The Complete Guide To The Perfect Warm Up

These few exercices will get your body primed for a great workout.

Akash Vaghela Akash Vaghela · 04 Feb 2018

Training Beginner
20 Mins

Share

There seems to be two camps that exist in the gym when it comes to warming up, and they both fall on two complete extreme ends of the spectrum.

On the one hand, you have those who either skip warming up completely, or think a few arm swings is enough to get started.

In contrast, you have others whose warm up lasts almost as long as their actual workout, where they’ll spend 30-40 minutes going through 67 different drills.

As with many things in fitness, the answer lies somewhere in the middle.

A few arm swings doesn’t cut it as an adequate warm up. And if you need to spend 30-40 minutes just to start training, something isn’t quite right either.

In fact, I used to be that guy that’d spend 30 minutes warming up. If it was a squat day, it’d be even longer.

I’d foam roll, stretch and mobilise every part of my body while working through different drills and angles thinking I was bullet-proofing my body against anything I’d throw at it.

The problem was, my injuries weren’t stopping, and it was making no difference to my performance. I was wasting my time.

It was only when I drastically cut this down and focused only on what mattered, that I actually reaped the benefits of a proper warm up.

A quality warm up should increase your body temperature, increase your heart rate, mobilise any stiff areas, and activate important muscle groups. Executed properly, it should safeguard you against injuries and increase your performance.

It should teach the body two things: range of motion, and that the weight is going to be heavy.

So How Should You Warm Up?


It’ll be impossible to cover every possible scenario and problem area someone may be facing, so what I’m going to do here is go through the ideal ‘desk jockey’ warm up.

I like to break the warm up into two stages:

1. General Preparation Warm Up

2. Specific Exercise Warm Up


General Preparation Warm Up


If you’re at the desk all day, there are going to be two key areas you’ll need to address: the shoulders and the hips.

To tackle each of these areas, I like to break it down a little further with four key aims:

1. Mobilise the hip flexors / quads

2. Activate the glutes / posterior chain

3. Mobilise the shoulders / pecs

4. Activate the upper back / rotator cuff

What you’ll notice here is that our aim with the warm up is to mobilise the front side of our body, and activate the backside. When you’re slouched over a desk, it’s your pecs, shoulders, hip flexors and quads that become super tight, and which can predispose you to poor posture and/or injury when in the gym.

Similarly, your glutes, hamstrings and upper back all slowly develop ‘amnesia’, which is why many of you will struggle to feel your posterior chain or back when training, and why back problems are so common amongst desk jockeys.

To begin with, I’m going to go through different progressions for each category, and then compile them into warm ups you can directly implement into your training. These will be kept short and concise, with no more than 2-4 movements, so there’s no chance of being tempted to skip it.

What I’ve purposely missed out in this article is how to approach warming up with specific injuries, as this is best left discussed with your therapist.

The most amount of time you should spend on this section should be 6-8 minutes, maximum.

Hip Flexor Mobilisations


Level 1 – Rocking Hip Flexor Stretch (arm lift)


Level 2 – Rocking Couch Stretch (raising your arm will increase the stretch)



Glute Activation Drills


Level 1 – Bodyweight Glute Bridges / Hip Thrust
Level 2 – Bodyweight Single Leg Glute Bridges / Hip Thrust


Level 3 – Any Light Dynamic Posterior Chain Move (Back Extensions, Reverse Hypers, Pullthrough, Swings)

For the upper body, there will be some crossover as you’ll see, as what I’ve found is that the best drills here accomplish both mobilisation and activation at once (for example, the handcuffs).

Shoulder Mobilisations


Level 1 – Band Dislocation

Level 2 – Band Dislocation

Level 3 – Handcuffs

Upper Back / Rotator Cuff Drills


Level 1 – Band Pull Aparts

Level 2 – YTW

Level 3 – Handcuffs

With each of the following warm up, perform them as a circuit, and for 2-4 rounds depending on time and needs.

Full Body Warm Up Level #1


1. Rocking Hip Flexor Stretch x 10 each side

2. Bodyweight Glute Bridge x 10-15

3. Band Dislocations x15-20

4. Band Pull Aparts x10-30 (to each level)

Full Body Warm Up Level #2


1. Rocking Couch Stretch x 10 each side

2. Bodyweight Single Leg Glute Bridge x 10-15

3. Band Dislocations x15-20

4. YTW x10

Full Body Warm Up Level #3


1. Walking Lunges With Leg Lift x10 each side

2. Back Extensions x10-15

3. Handcuffs x10

Upper Body Warm Up Level #1


1. Band Dislocations x15-20

2. Band Pull Apart x10-30

Upper Body Warm Up Level #2


1. Band Dislocations x15-20

2. YTW x10

Upper Body Warm Up Level #3


1. Handcuffs x10

2. Any light row or face pull x10-15

Lower Body Warm Up Level #1


1. Rocking Hip Flexor Stretch x10 each side

2. Bodyweight Glute Bridge x10-15

Lower Body Warm Up Level #2


1. Rocking Couch Stretch x10 each side

2. Bodyweight Single Leg Glute Bridge x10-15

Lower Body Warm Up Level #3


1. Walking Lunges With Leg Lift x10 each side

2. Back Extensions x10-15

Specific Exercise Warm Up


Once you’ve completed the above drills, you’re ready to move onto the next stage, where we begin warming up with light weights till we reach our working sets.

