Patrick Gilbert PT, DPT, ATC, CSCS
You see it often at the gym: someone spends 20+ minutes flopping around on a foam roller while checking Instagram before finally moving on to their lift and they call it a warm-up. What have they accomplished in that time? Have they improved their muscle pliability? Possibly, depending on their foam rolling technique. Increased their capacity for quality movement? Very unlikely. Prepared their body to move serious weight in order to chase those all-important GAINS? Absolutely not. Well I’m here to fill you in on all the other necessary parts of a complete warm-up to get the most out of your actual lift. But what if I told you a complete warm-up didn’t have to take 30 or more minutes? Keep reading and I will explain how to become totally prepared for a lifting session in less than 12 minutes.
The six components of a proper warm-up are:
- Soft Tissue Mobilization (STM)
- Corrective Exercise
- Fundamental Movement Pattern
- Central Nervous System (CNS) Stimulation
In this article, I will walk you through each part of the warm-up. I’ll explain why it is in here, how to perform each one, along with an example for each component of a full warm-up for an Upper Body Pull lifting day.
SOFT TISSUE MOBILIZATION (STM)
We will be starting this warm-up routine by preparing your muscles for movement and loading. The techniques I describe almost always utilize a foam roller. The goal of this component of the warm-up is to release trigger points and create homogeneity of muscle fiber orientation throughout your major muscle groups in order to make them more effective and efficient during your lifts. Begin by scanning each muscle group slowly for tender spots (also known as trigger points). Many times, people only do this step and just scan up and down an entire muscle. This is only a piece of the puzzle. Once you find one of these tender areas, spend time working on that spot specifically. Unfortunately, this is not the most comfortable thing in the world. Oscillate back and forth and side to side methodically until you feel that spot begin to release. You will know when it is releasing because it will become less uncomfortable. Perform this technique for each trigger point you find in the muscle, then move on to the other side. My general rule of thumb is to spend no less than 30 seconds on any one muscle. However, you also don’t want to spend more time than necessary. Remember, the goal of this warm-up is efficiency in addition to effectiveness, so move on if you find yourself spending more than 60 seconds on one muscle.
STM – Foam Roll Lats
To perform this soft tissue mobilization for the lats to prepare them for a pull-heavy day, begin by placing a foam roll on the ground. Lie down so the side of your upper torso is on top of the foam roll, just below your armpit. Lift the same side arm and place your head in your hand in order to create a slight stretch on your lats. Start by slowly scanning the muscle for trigger points, then focus in on areas of particular restriction or discomfort and spend time there. These should be small oscillations back and forth, and side to side. Drive this micro-movement with your legs, while your upper body and arms stay relaxed. As another way to improve muscle quality, keep pressure on a specific tender spot and move your arm slowly overhead and back down, as shown towards the end of this video. Stay on that tender spot until the tension begins to release, then move onto the next spot. Perform this on both sides for between 30-60 seconds.
Now that you have released those trigger points and loosened up your muscles, it is time to stretch them to gain muscle length and improve joint mobility. Stretching is typically thought of as a passive treatment. However, the focus here is on actively working to push your tissues into new range throughout the stretch. True muscle length gains are made when you stretch collagen (connective tissue that makes up a good portion of your muscles, tendons and ligaments) past its end range. We are not talking about tearing tissues, but stressing them so they undergo “creep”. Creep is a scientific term that essentially means to deform, or in this case, lengthen due to consistent stress or force over a certain duration of time1.
True muscle length gains are made when you stretch collagen past its end rangeTweet
With all this said, you should be holding your stretches actively right up to the point of end-range. Over the duration of each stretch, think about constantly pushing your muscles into new end-ranges. I discuss some of these stretching principles in my post about Performing an Effective Hip Flexor Stretch. The key to stretching is to keep the form strict and not compensate through other joints in order to create the appearance of increased range of motion. Pushing new limits throughout each stretch will result in a more effective stretch that will help allow your joints to move into new ranges of motion without being held back by restrictions in muscle length.
STRETCH – Standing Lat Stretch
Stand facing a pole and hold on with one or both hands. Keep your arm(s) outstretched in front of you and shift your hips back while keeping your back straight and head down. If the diameter of the post allows, you may find it helpful to interlock your fingers while performing this stretch. While here, try to sink deeper into your lats during the entire stretch. Take nice deep breaths, in through your nose and out through your mouth, going further with each exhale. The same principles apply here – stretch through tissue resistance the entire duration of the stretch. Perform each stretch for 40 seconds.
