Training | POSTED December 21, 2021

Everything You Need To Know About Warming Up

So, you’ve decided you’d like to start exercising, brilliant! Like many, you’re probably wondering where to start. Well once you’re in the gym most would say “by warming up, of course!” to which we at Ivy Training, agree with.


However, if you were to search “how to warm-up” in the old Google machine what would return is a myriad of results all varying in recommendations, specific exercises, some warnings against injuring yourself and more. Much of this information however is outdated or misunderstood especially regarding the protective benefits of static stretching [1], [2].

How to we define “warming up?”


What we want to explore in this post are some principles which will help demystify the warm-up process and provide a useful heuristic to guide your decision making in the gym (or at home, or the park)!


Now, to add a little bit of complexity to the discussion, warming-up can change in nature depending on the task at hand – are you performing a strength session, are you about to perform a conditioning session, play a sport or something else entirely…? Often for youth and amateur sports, it’s recognised that strength training is important however time demands limit the opportunities to train, hence many strength protocols are embedded into a “warm-up for the purpose of compliance”. Very often it’s the strength training that reduces the risk of injury [3].


Here at Ivy Training we specialise in strength training. You can read more about why we love strength training here. We’ll frame this discussion around that context and then briefly provide some other recommendations afterwards for other activities commonly seen in the fitness industry. We can break warming up into broadly two useful categories:

a) preparing the body for the physical demands of the task at hand, and

b) priming the nervous system to best perform that task at hand.

I’d argue today that anything else is either superfluous, fatiguing or unhelpful. We’ll break each one down and then explain how both can be achieved with one simple process.

Warming up done wrong

If you look like this when you’re warming up, you’re probably doing it wrong

Physical preparation


The adage “you should stretch before you workout” isn’t necessarily correct but it’s not wrong either – it’s perhaps just misunderstood. Many now realise that a passive stretch (think sitting on the ground with your legs straight in front of you and reaching for your toes!) isn’t enough to prepare you for more dynamic movements (think squatting, bench pressing, kettlebell swings and more) [4]. So many rightly think dynamic movement is more important – this is true. However, what we teach at Ivy Training is that our warm-ups are dynamic, but they are also specific.


In preparing for the physical demands of the task we would argue that the best “stretching” you can do is the activity that you’re about to do! A little bit of a physiology lesson here: whenever you perform an exercise there’s both a shortening (concentric) and lengthening (eccentric) component. Whenever we “stretch” we are simply holding the “eccentric” portion of the movement. For example, stand up, slightly bend your knees and reach down for your toes; that’s basically the first portion of a Romanian Deadlift, an exercise that strengthens your hamstrings! So, we do advocate “stretching” as a warm-up, but really what we’re saying is, take your body specifically through the range of motion you’re working during your strength training session. This will prepare all the structures associated with the task at hand.

Nervous system preparation


Okay so let’s tackle that second part, “priming the nervous system” – what do I mean by that? Well, your nervous system is pretty awesome and in the context of physical activity, will fine tune the amount of force required for various tasks based on the input you provide (by recruiting higher threshold motor units and other chemical mechanisms within the muscle fibre). Strength training sessions will generally revolve around getting stronger which at one point means you’ll be moving a load (your bodyweight, the bar, or a machine for example) that is challenging for you. Where people go wrong is they jump straight into that challenging load without working up to that target load.


When your nervous system has the opportunity to fine tune output relative to the task, it can better perform that task. For example, if I were to squat 100kg, if I went from nothing to 100kg, that would feel pretty rough! However, if I were to go 20kg, 60kg, 80kg, 90kg then finally 100kg, although not easy, my nervous system is in the best position to produce force for the task at hand [5], [6].


So, let’s bring this all together. Conveniently, the two categories converge in one system: progressively adding load while performing the movement that you are training that day (‘ramping up’). Moreover, depending on the structure of the session (full-body or a body-part split), the order of the exercises and the loading zone of each movement, the amount of warming up or better yet “preparation” will change. Let me provide a practical example.

What does warming up at Ivy Training look like?

An example of warming up for a full body session

As you can see, we kept it specific and simple. This doesn’t mean that there isn’t a time to do more, or that different strategies can’t be used, but for the overwhelming majority of individuals currently not working through any injuries, this approach to warming up is more than sufficient.

If you were also performing a “split” program where you perhaps work one major muscle group, warming-up would get simpler, especially the later the exercise and additionally, if that exercise is smaller and less stressful. For instance:

An example warming up for a lower body session

Catering to individual differences

Now these are just examples. The loads used and the jumps between loads will certainly depend on the individual’s strength, preferences and even the lift itself. Very often with myself I’ll take smaller jumps and perform more sets with a squat, but find with the deadlift, I can take quite large initial jumps (40–60kg at a time) before making smaller increases in load. As time goes out you can iron out the strategy you’ll take but here are a couple of useful guidelines:

  1. Start with the empty bar
  2. Take larger jumps at first and smaller jumps between your last warm-up
    and first working set (5-10% load)
  3. You’ll probably want at least 3 sets between the bar and the target
    weight on your first compound lift of the day (depending on your overall
    absolute strength and the rep range)
  4. Try to avoid resting until your last warm-up set
  5. Use the last couple of warm-up sets to equip any equipment you might
    use (belt, wraps or straps for example)

One caveat, what if you don’t feel great? Well, physical training isn’t meant to be comfortable and strength training itself is meant to be somewhat “heavy” (we are lifting weights after all!) however, very often once someone gets a few minutes into movement, they feel better (there’s that phrase “motion is lotion”). Moreover, having a ramping approach where we gradually increase load allows us to feel out for our preparedness on the day. If that last warm-up set feels really easy, you may be able to push harder. If it’s really challenging that day, you may call that your first set and simply stay there or lower the load. This is the benefit of a simple and structured approach to warming up!

Warming up on the deadlift

Empty barbell to 120kg on a deadlift warm-up

What about other physical activity, that isn’t strength training?

Lastly, I mentioned earlier how the nature of the task may change the preparation? Well, strength training may not be your only flavour of exercise. What if you wanted to go on a jog? We’d argue for the same approach: a) prepare the physical body and b) attune the nervous system. You could simply start with walking for a minute, a very light jog for a couple minutes, a slightly faster jog for another minute then in about 5 minutes, you’re at your pace for the aerobic session.

If however, you love your small group training like Barry’s Bootcamp, these sessions are neither purely aerobic or dedicated strength training sessions. Here a wider variety of dynamic movements might be utilised to warm-up “in general” as during the class, the movements themselves will not be pushed individual to a very high intensity (although it will feel intense!) but the variety you come across will be wide and therefore, it will be hard to recommend any one movement to prepare with. A simple solution however is to jump on something like a C2 Rower if available as that tends to involve a large amount of muscle mass and increase your heart rate relatively quickly.

In conclusion, warming up doesn’t have to be complex, keep it simple, keep it specific and just know what you’re there for.

Resources

  1. https://www.painscience.com/articles/stretching.php#rr
  2. Lund H, et al. The effect of passive stretching on delayed onset muscle soreness, and other detrimental effects following eccentric exercise. Scand J Med Sci Sports. 1998 Aug;8(4):216–21. PubMed #9764443
  3. https://bmcsportsscimedrehabil.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s13102-017-0083-z
  4. Effect of Acute Static Stretch on Maximal Muscle Performance: A Systematic Review. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2011 Jun 8. PubMed #21659901
  5. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19203135/
  6. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8120977/