Warming Up For Gains

Written by Marco Walker-Ng on February 15, 2017

In a perfect world, we wouldn’t have to warm up. We’d all live active lives from birth, and our professions would keep us moving all day. Darkness would send us to bed, and sunlight would wake us in the morning. We could roll out of bed and go for a jog because our bodies would be balanced. The only warm up we’d need would be a big yawn.

While I’m sure there are some people in the world who live this reality, they are not the ones who are looking for personal trainers. Most of the people I work with spend some portions of their day in sedentary positions, which would make it riskier to jump straight into a gains-inducing workout.

What I hope to convince you of in this blog post is that warm-ups are not only great for improving your blood flow and joint lubrication, but can also be used as a mini workout to balance the body, expand your movement capabilities, and, most importantly, make the workout you’re about to demolish fun.

I’ve gone through more warm-up phases than identities. Whether that’s good or bad, each one provided me with valuable lessons—mostly on what not to do. It’s humbling to reminisce about my foray into frosted tips. It’s equally humbling to reminisce about how my warm-up was a max effort bench press with 75 pounds on the bar. This made the rest of the workout difficult since I had prematurely combusted all my fuel on the intro set.

I then moved into a more accepted pre-workout routine by doing some cardio and static stretching with a goatee. Unfortunately, that approach has since been studied and disproven.

Then came the corrective exercise phase, and that one hit hard. Foam roll for 45 minutes, then 20 minutes of muscle activation exercises, and then finally I was ready to lift!

I also experimented with a few of Dan John’s warm-ups, which were mini-workouts in and of themselves. People new to lifting could’ve, and probably have, gained muscle from those warm-ups alone.

What I’ve come to know now is that no matter what you do, doing some kind of warm-up that gets your body temperature up and prepares you for a strenuous workout is useful. It’s even more useful if it’s specific to your weaknesses and specific to what you’re about to do. Just like we know with workouts, specificity helps you get specific results. Why not maximize your time and get the most out of your training? It’s my opinion that you could use that precious time in your warm-up to not only get your body grooving, but to shore up weaknesses and expand your abilities.

Balancing the Body

While you are more likely to get injured from dropping a weight on yourself than by pulling a muscle, you also want to make sure that you aren’t pulling any of your muscles. Besides, a balanced body does more than just prevent injury, it also helps you lift with more ease, recover faster, lift heavier, and build more aesthetically pleasing muscles (and posture).

Using the warm-up as a time to balance your body will make sure that when you do your workout, each exercise will be developing your body in a more balanced way.

The Postural Restoration Institute has done a great job of pioneering exercises that quickly and dramatically improve strength and mobility. I use these exercises in all of my clients’ programming with excellent feedback. It takes time for them to stick, so they should be done first in the workout, as well as frequently throughout the day. Doing them first allows the rest of your workout to be performed on a more balanced body. In this article I will go through two of these exercises.

Expanding Movement Capabilities

If you’ve ever watched the internet, there are millions of videos detailing how the human body can be used. Why be limited to just the squat and deadlift? While these are great exercises for putting mass on the body, it’s healthy to diversify your movement. Not only is it fun, but no matter how sedentary your life is, movement diversity is accident prevention.

Your body moves in the sagittal, frontal and transverse planes. Fancy words meaning it goes up and down, side to side and rotates. People with forward pelvises and flared ribs tend to be sagittal (up and down, forward and back) dominant and have more trouble in the other two planes. Picture a really strong weightlifter who walks with short choppy steps. Their body is adapted for just one plane, and they may have a harder time playing basketball. Likewise, a basketball player may not be as well adapted to that particular plane, and have a harder time lifting 500 pounds.

Regardless of where you are on the spectrum, having a basic level of competence in moving in the other two planes gives you more movement options, helping to better disperse the loads you’re lifting.

Even though you don’t need to turn yourself into Gumby, exploring more options can be very enriching. Ido Portal has done a great job in popularizing a style of training that really takes advantage of a lot of movement planes. You don’t have to become a monkey or a gymnast, but adding in some crabwalks and some bearcrawls does a body good.

But before you jump on that bandwagon, it’s important to know that your pelvic and rib positions directly affect how well you move in each plane, so addressing that first is the priority.

The Principles

This warm up is nothing new, however it will be new to a lot of people who haven’t turned their warm ups into a specific monster yet. A few principles I have for this warm-up are to:

  1. Relax
  2. Have fun
  3. Start with small range of motion (ROM) and progress to larger ones
  4. Use relaxed breath cycles to further your mobility
  5. If doing hands on the ground exercises, feel your body’s weight in the feet and palms.