Corrective exercises are a staple of nearly all rehabilitation regimens. These exercises can work to improve all sorts of things including joint mobility, muscle flexibility, neural tension and overall movement quality. When programming correctives on heavy lifting days, I tend to target joint mobility in areas of importance for whichever body part is emphasized in that lift. On the other side, I tend to select corrective exercises for more volume-based lifting days that will improve joint mobility and flexibility through movements that take the body into often-neglected ranges of motion. While these “rehab exercises” are incredibly important, they should not make up the bulk of your training. They should focus in one a specific area, joint or movement that you struggle with in order to improve that to complete your main objective – the lifts! – more effectively. That may change if you are actually rehabilitating from an injury, in which case your training will likely look a little different in the first place.
CORRECTIVE – Kneeling Thoracic Extension with Dowel
Find a dowel and a bench and kneel down, ideally on a pad. With the dowel in your hands and palms facing towards you, place both elbows on the bench about shoulder-width apart. Your hips should be flexed to about 90 degrees to start. From this starting position, sit back into your hips and bring the dowel back and down towards your spine. Try to imagine sinking the middle of your thoracic spine down toward the floor, but maintain a neutral lumbar spine. Your neck should remain fairly neutral as well. You should feel a stretch in your lats as well as through your thoracic spine as you stretch to gain extension. You should actually be using your spinal extensors actively to assist gaining extension. As such, you may begin to feel a cramping sensation in these muscles if your thoracic extension is particularly limited. Hold this for 5 seconds, then return to your starting position. We are using the same principle as with other stretches for elongating tissues – try to stretch through tissue resistance to create a new end range. While we are obviously not holding this for as long as our true stretches, performing repeated repetitions of this exercise will help to improve mobility. Perform 2 sets of 6 reps.
Once you have completed the first three “mobility” portions of the warm-up, it is time for an activation exercise. The goal of this is to fire some of the accessory muscles you will be using for that day’s lift in order to assist the primary movers. If you think of a corrective exercise as a way to improve mobility, think of an activation exercise as a way to maintain that improved mobility more permanently through muscular action. When programming lower body lifting days, I tend to focus on turning on the posterior and lateral glutes to assist the rest of the lower body for that day’s movements. For upper body lifts, I will usually emphasize activation of the scapular retractors and rotator cuff to help promote proximal stability at the shoulder and torso. Having these muscles firing properly will make the gross movements smoother and more effective. With all these exercises, whether for upper or lower days, focus on maintaining a tight core and stable base. You will notice that this emphasis becomes a theme throughout almost all parts of my training.
If you think of a corrective exercise as a way to improve mobility, think of an activation exercise as a way to maintain that improved mobility more permanently through muscular actionTweet
ACTIVATION – Band Pull Apart
Stand in an athletic position with your knees slightly bent and a shoulder width grip on a superband with your palms facing down. Bring the band in front of you and create a small amount of tension in the band between your hands. Pull the band across the middle of your chest by bringing your hands out to the sides and back, squeezing your shoulder blades down and back together. Create some subtle external rotation of your shoulders, so your hands supinate (palms rotate toward you) slightly. Hold this position for a moment in the back to really allow your scapular retractors to work, then slowly allow the band to bring you back to the front. Don’t move too quickly through this one; focus on form and feeling this activate your postural stabilizers. Allow your shoulder blades to wrap around your ribcage both during the retraction and on the way back to the starting position. Maintain control throughout – you are in charge of the tension in the band, not the other way around! Perform 2 sets of 10 reps.
Now it is time to groove the pattern of the fundamental movements. I like to keep the load and reps low for these sets, which helps to focus on movement quality, rather than how much weight is being moved. For these, your focus should be on strict form, utilizing all available range of motion. This motion should be improved and feel easier as a result of the mobility and activation exercises you have completed to this point. For lower body lifts, I typically incorporate whichever movement or movements are emphasized in that day’s lift, whether that is the squat, hinge or lunge. Likewise, upper body lifts will typically utilize a form of pull and/or push. If multiple movements are emphasized in that day’s lift, incorporating a mini superset of antagonist movements is a great way to hit both movements.
