A good gym warm up
Updated: Mar 2, 2020
Do I foam roll? Do I hop on the treadmill? How do I warm up for my workout? How do I warm up without looking like a complete doofus?
To answer these questions we have to look at what makes for a good warm up.
Cardio machines such as the rower are a great way to get your heart rate up
1. Increases blood flow
In case you skipped Biology class in high school: the heart pumps blood which carries oxygen from the lungs to the muscles which use up oxygen to create energy for movement. Not only does it give us energy to move our muscles but the blood also carries away by-products of anaerobic (without oxygen) energy pathways leading to less fatigue in your muscles. If you go straight into a high volume set of squats without increasing your blood flow you may feel more burn and may not be able to go for as long. The body increases blood flow by increasing heart rate and expanding your blood carrying tubes (an action called vasodilation). (1)
So you need a warm up which will get your heart rate up. The treadmill is looking pretty good right now.
2. Increases muscle temperature
Research shows that power output can increase between 2% and 10% per degree centigrade as muscle temperature is elevated and this increase is most beneficial for short term powerful movements such as lifting weights at the gym. This occurs alongside an increased blood flow so the two go hand-in-hand. (2) (3)
It's not called a WARM-UP for nothing. Research states it can take around 15-20 minutes of light intensity exercise to raise your temperature significantly
3. Minimises fatigue
This one is pretty obvious. The warm up is there to enhance our workout. If we expend too much energy or produce metabolic by-products which slow us down during the warm up our performance will suffer. Try to ramp up the intensity of your warm up gradually so you're primarily using your aerobic energy system rather than anaerobic energy systems and don't surpass 30 minutes of light exercise to minimise fatigue.
Keep the intensity of the workout low or at most moderate so we don't affect our actual workout and keep the duration short.
4. Increases range of motion (ROM)
ROM can affect things such as how deep you can go in your squats which helps you get more out of your exercises but, almost as importantly, it can also effect how good your workout can feel (5). Now stay with me for this next jump in logic but you probably want your movements to feel good while working out?
Foam rolling and dynamic stretching have both been shown to temporarily increase your ROM. (4)(6)
5. Decreases soreness from previous workouts
If you're working out multiple times per week (and you should be!) you may pull up sore from one workout to the next. A good warmup should decrease your perception of soreness so that you can push yourself harder during the actual workout.
Again, foam rolling has been scientifically proven to reduce how sore you feel (4) and dynamic stretching will also help with this. (6)
6. Prepares the mind and the body
A good warm up should prepare the mind for the workout that's about to come. We're busy people in 2019 and sometimes it can feel like there's a lot going on in your brain. The warm up is a great time to slow down and focus on what's in front of you: fun times in the gym! On top of this the system which sends electrical messages from your brain to your muscle (called your central nervous system or CNS) can be warmed up as well. Priming your CNS will result in you being able to send stronger signals to your muscles, meaning stronger force output on your lifts. There is limited evidence on the psychological benefits of a warm up but here's where clinical experience comes into play, it makes a difference to me and it makes a difference to my clients. If you've had a busy day at work, a warm up can help you focus on what's here and now.
A specific warm up involves performing warm up sets with just the barbell or light weights to mimic the movement you're about to perform. Specific warm up movements are recommended in just about all the articles I read.
So the perfect warm up will: Increase blood flow, increase muscle temperature, minimise fatigue, increase ROM, decrease soreness and prepare us mentally and physically for the warm up that's about to come.
But no single exercise modality does ALL of these things!
Ideally you will to hit as many of these targets as you can: foam roll, perform light aerobic work, go through some dynamic stretches and do a specific warm up.
But life isn't perfect and time is limited so here are my guidelines to a warm up:
- Getting to gym can be your light aerobic work; ride your bike, scooter, roller skates or park down the street and walk for 5 minutes. It won't even feel like you've started yet.
- If you have time, go for a foam roll to loosen up the muscles. If you're feeling sore make the time to foam roll where it hurts.
- Go through a generic dynamic stretching routine. This should take your muscles through their range of motion and begin to lightly work the muscles, you should notice an increase in breathing rate. This is also where you'll be able to check in with your body to see what feels sore or if you're feeling good.
- Go through a specific warm up for the large exercises you have coming up today. These can be bodyweight movements, plyometrics (e.g. squat jumps) or using the equipment at a very light weight. This should be moderate intensity so you should only be able to keep up a conversation in between breaths.
And that should be that! Hopefully this has given you a better idea of what to do at the gym instead of just sitting on the foam roller for 30 minutes. Remember, different people react differently to the same warm up so you will have to listen to your body to find what works for you and how long to do it for.
An example of a dynamic warm up flow to go through before lifting
(Edit: Need more movement ideas for your warm up? I've created a whole playlist of the best dynamic movements I use for my warm up at the gym. Just click on THIS to view it.)
Barroso, R., Silva-Batista, C., Tricoli, V., Roschel, H., & Ugrinowitsch, C. (2013). The Effects of Different Intensities and Durations of the General Warm-up on Leg Press 1RM. Journal Of Strength And Conditioning Research, 27(4), 1009-1013. doi: 10.1519/jsc.0b013e3182606cd9
Berg, U., & Ekblom, B. (1979). Influence of muscle temperature on maximal muscle strength and power output in human skeletal muscles. Acta Physiologica Scandinavica, 107(1), 33-37. doi: 10.1111/j.1748-1716.1979.tb06439.x
Sargeant, A. (1987). Effect of muscle temperature on leg extension force and short-term power output in humans. European Journal Of Applied Physiology And Occupational Physiology, 56(6), 693-698. doi: 10.1007/bf00424812
Beardsley, C., & Škarabot, J. (2015). Effects of self-myofascial release: A systematic review. Journal Of Bodywork And Movement Therapies, 19(4), 747-758. doi: 10.1016/j.jbmt.2015.08.007
Mookerjee S., & Ratamess, N. (1999). Comparison of Strength Differences and Joint Action Durations Between Full and Partial Range-of-Motion Bench Press Exercise. The Journal Of Strength And Conditioning Research, 13(1), 76. doi: 10.1519/1533-4287(1999)013<0076:cosdaj>2.0.co;2
Behm, D., & Chaouachi, A. (2011). A review of the acute effects of static and dynamic stretching on performance. European Journal Of Applied Physiology, 111(11), 2633-2651. doi: 10.1007/s00421-011-1879-2