamic warm-up like pre-gaming for your muscles – except replace “alcohol” with “awesome.” By jumping around and getting your muscles loose, active, warm, and ready for action, you will keep yourself strong and injury free.” -SK
There is also another very interesting benefit to doing dynamic exercises (particularly as your last step in your warm up routine).
(And this is the surprise part.)
By doing our mobility and dynamic exercises after our static stretching routine (i.e. the corrective stretching component), we eliminate the risk of any performance loss caused by the static stretches [study].
This is why I say performing your warm-up in the order presented is so important.
What happens is that dynamic movements increase the neurological drive through the muscles.
This means that by performing specific mobility/dynamic exercises as part of your warm up that are similar (i.e. utilize the same muscle groups) to those you will be performing during your workout, your overall performance in those movements will improve.
You’ll be able to execute your exercises safely and more effectively, thus minimizing chances of injury and maximizing performance.
The following video outlines a series of mobility and dynamic exercises you can use.
Now there are a number of paths you can take here and each will depend on what type of activity you’re preparing for.
Typically, I recommend you start by doing a series of mobility exercises (as presented in the video) and immediately follow those with activity-specific dynamic movements.
Let’s look at some examples.
If you know that you’ll be doing only upper body exercises for a particular training session, you would go ahead and do your upper body mobility exercises and then perform a set of simple bodyweight exercises like push-ups and bodyweight rows as your dynamic movements.
On the contrary, if you know that you’re going to be doing full body exercises (like squatting), you would do all the mobility exercises and follow them up with a series of bodyweight squats and lunges.
If you’re going to be doing kettlebell work, do an extended series of mobility exercises and follow them up with bodyweight squats and lunges to get your hamstrings and glutes primed.
If you’re going to be jumping rope, you can probably get away with just doing the mobility exercises.
Note: sprinting requires its own specific warm-up session which I’ve outlined here. I’ll be putting up a video to help you visualize this in the near future.
There are a lot of options that you can play with here and you need to take some time to figure out what works best for you and your body.
Factors that will Affect your Warm-Up
The ideal duration of each component of the warm-up routine will vary from person to person and activity to activity.
There are, however, a couple of factors that will have an effect on the duration and intensity of your warm-up:
The intensity of the activity you’ll be performing
Obviously your warm-up is going to be different when you’re preparing for a sprinting session (long warm-up) compared to when you’re going to go for a walk (probably no warm-up).
So the more intense the activity is that you’ll be performing, the more intense the warm-up should be. Just remember that the warm-up should not be so intense that it makes you fatigued.
There’s a big difference between training when it’s hot outside compared to when it’s cold. Cold temperatures cause your muscles to tighten up and require longer warm-up sessions than warmer temperatures.
These are some factors you’ll have to take into account, but generally your warm-up shouldn’t take more than 10 minutes total.
Again, this is something you’ll have to play around with and find what works best for you.
So there you have it my warm-up loving friends.
This is how you craft your perfect warm-up routine.
As a quick summary, your perfect warm-up routine will consist of three steps:
- 3-5 minutes of light aerobic activity (many options),
- 2-3 minutes of optional (but highly recommended) corrective stretching,
- 2-3 minutes of mobility exercises and activity-specific dynamic movements.
Remember that what I’ve presented here is just a template. It’s a simple structure I’ve put together to help you lay out your own perfect warm-up routine that will (and should) change as your training changes.
Nothing here is written in stone. There is, however, some thought and logic behind the order of the steps I’ve presented. I recommend you start out by following them and then making changes as you see fit.
But please do me a favor and remember to always use your own judgement. Listen to your body. If you don’t feel like you’re properly warmed up (even if you’ve followed all the steps), don’t jump into your training. Go through the steps again and make proper adjustments. Only start your training when your body is ready. Don’t put your high performance machine on the line when things are out of spec!
I really hope you’ve found this post useful.
If you think others could gain something from it, please do me a huge favor and share it with your social circles. Let’s help as many people as possible craft their own perfect warm-ups.
And, of course, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the perfect warm-up routine I’ve presented. What would you add? What would you take away? What does your perfect warm-up look like? Share your thoughts in the comments below.