FUNDAMENTAL MOVEMENT – TRX Row/Push Up
Position a pair of suspension trainer handles just below hip height, then lay on the floor. Grab each handle and pull yourself just off the floor, creating tension throughout your body, so when you move, your body moves as one coordinated unit. From here, pull your body up towards the handles so your hands are at about chest-height. Similar to the band pull apart highlighted above, you want to feel your lats engage and your shoulder blades squeeze together at the top of the movement. Pause for a moment at the top before slowly lowering yourself back toward the ground. Again, maintain control throughout – do not simply fall back towards the ground. As soon as you finish three reps of this, let go of the handles and turn over into a push up position with your hands just wider than shoulder-width. Complete three reps of strict push ups, controlling your descent and powering back up through your ascent. Again, keep tension throughout your shoulders, core and glutes so that your body moves as a unit. Focus on form and feel this work your chest and core. Perform 3 sets of 3 reps of each exercise, resting for only 15-30 seconds between sets.
CENTRAL NERVOUS SYSTEM (CNS) STIMULATION
The final and arguably most important portion of this complete warm-up is the ramp up of your nervous system. These will focus on rapid, “twitchy” total body movements, directly followed by an explosive movement. The goal of these is to stress the CNS to prepare them for the upcoming lifts. If your first heavy lift is the first “stressful” thing you are completing for the day, you are bound to have less than optimal results. The goal of this part of the warm-up is to create an intensity to build off for the rest of your lift. You should not experience a significant spike in heart rate, as the working time for these exercises is very short (less than 10 seconds). However, you should make sure that you are fully recovered between each set in order to maximize effectiveness and power for each set. Failure to do so may result in CNS fatigue, which is the last thing you want right before starting your lift for the day.
CNS STIMULATION – Seal Jack/Med Ball Alternating Overhead Slam
Similar to the jumping jack, a seal jack combines simultaneous outward then inward movement of both arms and legs. However, instead of reaching up overhead in the frontal plane, your arms will come straight out to the side, then back to the middle, moving in the transverse plane. Begin with your arms out in front of you and feet close together. Spread your arms apart as fast as you can, then without pausing, bring them back towards each other in the center of your body. The goal is to move as rapidly from one movement to the other as you can. You want to keep these “twitchy” and explosive. Directly after your five seal jacks, grab a light medicine ball and complete one overhead slam to each side. These should begin from an athletic position. Raise the med ball up overhead, creating full-body extension through your ankles, knees, hips, torso and shoulders. From here, slam the med ball down to the ground to one side as forcefully as you can. Catch the ball and bring it back overhead, then slam the ball back down on the other side. Again, your main focus will be on form and explosiveness. This combo will activate both lats and pecs and stimulate your CNS to take on the challenge of your lift. Take time to fully recover and bring your heart rate back down to a level just above your resting rate before continuing to the next set. Complete 5 reps of seal jacks, then 2 total reps of overhead med ball slams per set. Repeat this combination for 3 sets total, recovering fully between sets.
To review, the six components of a proper warm-up are:
- Soft Tissue Mobilization (STM)
- Corrective Exercise
- Fundamental Movement Pattern
- Central Nervous System (CNS) Stimulation
Performed correctly, this can all be accomplished in as little as 10-12 minutes directly prior to your lift for the day. This is the exact warm-up outline I utilize in my 12-week program, Fundamentals of Training. Each one of these takes between 8-12 minutes to complete and leaves you ready to take on your lift for the day. I provide details on all exercises incorporated in the warm-ups, as well as videos, such as the ones in this article.
This outline can be tailored to suit whatever training program you are performing and can fit whatever specific orthopedic needs you have. Taking the time to complete this warm-up routine will lead to massive improvements in the way you feel during your lift and should allow you to attack your training with greater confidence and intensity. So what are you waiting for, get after it!
Cohen RE, Hooley CJ, McCrum NG. Viscoelastic creep of collagenous tissue. Journal of Biomechanics. 1976;9(4):175-184.
About the Author – Patrick Gilbert PT, DPT, ATC, CSCS
Patrick is a physical therapist, athletic trainer and personal trainer. He runs Summit Performance and Therapy in Indianapolis, Indiana. He has been training clients of all backgrounds for years and has been a practicing physical therapist since 2016. His training philosophy combines his knowledge of rehabilitation as well as strength and conditioning in order to train clients to achieve great results and avoid injuries in the process. His physical therapy practice focuses on a three-dimensional view and treatment of the body and its many parts. Treatment emphasizes manual techniques and rehabilitative exercises to get patients back to previous activity levels without pain or dysfunction.
For more information about training or rehabilitating with Patrick, contact him at SummitPerformancePT@gmail.com or visit SummitPerformancePT.com