The approach you take here will depend a lot on your strength levels, your injury status, the exercise type and your training age

The goal of this stage of the warm up should be to rehearse movement patterns, excite the nervous system further and prime the body for the work sets.

You should be treating each warm up set like a real set, and not simply going through the motions with sloppy technique.

If you can really dial in your technique, control and muscle activation during these warm ups, it’ll pay dividends when it comes to the main work.

I personally find that this stage of the warm up is more important than the general prep phase most people focus on.

Let’s go through an example.

If your goal today is to perform 3 sets of 6 to 8 reps on the squat, and you’re aiming to use 100kg for your first set, here’s what you should NOT do:

Bar (20kg) x 10

60kg x 10

100kg x 6-8 (work sets)

The jumps in load are too big, and you’re not preparing your body in the slightest for what’s to come.

Here’s how a better warm up may look like:

Bar (20kg) x 10

40kg x 5

60kg x 5

70kg x 3

80kg x 2

90kg x 1

100kg x 6-8 (work sets)

Or

Bar (20kg) x 10

40kg x 8

60kg x 6

70kg x 4

80kg x 2

90kg x 1

100kg x 6-8 (work sets)

The beauty of this is that with each set, your nervous system will fire harder, so it should ‘feel’ easier every time. Because of the low reps on each warm up set, you’ll conserve all your energy for your work sets too.

Try keep rest periods only as long as it takes to change the weight, before taking a little longer prior to your main working sets. For example:

Bar (20kg) x 10 – 20-30 sec rest

40kg x 8 – 20-30 sec rest

60kg x 6 – 20-30 sec rest

70kg x 4 – 30-60 sec rest

80kg x 2 – 60 sec rest

90kg x 1 – 120 sec rest

100kg x 6-8 (work sets)

Also, it’ll also allow you know where you’re at for the day. As you’re warming up, you may find when you get to 80kg that things aren’t quite feeling right today.

Instead of continuing to work up, you may need to stay at 80kg for a few more warm up sets, or address whatever is causing the issue at the time.

By taking more warm up sets, you allow yourself to be more in tune with your body for the workout ahead, and whether or not it’s going to be a good day or not.

As you pay attention to this more and more, you’ll realise you have certain weights that serve as ‘markers’ for how your day will be. For example, when I perform Romanian deadlifts, I know that if 120kg moves smoothly, fast and pain free, I’ll have a strong day. If it feels heavy, slow and ‘off’, I know I may need to dial down the intensity today.

This will help in learning how to ‘auto regulate’ as you become more advanced – a skill that’s invaluable in staying injury free in the long term.

If you’re more beat up or injury prone, you can modify the above warm up to the following:

Bar (20kg) x 10

40kg x 8

60kg x 8

70kg x 6

80kg x 6

90kg x 6

100kg x 6-8 (work sets)

This system is less optimal for maximal performance as you will create cumulative fatigue through the increased volume in the warm ups. However, for more beat up lifters, the fatigue will mean you will use less weight for your main sets whilst still getting a good training effect.

What about exercises later in the workout?


Once you’ve warmed up extensively for the main, compound lifts, the warm up required later in the workout can be much shorter.

If you’re performing 3 sets of 8-12 on the split squat as your second exercise, you may only need one or two warm up sets to gain familiarity with it.

For example, if you’re going to use 20kg, it may be

Bodyweight x 10 each side

10kg x 5 each side

20kg x 8-12 (work sets)

If you’re only using 5-10kg, then one warm up set may be sufficient. Generally speaking, the stronger you are, the more warm up sets you’ll require.

Muscle Activations During Warm Ups


One strategy I like to use to enhance both mind muscle connection and joint integrity is to activate the muscle you’re about to train before and during these specific warm up sets.

Let’s take the bench press as an example, where the focus is on the chest. What you can do before starting is to squeeze the chest as hard as possible for 6-10 seconds by bring your elbows together in front of you.

What this will do is potentiate the muscle you’re about to work, and let your body know where to focus the tension.

You should feel a stronger mind muscle connection to your chest when you get into your main work sets.

What About Traditional Stretching?


Static stretching has got a bad rap over the years for causing injury and decreasing performance when used prior to lifting.

The problem is, most of the research here points to long duration stretching done right prior to lifting, which makes complete sense.

