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When it comes to warming up for a gym workout, people usually fall in one of two categories:

First are the ones who step on a treadmill for 4 minutes, do a couple of arm circles and get to work. If nobody was watching, they would walk right over to the squat rack, throw a plate on each side of the barbell and start squatting.

Second, there are the people who spend more time warming up than they actually do working out. You've seen them before. They are foam-roller-happy, lacrosse ball fiends. They spend 30 minutes rolling every inch of their body. Then they proceed to "distract" every joint they have for another 15 minutes. And that's just their "pre warm up routine".

Some people undershoot the warm up while others grossly overdo it. Chances are, you're part of one of these groups. And even if you're not, it's important to understand what the warm up actually does for you and what activities you should include in it.

With the simple template below, you will be able to put together a highly effective and time efficient warm up that will address all your needs. You won't have to worry about missing anything and will be able to focus on lifting heavy things and staying healthy, which is really what life is all about.

But before we go into the "how", let's dive into "why" to make sure we understand exactly what the warm up is about.

Why we warm up

The primary goal of the warm up is to increase our body temperature. This will have many positive effects, including (3):
-increased blood flow to the muscles
-increased oxygen delivery to the muscle
-decreased muscle viscosity (allowing them to contract and relax more easily)
-increased neuron sensitivity
-increased speed of nerve impulses

So getting a light sweat from your warm up is great. But if stop here, you are wasting your best opportunity to improve your movement quality and ultimately, your performance.

I assume you're following a weight training program worth your while, which includes big compound lifts like the squat, the deadlift or the bench press. These movements recruit a lot of muscle mass and are the best "bang for your buck" exercises whether you're looking to shed fat, get bigger or get stronger. And you know how important it is to have a strong core if you want to lifts big weights safely.

The warm up is the perfect time to include a couple of breathing/bracing exercises to make sure that your core is functioning optimally.

underwater breathing
The only time you shouldn't breathe

 

Besides getting our body warm, helping us tighten our core and stay injury free, the warm up is also great at priming our minds for the work we're about to accomplish. Having a routine that you perform consistently before each training session will help you be in the right frame of mind when you begin lifting. "My mind wasn't there" moments will be a thing of the past.

Now that you know why you're doing it, let's see how you can structure your warm up to get the most out of it, without wasting your precious workout time.


Free warm up template

Enter your email below to get instant access to this resource. The template includes over 80 exercises to help you build a highly individualized and exercise specific warm up routine. This will ensure you stay focused on what matters the most to YOU without wasting your time on unnecessary movements.

Upside Strength Warm Up Template

How to structure your warm up

My goal here is to provide you with a general warm up template that you can use for the vast majority of your weight training sessions. Within this general framework, you will have to select the appropriate exercises to address your mobility issues. Also, making sure that your warm up is geared toward the main exercise you will be performing in your workout is important. Research(2,3) has shown that warm ups that are specific to the exercise performed yield better results.

For your warm up, pick one to two exercises from each section described below. Your warm up should last between 10 and 15 minutes total. If you are new to exercising, take your time to make sure that your body is fully ready before you start training.

 
1. Self Massage (commonly called "SMR")

This includes work done with foam rollers, lacross balls, theracanes and any other object that you can jam into your muscle to loosen it up.

The reason I didn't use the term Self-Myofascial Release is because this practice doesn't actually have the ability to alter the structure of the muscle itself or "break down" any scar tissue (see Dr. Andreo Spina's detailed explanation on this topic here).

However, Self Massage has been shown (4) to acutely (read: for a short period of time) enhance joint range of motion, without altering performance. This is likely the result of an alteration in nervous system function, temporarily decreasing muscle tone (read: resting tension) in the area.

In real world terms, this means that you need to spend 30 seconds to a minute working on a tight muscle to give it some slack, then USE this newly available range of motion ACTIVELY in the remainder of your warm up, and subsequently, in your training session. Roll out and move on. Don't linger.

