Pop quiz: What’s the single most important part of your workout?
If you said the warm-up, you win! Without a proper warm-up, there are many risks associated with working out, including but not limited to injury, less-than-optimal performance, or slowed progress (aka plateauing). According to expert Greg Johnson, CSCS, a strength and conditioning coach based in Sacramento, CA, there are five integral parts of a warm-up that must be addressed before even touching a weight or setting foot on the treadmill. Start strong, finish stronger!
5 Tips for the Perfect Warm-Up
1. Dynamic Mobility
Dynamic mobility is the body’s ability to move in multiple directions safely. Closely related to flexibility (but arguably even more important),“dynamic mobility gently increases range of motion to reduce chance for injury,” Johnson says. Injuries caused by lack of joint mobility can be especially debilitating for long periods of time. According to Colin Eakin, MD, a physician at the Palo Alto Medical Foundation, recovery from a torn labrum (a common shoulder injury), for instance, could take anywhere from four weeks post-operation rest plus two months of physical therapy to heal, or it could continue indefinitely. To up your chances of staying in the game, dynamic mobility can help. Try dynamic movements, such as arm circles and leg swings against a wall (working the upper and lower body is key!).
2. Movement-Specific Preparation
You turn on your car before heading out for a drive. By the same logic, you need to turn on the parts of your brain that control motion in preparation for a workout. The main benefit to movement-specific preparation, Johnson says, is activating muscles that will be used in that day’s workout to ensure your workout is as effective as possible. For example, bodyweight squats would make sense if you are doing front barbell squats, and light band presses or push-ups for a day you’re doing a pressing motion, like a bench press.
3. Increase Core Temperature
It’s called a “warm-up” for good reason. “The increase in blood flow and higher muscle temperature makes muscles more pliable, and that pliability prevents strains,” Johnson says. A muscle strain may seem like a minor setback, but once strained, the likelihood of that strain reoccurring becomes much higher, Johnson says, which can lead to more strains, more time out of the gym, and slowed down (or nonexistent, gasp!) results.
4. Proprioceptive Awareness
The concept of proprioception is, loosely translated, very similar to body awareness. However, a more strict definition is knowing where the body is in space. It’s the sense that allows you to touch your hands behind your back and is also responsible for hand-eye coordination on the court, on the field and beyond. Johnson says the benefit of waking up this sense is simple: You can minimize imbalance issues — and potential for injury — by using all three planes of motion. To start, try standing on one foot and touch your hands behind your back with your eyes closed. Or, you can perform the “lunge with reach back” move detailed below.
5. Joint Integrity
Not sure who or what to blame for joint pain? The culprit could be your warm-up. “Increasing the efficiency of joint movement, essential for optimal joint health, is achievable through a good warm-up,” Johnson says. Try a combination of dynamic stretching and light impact exercise, such as jumping rope. This will remind your body of the elastic properties of your tendons and ligaments that prevents them from tearing every time you exercise, Johnson says.
Ready to put it all together? Try this dynamic warm-up from Johnson to get you ready for vigorous activity (weightlifting, swimming, running and court sports included). For those who are especially tight, start off with 10 minutes of foam rolling to prep the body for movement. Then perform the following moves for 10 reps each (unless otherwise noted), with no rest in between.
- Half Jacks (or Jump Rope)
These are your basic jumping jacks, but the hands only go up to shoulder height. Keep ‘em up for 30-60 seconds to get the body warmed up.
From your hands and knees, extend your right arm forward and your left leg back. Bring your right elbow and left knee together under your body, then extend them back out, then place them on the floor in the original start position. Repeat in an alternating fashion.
- External Rotation
Squeezing a towel between your elbow and your side, grab the handle of a resistance band that is at elbow height. Rotate your body so that your forearm is resting on your stomach and there is tension on the band. Rotate your upper arm outwards so that your forearm is perpendicular to your body and slowly return to the start position. Repeat on the opposite side.
- Lunge with Reach Back
Take a big lunge step out, drop your back knee almost to the floor, push your hips forward, and extend your hands overhead, leaning back as if reaching to your back foot. Hold for one second and return to the start position.
- Prayer Stretch with Rotation
Place your hands together in front of your body, palms together. Lower them as far down as they can go, feeling a stretch in the forearms. Rotate the hands so the fingers face forward (if you can get them pointed towards the ground), hold for one second then rotate them back in towards you, attempting to point at your chest, hold for one second, return to the prayer position, and repeat.
Bend over with straight legs and a straight back as far as you can, then reach your hands towards the ground. Walk out into a pushup position, drop your hips to the floor, then straighten your body out into a pushup position again. From that position, walk your feet towards your hands, on your toes with straight legs, until you feel a deep stretch in your hamstrings. Walk your hands out and repeat.
- Side Shuffle
Get into a half-squat position and slowly walk laterally 10 steps out, not allowing your feet to touch, then 10 steps back.
This one moves fast, but here’s the basic breakdown: Step your left foot over your right, turning your hips that direction. Now uncross your right leg from under your left so your feet and hips are shoulder-width apart, pointing straight ahead. Then step your left leg behind your right, once again turning your hips. Step your right leg out from over your left so your feet and hips are once again pointing forward, shoulder-width apart. Continue for about 30 feet and they head back in the other direction.
- Hitch Hiker
Set up a resistance band so that it’s attached to something near the ground. Stand up and hold one of the handles in your right hand, letting the band pull your arm across your body towards your left pocket, thumb pointing backwards. Raise your arm up and out, turning your hand so that your thumb once again faces the wall and your hand is well above your head. Slowly return to the start position, complete nine more reps, and repeat on the other side.
- TRX/Assisted Squat
Hold a TRX with your arms fully extended, standing upright. Squat down as low as you can, still holding the TRX. Return to the start position.
This one you know (and love, right?). Drop down, give us 10, and let the workout begin!
Originally posted on August 27, 2013. Updated March 2015.