But how many times in the real world do you sit in a stretch for 2 minutes and then apply force through weight training? Very rarely.

Which is why I think static stretching can be useful in some scenarios to help you get into certain positions in your lifts.

While I believe full range of motion strength training with perfect form to be the best mobility ticket for anyone, many of you won’t be able do this in the first place, so will need some help from a little static stretching.

The way I would integrate this is to pick 1 or 2 key problem areas related to the body parts you’re about to train, and just stretch it out for 15-20 seconds.

If you have time after training, or later in the day before bed, that’s when longer bouts of stretching (30-120 seconds) works well.

Here are some of the typical problem areas:

Hip flexors: Get into the bottom of a lunge position or bottom position of a Bulgarian split squat (similar to the rocking stretches earlier). After holding it for 15-20 seconds, you can jump straight into the rocking mobilisations I showed ealier.

Glutes/hip rotators:

Groin: My favourite stretch here is to sit in a deep squat stretch, and push your knees out with your elbows.

Calves: Stand in the bottom of a one-legged calf raise, or load up progressively on a calf machine for 10-15 seconds a time. The latter works very well pre-squatting if ankle mobility is an issue.


Pecs:

Lats/shoulders:

This section on static stretching is by no means compulsory, nor necessary for many. But some of you may find starting with a few stretches for 10-20 seconds can help open up certain positions before moving into more dynamic work.

What About Foam Rolling During Warming Up?


I used to live on my foam roller. I’d spend a good 15-20 minutes before every session rolling out my entire body, using different rollers, surfaces and equipment with the aim of undoing all the ‘knots’ in my body.

Looking back, it was a complete waste of time. Spending that long rolling your whole body completely dulls your central nervous system output and detracts from any potential intensity that you’ll bring to the session.

I’m all for corrective body work and staying on top of soft tissue work, but trying to break down knots with a foam roller just isn’t going to happen. It needs to come from the outside in, which is why finding a good practitioner is so critical. It’s going to take you hours and hours to get the same effect a practitioner can produce in minutes.

If you can’t find anyone good on a regular basis, then you need to be extremely specific with what you’re looking to release. I would use a cricket or hockey ball, and place it in the tender spot while moving slowly for 30-60 seconds. That’s it.

If you are going to use this, test and retest any problematic areas before and after you roll it so you know it’s actually working.

What About Jogging In Your Warm Up?


Running on a treadmill for 10 minutes at the start of a session is another complete waste of time. It’s not specific at all to weights, and does nothing to help the two key aims of a warm up: improve range of motion and prepare the body for heavy weights.

What I have found though is by making sure you’re staying active on a daily basis and achieving 8-10,000 steps a day at least, then your body will always be more ‘prepared’ and ‘loose’.

I personally walk 25 minutes to get to my gym, which serves two purposes:

  1. It allows me to split work and training, as opposed to driving there in 2 minutes and not having the mental break between the two.
  2. It loosens my body up for the training ahead.

It works really well, and so if you don’t have much of a walk to get to your gym, spending 10-15 minutes doing some very light activity can be a useful method to ‘get in the zone’ and open your body up after sitting for extended periods of time.

Should I Be Doing More Mobility Outside Of My Sessions?


If mobility is an issue for you, then you’ll need to dedicate more time to it outside of your short warm ups prior to training.

If you’re someone with tight hips, inactive glutes, poor shoulder flexibility and a hunched upper back (like many desk jockeys are), then performing the full body warm up on a daily basis is probably a wise choice.

Besides this, staying focused on your posture when you’re sitting at the desk, standing and walking is important. You can do all the corrective work you like, but if you come back to your desk and continue to slouch, you’ll quickly undo any of the work.

A good trick I like to use with office clients is to ask them to keep a post-it note on their computer with the words ‘shoulders back!’.

Concluding The Warm Up


Writing an article on something as individual as a warm up can be tough. What I hope you’ve taken from this is two things:

  • The general warm up needs to be specific and focused on your problematic areas to help improve range of motion and stability where needed
  • You need to adequately prepare your body for heavy weights with properly executed warm up sets

Now you’ve warm up, go train hard, progressively and set some PRs!


Akash VaghelaAkash Vaghela

Akash Vaghela has spent 10+ years transforming bodies and lives around the world, and in May 2017, founded RNT Fitness to serve this purpose. His vision is to see a world transformed, where ambitious high performers experience the power of the physical as the vehicle to unlock their real potential. He’s the author of the Amazon best-sellilng book Transform Your Body Transform Your Life, which explains his unique and proven five-phase methodology, is host of the RNT Fitness Radio podcast, has been featured in the likes of Men’s Health and BBC, whilst regularly speaking across the world on all things transformation.

Read Story

What’s your problem?

Take our free 5 minute test now to discover the one thing getting in your way of the body you want.

Take The Test