Structuring the Warm Up

  1. Postural exercises that balance out the body.
  2. Joint lubrication/mobility drills aimed at getting your weak/restricted areas ready to move properly through the range of motions you’ll be lifting with.
  3. Stability drills/ground based movement to get your body ready to lift.
  4. Plyometric drills/circulation to prepare your body to lift more powerfully.
  5. Specific Workout Warm Up to ingrain the movement patterns you will use in this particular workout.

The rationale is that you will do an exercise that balances the body and creates more joint space. Since a forward pelvis and a flared ribcage tend to compress the backside, doing the “All-4 Reach” exercise sends the pelvis the other way and opens up the back of the ribs. This gives you more range when going into a squat as well as giving your shoulders a boost by sending more air into the upper back. Since these exercises put the pelvis in a more neutral position, it allows you to better access the muscles that help you move side to side and rotate.

My clients usually experience an immediate feeling of ease in their push-ups after doing this exercise. Once more space is created, we will get the juices flowing by doing some mobility drills you may or may not have done before. This will help your joints move with more ease, and is very important if you lift early in the morning, when people tend to be stiffer.

Next we will do some drills that emphasize stability to make you better able to control your new range of motion. Then you take that controlled range and speed it up with some plyometric drills. This not only helps make what you’ve learned more explosive, it also gets your heart pumping and makes you literally warm up.

The last part is when you simply do technique work on the exercises you are going to train that day. For example, you do a few sets of goblet squats if you were doing squats, or kettlebell swings if you were deadlifting.

The Warm-Up

Here is a sample of how it looks on paper. This is for someone who doesn’t have a lot of time and is also relatively new to lifting with a beginner level of mobility.

  1. All-4 Reach—90/90 Hamstring
  2. Back and Forth, Hip Circles, Sprinkler,
  3. Chameleon Crawl
  4. Hops in place, side to side, fast knees
  5. Goblet Squat, Hinge Row, Push Up Plank

When applying it to your own workouts, you can adjust how much time you spend in each spot based on what feels right and what your level is. A beginner will be more balanced in how much time is spent on each stage, whereas a more advanced person could fill most of their warm-up with stage 3 and 4 type exercises since their bodies have more capacity.

Did you like the warm-up? Let me know down below in the comments!

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So, what'd you think? 8 responses below.

Adil

Thank you Marco. Another article came to the rescue from your side. It’s worth a lot.

Please mention the duration of this 5 phase warm up and that whether it remains constant as we progress through heavier and heavier workouts with time. And whether it should be inclusive or exclusive of the total workout duration.

Regards

Marco Walker-Ng

I would include the entire time spent at the gym as workout duration, however if you are a beginner I wouldn’t spend more than 10 min on the warm up. Everything is relaxed and light and slowing ramping up speed and weight as you go through it. Keeping rest times short between drills also allows the blood to start flowing and the heart rate to increase.

Krsiak Daniel

Hi Marco, great article 🙂
How do kettlebell swings translate to doing better deadlift?

Marco Walker-Ng

I am no powerlifting coach, but the swing is an explosive lockout and going with the saying ‘speed kills’, having a more explosive lockout, as well as hamstrings and glute will allow you to deadlift better, especially at the lockout position.

Jaska

Another great article – thanks Marco!

How does this relate to the Core-4, Big-6 type warm-up routine you’ve presented earlier?

Marco Walker-Ng

They are both very similar, Core-4 being replaced by some other exercises in this warm up and the Big 6 keeping their spot in the ‘specific section’.

If you did the 2 postural exercises, the core 4, a type of crawl, a plyo and 5 reps of each big 6 movement with a light weight, that would be one way of combining the two approaches.

90/90 Hip Lift
All 4 Reach
Core 4 – 5 reps each one
Hop scotch – 20 yards
Chameleon crawl – 10 yards
Bat Wings – 20 seconds
Hinge x 5
Goblet Squat x 5
Suitcase walk x 20 yards/hand
Push Ups x 5

That would be a solid warm up that shouldn’t take longer than 10 minutes and you are covering all the bases.

Jaska

Excellent. Thanks!

John Cruise

Hi, I’m John Cruise After reading your entire article I motivated a lot, so I devoted myself towards warm up Exercise and got huge improvement in my fitness, I think this is one of the most awesome article which I read in my life your tips and knowledge which you given in your awesome article is amazing and very useful. I’m very grateful to you for posting this kind of awesome article, Thank you once again.

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