“I don’t believe in it. You ever see a lion limber up before it takes down a gazelle?” - Tallahassee, Zombieland (2009).
You might not need to warm up to take down a gazelle, and there’s nothing stopping you jumping into a workout without one either, but if you do you’ll be missing out a host of performance benefits.
While everyone has their own unique warm up, they all have the same purpose: to get the body temperature up, get the joints moving and blood into the muscles.
A snazzy review by Bill and Geoff Tancred took a look at the research into the physiological effects and benefits of warm ups compared to no warm up (source at end), and the research was conclusive that warm ups are handy things. To quote them, the benefits are:
“ 1. Increase in muscle blood flow
2. Increase in the sensitivity of nerve receptors
3. An increase in the dissociation of oxygen from haemoglobin and myoglobin
4. An increase in the speed of nerve impulse transmissions
5. A reduction in muscle viscosity
6. A lowering of the energy rates of metabolic chemical reactions”.
Which basically means the muscles are fired up, filled with nutrients and oxygen, and the nerves are awake and ready to go. This lets us perform better, getting a harder workout in to make more progress.
If the lions warmed up they’d have moved on to elephants by now, instead of being stuck with puny gazelles.
They also noted that active warm ups were much better than passive ones (dynamic stretches and movement instead of seated stretches), and it was important to incorporate movements that were relevant to what exercise or sport you were doing (ankle mobility isn’t too important for arm day, and bodyweight squats are fantastic for squat days).
Interestingly, while most people do a warm up to reduce the chances of injury, there isn’t a lot of solid research behind it. Part of the issue could be that it’s hard to find participants willing to injure themselves, and part of it could be that it’s hard to determine if a bad warmup was the cause of injury or if it was from an underlying weakness/misstep.
Although the evidence is largely anecdotal, I do believe a good warm up helps prevent injuries from happening - it just doesn’t feel good moving weight with cold joints, like something bad could happen, and that psychological impact is enough for me to make sure each workout has a warm up at the start.
My Go-To Warm Up
Before any type of workout - be it benching, running or whatever else - I perform the same general warm up to get the blood moving and run a quick check to make sure everything is functioning and moving properly. This routine has changed over the years, adding and swapping movements, and will likely change and become more refined as time goes on.
For now, this is my favourite way to get ready to get a sick pump/lift some big ass weight/stomp the ground for a few miles. As I tend to train using compound exercises, my warm up hits all the main joints and big muscle groups to get them ready for action. If they’re feeling a bit stiff I’ll do extra reps to loosen off a little.
Normally I’ll walk for a few mins (10-20 mins) on the way over to the gym/start point, but if I still feel chilly I’ll jump on a treadmill, stationary bike or rowing machine, for 5-10 minutes at an easy pace. If I get a lift over I’ll just jump on one of the previous machines for 5-10 mins, any longer and I feel it gets into cardio territory, taking energy away from the rest of the session.
Walking Lunges - 10 steps each foot. I prefer these to standing lunges as the more dynamic movement engages the core a little more.
Bodyweight squat - 10-20 reps. Start squatting to just above parallel, then get a little lower each squat until ass-to-grass depth (or as deep as you can go). Varying your stance (how far apart your feet are) will help warm up the hips more.
Lying Hip Thrusts - 5 reps. Lying on your back, bring feet up so knees are at 90 degrees (feet still on ground) and extend hips to bring butt into the air, balancing on your feet and upper back.
Bodyweight Good Mornings - 5-10 reps. Stand with feet just outside shoulder width apart, knees bent slightly, hands across chest or behind head, keep upper body tall and rigid. Start to bend at the hips, keeping upper body tight, until your torso is perpendicular to the ground, then rise back up to stand up straight. You may need to bend your knees more to scoot your hips back and maintain balance.
Hyper extensions on Glute Ham Raise stand (if available) - 5-10 reps. Hold your hands behind your head, and as you rise through the movement, bring your elbows back to open up the chest and squeeze the upper back. This helps prime all the muscles in the back to work together, mimicking squeezing everything to keep back in good position when exercising.
Hand Flop - 5-10 reps. Lying on back, arms out horizontal, elbows bent to 90 degrees with hands up in the air. Hold elbows at this angle, and rotate back so that hands arc back/down to touch floor (or as far as you can comfortably go). End position looking like you’re jumping out to give someone a fright. Rotate arms back up into air and repeat 5-10 times.
Floor Reach - 5-10 reps. Lying on back, arms out horizontal, elbows resting on ground and bent to 90 degree angle, try to keep back of your hands on the floor (think of the end position of the Hand Flop). Slide hands up overhead, trying to keep elbows and hands in contact with floor as much as possible. Finish with arms overhead (on floor) like you’re part of a Mexican wave. Reverse movement to get back to start position.
Press ups - 5 reps (normal hand width, pause at bottom), followed by 5 reps hands at sides (to further warm up triceps).
After this general warm up, I’ll go into warm up sets of whatever exercise I’m doing - knowing that I’m primed and ready for maximum gainZ.
An examination of the benefits of warm up: A review. 1995. B. Tancred and G Tancred. IAAF 10(4). Pp35-41.