How to Instantly Improve Your Workout With a Warm Up
So you’ve got it all planned out.
You wrote up an awesome workout plan and training schedule.
Your nutritional scheme is top tier.
You even programmed in the amount of cardio you’re going to perform each day (or not perform).
But, after all of this, you have still forgotten the most important aspect of your entire fitness plan:
The Warm Up
Warming up is like engine oil in a car. Sure you can run a car without any oil, but it won’t be a smooth ride and you will most likely run into some problems. Same thing goes with a proper warm up and training.
Before we get into the nitty gritty of why you need a solid warm up plan, let’s point out the problem that many Americans fail to see as a problem.
Poor posture is the result of common movement patterns and the body’s natural tendency to move in a path of less resistance. For example, if you’ve been sitting at a desk in front of a computer all day long, your shoulders, upper back, and head will have been put in a slouched position for hours thus resulting in a rounded upper back. Also, from sitting in a chair for long periods of time, you will notice many people have very bad lower back pain due to an extended lumbar spine. Postural distortions such as these, if left unaddressed, can wreak havoc on both your body and your workout.
Now let’s talk about some terms you should know when considering a good warm up.
*Disclaimer: This section may seem boring, but stick with me.
A muscle, as you all know, is made up of fibers; more specifically, myofibrils. These myofibrils contain sarcomeres, which contain actin and myosin, which are responsible for the contraction and relaxation of muscle. When a sarcomere is either fully extended or contracted, it generates far less power than when it is only slightly stretched; this is why it is easier to perform partial reps than full. But, when a muscle is already shortened due to poor posture, it is difficult for it to ever reach full range of motion.
But what does this have to do with warming up?
When you are subjected to common movement patterns every day, your body begins to naturally “assume the position,” meaning your posture will get worse and worse resulting in overly tight and lengthened muscles. When a muscle is already shortened, it is already contracted. This shortening of the muscle directly affects its ability to perform at its full capability in the gym, since it can never be fully stretched.
Using our office worker example, his upper trapezius, pectorals, and levator scapulae will all be shortened due to his natural tendency to slouch over the computer. While, on the other hand, his cervical flexors, rhomboids, and lower trapezius will all be lengthened (meaning they need to be strengthened).
What does this mean? Less than optimal muscular performance.
So how can I tell if I have poor posture?
Unfortunately, you probably already do if you don’t stretch regularly. But it can be fixed, so don’t worry.
First, you want to go about addressing your muscular imbalances. A muscle imbalance occurs when the muscle length around the joint becomes altered, resulting in a less than optimal response of said muscle when activated. So, for example, say your feet turn out when you squat. This means that you have tight calves and a weakened medial hamstring. An easy way to assess your imbalances is to have someone (you could do it yourself, too, with a mirror) take notes of your posture while you are standing still. Have them observe you from both the front and the side. What they should check for:
Anterior (front) View:
- Foot/ankle: straight and parallel, not flattened or externally rotated
- Knees: In line with toes, not adducted or abducted
- LPHC*: Pelvis level with both hip bones
- Shoulders: Level, not elevated or rounded
- Head: Neutral position, not tilted or rotated
Lateral (side) View:
- Foot/ankle: neutral position, leg and sole of foot should make a right angle.
- Knees: neutral position, not flexed or hyperextended.
- LPHC*: pelvis in neutral position, not anteriorly (lumbar extension) or posteriorly rotated (lumbar flexion).
- Shoulders: normal kyphotic curve, no excessive rounding.
- Head: neutral position, not in excessive extension (protruding forward)
*Stands for Lumbo-Pelvic-Hip-Complex.
Now, perform a bodyweight squat (to a comfortable depth) with your hands raised above your head, and repeat this 5 times while your partner is observing you from the front. Then, have your partner observe 5 repetitions from the side. Have your partner refer to the table below to detect any muscular imbalances.
Ok, so now you’ve gone through a postural and overhead squat assessment and found that you have some overly tight muscles. Where do you go from there?
Here’s where the warm up comes in to play.
In your warm up, you want to first target your shortened (tight) muscles. You can do this by stretching, but I would much prefer you start with either a foam roller or a hard ball of some sort (tennis, lacrosse, field hockey, etc.) for self myofascial release (SMR).
Self myofascial release is the act of applying pressure to a tight muscle, causing the GTO (Golgi Tendon Organ) to release, which will cause the muscle to relax. If you have tight calves, apply the pressure to the area for 20-30 seconds. The best way to gauge where to apply pressure is to put the ball or roller on the calf and move it around until you find the spot that is causing the most pain. Once you find this spot, hold the pressure there. Repeat this pattern with all tight muscles.
The reason you are starting with SMR is to get your muscles back into their appropriate length-tension relationships, allowing you to optimally recruit the muscle fibers during the workout. This will also help to alleviate some stress patterns (also called knots) located deep in the muscle tissue, which can affect the muscles relaxation and contraction.
After rolling out, I like to have my clients perform either active or dynamic stretching. There is a lot of buzz about static stretching and how it can decrease performance if done before working out, but that is not why I choose to omit it from my programming. I prefer active and dynamic stretching because it closely resembles the muscles’ movement patterns during exercise (repeated extension and flexion).
With active stretching, we are looking for reciprocal inhibition. Reciprocal inhibition occurs when an agonist muscle contracts resulting in the inhibition of its opposing antagonist. In layman’s terms, when you flex your bicep (agonist) it is impossible to flex your tricep (antagonist). Active stretches should be held for 2-5 seconds and then performed in a repeating pattern.
Dynamic stretching helps to improve mobility and consists of fast paced, repetitive motions such as leg swings or lunges. Dynamic exercises should be completed using 8-12 repetitions of the particular exercises.
I have provided a few examples of both active and dynamic warm up exercises to serve as a visual aid (there are thousands of exercises available, I just picked a few of my favorites).
Warming up never seems like the most crucial aspect to a workout plan, but if your body is not positioned properly, how is it supposed to grow properly? Take some time to develop a good warm up routine lasting anywhere from 10-15 minutes that addresses your muscular imbalances and areas in need of improvement. Do this warm up prior to all training sessions. If the warm up is done consistently, I promise you better posture, a better workout, and better results. All because you stretched a little. Ain’t the body cool?