A proper warm up can be a key factor in getting the most out of your workouts and putting you one step closer to achieving your fitness goals. A good warm up should improve your performance and reduce your risk of injury. But are you doing enough before you start your workout? Or maybe you’re doing too much? Your body will likely tell you during your workout, and that’s something to be mindful of. Do you feel aches and pains with your movements? Are you mentally or physically drained before you even get to a working set? Below I will provide a step by step guide to make sure your body and your mind are well prepared for the workout ahead.

The Purpose of a Warm Up

Whether your goal is to lose weight or improve athletic performance, the purpose of your warm up is the same. If you’re lifting weights, doing some sprints or participating in sport, the purpose of your warm up is also the same. The overall goal is to prepare your body and your mind to optimally perform and withstand the stress you are about to inflict on your body.

A warm up can be broken down into 4-steps:

  1. Increase core temperature
  2. Open up movement restrictions (if any)
  3. Practice your movements
  4. Ramp up your nervous system.

You always want to make sure you incorporate all 4 of these steps in some way prior to starting your workout. Let’s discuss the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of each step and then put it all together.

How to Warm Up – A Step by Step Guide

Increase Core Temperature – Step 1:

Jumping into physical activity cold is never a good idea. Your body won’t perform well and you’re more than likely going to do some damage to your joints. The first thing you want to do is increase the core temperature by breaking a sweat. You can do this by going for a light jog or bike, skipping, dancing, or really anything that will make you sweat.

Heating up the core to the point of sweating will increase blood flow to the extremities, increase synovial fluid production giving the joints a much needed lubrication and just simply help you loosen up and feel better as you move. Next up: it’s time to get you moving better!

Open Up Any Restrictions – Step 2:

This part of the warm up will be very individualized depending on your mobility and the movements you are about to perform. The purpose of this step is to help you access a movement that you may be restricted in.

For example: if you are going to perform an overhead barbell press, yet your pecs are restricting your arms from full overhead extension, you may need to work on mobilizing that position.

You can do this by static stretching, resistance bands or maybe some soft tissue work with a foam roller or lacrosse ball — this one is up to you. You’ll want to look at any of the positions you will be getting into during your activity and determine your restrictions. Have a scroll through @dr.jacob.harden instagram page for some really helpful videos on mobilizing your problem areas. Once you’ve opened up your restrictions or if you don’t have anything to attend to (good on you if do), move on to step 3. You likely don’t need to do a full body stretch or foam roll, there isn’t much benefit to doing so on areas that aren’t restricted.

FYI: Static stretching before physical activity is a common debate as the research shows it can lower performance by approximately 6 – 10%. Check out the video below to determine if you should be static stretching before your workout:

Practice Your Movements – Step 3:

Now we want to go through our movements without any added load or stress. Practice the positions and movements you will be doing in your upcoming activity. This will get blood circulating to the specific muscles you will be using and stimulate the mind and muscle connection. Doing so without load allows you to explore positions and movements and perfect technique.

You can do this through dynamic stretching, literally going through your workout with weight or a more generalized routine like a dynamic mobility flow (keep reading to learn more on this). Overall, try to target and focus on movements that you will be doing in that particular workout or in that sporting activity.

Ramp Up Your Nervous System – Step 4:

We’re almost ready to start our workout, but first we need to prepare our nervous system for the stressors ahead. Start by getting your mind in the right spot. Turn up your favourite song in your headphones, put away your phone and be mindful of what the goal is you’re looking to accomplish with your workout. Get yourself in the zone and block out anything else going on in your life. Next up, it’s time to stimulate the nervous system by ramping up the load on your muscles in your specific movements. If you’re barbell squatting for example, incrementally load weight on the bar set after set until you reach your working set weight. If you’re playing basketball, do some maximal jumps or go 1 on 1 with a teammate. If you’re sprinting, run a few lengths sub-maximally.

This step is something I commonly see missed in the gym that will hold you back from reaching your full potential. If you go right into a working set without ramping up the weight, it will shock the nervous system and trigger “protective mechanisms” that inhibit part of the mind to muscle connection. This result is inefficient strength/power and sub-optimal lifts.

How Long Should A Warm Up Take?

The length of your warm up will depend on a few things like: how much time you have to workout, how restricted you are in certain positions and the type of activity you will be doing. You can warm up sufficiently in 3-5 minutes if you need and you shouldn’t go any longer than 10 – 15 minutes. If you’re going longer than 15 minutes, optimize your warm up to shorten it and then spend that extra time getting more resilient and stronger in your workout. A warm up is important, but the real results come from your workout not your warm up!

To shorten your warm up or if you’re strapped for time, you can combine these steps through dynamic movement flows or barbell flows. A dynamic movement flow is generalized movements that increase your core temperature and allow you to practice movements and even access restricted positions. Here are quick and effective lower body and upper body warm-ups to check out. If you’re lifting weights, you can also try out a barbell flow. This consists of grabbing an empty barbell and going through various movements in succession, such as: Deadlift, Row, Clean, Front Squat, Push Press.

Final Thoughts:

Don’t skip your warm-up, it’s just not worth it. Make it efficient and ensure you’re checking off the 4 steps listed above prior to starting your working set or physical activity. Your body will thank you in the long run and I’d bet you’ll see much better results too!

If you want to learn more about injury prevention, performance and self-care, check out this podcast with Dr. Jacob Harden on The HealthSimple Show by clicking on the picture below:

Injury Prevention Podcast
(Podcast available on iTunes and Soundcloud)