 
ZOA PRI
 
2. Breathing/Core Activation

Most of us spend all day stuck in extension (see skeleton on the right), which keeps us from performing proper breathing patterns. Without going down the rabbit hole, we can simply say that having poor posture reduces our ability to engage and use our core muscles effectively. This not only limits our performance in the gym, but can put us at risk for injuries.

That's why it's important to include some simple breathing exercises at the beginning of the warm up. These will restore good diaphragmatic function, activate our anterior core muscles and reduce excess muscle tone in our low back area (5). They will also enhance our movement variability, or how much range of motion we can actively access and use while training or playing our sport.

 
 
3. Mobilizing

Once our core is set and functioning optimally, it's time to hit a couple tight spots and actively loosen them up.

The main areas to target here are usually:
-the ankles
-the hips (quads, adductors, hamstrings, glutes, etc)
-the upper back
-the shoulders
-the wrists

If you're about to press weight overhead, focus on your wrists and upper back more. But if you're about to squat, you'll want to mobilize your ankles and your hips instead.

Also take into consideration any physical restrictions you might have and address them now (for example, a tight upper back from prolonged sitting).

 
light switch
Time to flip the switch
 
 
4. Activating

Some muscles are hard to recruit during workouts because they are shut off the rest of the time. If you sit a lot, your glutes probably don't fire optimally. This might not hinder your performance sitting at a desk, but once you're trying to move a heavy load, you'll want every single muscle fiber available to use.

If you don't, you start compensating by using muscles that aren't supposed to be working that hard. This can lead to bigger problems down the road. So now is the time to turn them on with some specific exercises.

Like mentioned before, you'll want to address the body parts that will be at play during the main exercises of your training session.

The glutes are always a safe bet. They play a big role in keeping your pelvis in a good position, allowing you to use your core optimally. They're also involved in the majority of the compound lifts you will be performing.

If you're going to be putting weight over your head, you'll want to activate your serratus anterior and your lower traps for better stability and control.

If needed, some extra activation drills can be performed between the warm up sets of your main exercise.

 
 
5. Core/Combos

The core has three main functions:
1. Transfer forces from the arms to the legs and vice versa
2. Resist deformations of the spine while allowing a high degree of movement from the pelvis and the shoulders
3. Assist in breathing mechanics

Since we've taken care of the breathing in the early stages of our warm up, we can now challenge the core with more advanced movements before we jump under a heavy load. You can get creative and throw in your favourite movement combos. DeadbugscrawlsTurkish sit-ups/get-ups or carries are all great options here. 

 
 
6. Power

By now, every part of your body should be moving well and ready to get to work. But we also want to ensure that our nervous system is fully alert and ready to produce maximal forces when we need it to.

Staying specific to your exercise du jour, perform one or two sets of an explosive exercise to make sure you're running on all cylinders.

Note: if you are fairly new to weight training, I would recommend skipping this step until you develop a good base of strength. Learn and master some power exercises during your training session before including them in your warm-ups.

sprinter
 
 

 

Sample warm ups and free template

Once we put it all together, here's what a specific warm up will look like:
 Warm up for squats:
90/90 Hip Lift 1x8 Breaths
Side Lying External Rotations 1x8/side
Single Leg Glute Bridge 1x10/side
Quadruped Rock Back 1x10
Ankle Rock 1x8/side
Cook Squat w/Reach 1x8
- Offset Plate Squat 1x8
- Box Jump 1x5 
And if this still sounds confusing to you, here's what you can to do:
 
- Enter your email below to get access to this free warm up sheet which includes over 80 exercises to pick from.
- Go to the Upside Strength Youtube Channel to check out the exercise demonstration videos.
Subscribe to my channel to get more awesome exercise videos each day.

 
If you enjoyed the read, please share it with your friends on your favorite social media platform! And if you need help figuring out what exercises to include in your own warm up, leave a comment below or on any of my Youtube videos.
 

 
Sean is a personal trainer and strength coach who loves teaching beginners how to safely get stronger in the gym. He lives in Vancouver BC with his wife Lynne, and their children. Sean has a keen eye for good movement and encourages a positive lifestyle to support good training results.

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