Turbocharge your Workout; Warm Up the Right Way

For a PT who's passionate about his trade, visiting a gym for recreation can sometimes be hard work. On occasions I wish I wore blinkers, so I could avoid the countless sources of distraction that steer me from my own training and back into 'work mode'. These diversions range from the bizarre, to the darned right dangerous, and believe me, I've seen it all... 

Essential kit for fitness professionals in the gym on their day off.

Essential kit for fitness professionals in the gym on their day off.

One frequent blip on my trainer radar is the Warm-up, or as is often the case, the lack of it. And when I do see some effort to prep the body for exercise it is often just some random arm & leg flapping or, at the other extreme, an all-out thrashing on the rowing machine or treadmill. Either way, these token warm-ups are doing little to prepare the body for exercise, and will lead to a less than optimal performance during the rest of the session.

A 2000 metre thrashing on the rower will warm you up, but will also leave you feeling weak and unprepared for the rest of your training session.

A 2000 metre thrashing on the rower will warm you up, but will also leave you feeling weak and unprepared for the rest of your training session.

Warming up is a crucial component in any training session, and how you warm up really depends on what that session is going to consist of. But regardless of your choice of main course on a given training day, the starter must always have some basic ingredients if it's not going to ruin your appetite:

1. Raise your heart rate and temperature gradually.

If you own an expensive sports car or motorcycle (or any motor for that matter), you'd probably never dream of opening it up to full throttle straight out of the garage on a cold day. Apart from suffering less than optimal performance, you also risk wearing out important mechanical components if you treat your pride and joy like this on every journey... And the human body is not much different: To function optimally, it needs to be brought up to temperature gradually. Going balls out from cold in an effort to impress your gym buddies will cause a sudden and rapid increases in blood pressure, leaving you feeling weak and possibly even a little nauseous. In the worst cases, I've seen people darting to the bathrooms after over-zealous warm-ups, finishing their workout early, and leaving the gym looking decidedly pale. Warming up progressively allows the arteries to gradually dilate, increasing blood flow to the muscles, which places less load on the heart and avoids sudden spikes in blood pressure.

2. Spend enough time to actually 'warm-up'.

Just because your programme says warm-up for 5 minutes, does not mean that this will suit every scenario: If it is -10 degrees outside, and you've arrived at the gym 30 minutes after getting out of bed, clearly 5 minutes isn't going to cut it. In these cases, it might well be necessary to spend much longer in order to prepare the body for exercise, and possibly even phasing your warm-up so that it merges into the main component of your session. By phasing your warm-up you eliminate the boredom of spending extended time on one piece of equipment, and the warm-up becomes more specific to your training. An example of a phased warm-up might be 5 to 10 minutes of progressive resistance on a cross trainer or bike to raise the heart rate, then a circuit of 4 or 5 body-weight movements that are performed with a gradually increasing range of motion over two or three rounds. Choose exercises that are similar to those that you have planned in your workout, but keep the resistance low by adjusting your body position, or using assistance on some moves. E.g. move from a full to incline push-up, or use a TRX to assist a body-weight squat or other leg moves. Ten to fifteen reps of each should be enough to provide a decent aerobic warm-up whilst also helping to mobilise the joints, but be sure not to work to failure on any move, and keep plenty of strength in the tank for the main part of your workout.

By using lighter versions of the exercises that will feature in your main session, your warm-up becomes more specific and time-efficient. The Body-Weight Squat with gradually increasing range of motion (ROM) could form part of a 'warm-up' circuit prior to a more intense conditioning circuit.

By using lighter versions of the exercises that will feature in your main session, your warm-up becomes more specific and time-efficient. The Body-Weight Squat with gradually increasing range of motion (ROM) could form part of a 'warm-up' circuit prior to a more intense conditioning circuit.

3. Make your warm-up specific to the main component of your training session.

If your training session is going to consist of one activity - let's say running on a treadmill - then it makes sense to warm-up on the same machine. This may start with a walk, then a light jog for up to 10 minutes, followed by a session of mobility work for the lower limbs, before getting back on and upping the speed. But if your routine is strength or circuit based, you might be better off warming up with modified versions of each exercise that you plan to perform.

If you are taking a circuit approach - maybe a metabolic conditioning circuit, then performing lighter versions of each exercise in the same fashion as the phased warm-up in section-2 will help prepare you well for whats to come. Just be sure to increase the ROM and load gradually on each round, and add dynamic stretching for areas of the body where you are tight. But if you are planning a work-rest set format for strength or hypertrophy, then it might be more appropriate to spend some time on a piece of cardio equipment initially, just to lift the heart rate and raise body temperature, then perform mobility drills appropriate to the exercise you are just about to perform. The warming up process can continue further by gradually increasing load, or 'ramping up', on each subsequent set of the exercise itself. This is a far better than performing mobility drills for all your planned lifts at once, with the final exercises beginning long after the benefits of such drills have worn off.

4. Perform mobility drills specific to the needs of your body.

Mobility work is a very important part of warming up, don't get me wrong. But if you are pretty mobile already - let's say in the hips, for example - then it's pointless spending 20 minutes in agony rolling your glutes around on a lacrosse ball, or making a display of tying yourself in knots, just because the person next to you does the same before every session. Most people will have about an hour to complete their training, so you need to weigh up what your priorities are, or you could spend half of it on mobility alone, to no overall gain. If you know you are tight in any given area, focus on that part of your body. And unless you are going super heavy, or just doing one exercise in your session, consider ways of incorporating each planned exercise into your mobility work. A great example of this is with the Goblet Squat prior to heavier forms of the squat exercise. By performing 2 or 3 sets of progressively loaded Goblet Squats prior to back squatting for example, you are not only mobilising your hips effectively, but also ramping up to the heavier work with the same movement pattern - a far better use of your time. Incline Push-Ups, through to full Push-Ups with increasing ROM work just as well before the Bench Press. Just remember not to work anywhere near failure as you ramp up the intensity - save this for the final sets of the target exercise.

The video below clearly shows how the Golblet Squat can be used as an effective hip mobility exercise.

5. Just as you warm-up progressively, be sure to cool down in the same fashion.

At the end of your workout, you will probably feel tight and pumped. In order to speed up your recovery, and to optimise any gains on your rest days, it is essential to cool down well. Just 5 minutes of walking with some big arm swings, or using the elliptical, will help redistribute the blood flow across the body and gradually reduce your heart-rate - helping to make you feel more comfortable when you walk away from the gym. Some stretching for areas that you need it will also help the recovery process whilst training better range of motion for future training sessions.

By following these 5 guidelines, you'll ensure you get the best out of your routine without wasting time. Warming up should be an integral part of your training session, and not just something to get out of the way at the start. If you have to cut short anything, drop one or two smaller exercises from the main part of your session, rather than compromising your warm-up.

Dylan