Plenty of new people try to skip the warm up and just hit the weights. There are some pretty important concepts you should understand before you skimp on a warm up.
Here’s the straight answer – you warm up so that you don’t injure yourself.
As a fitness trainer, I have no interest in wasting your gym time. In fact, I want to make sure that every second my clients are there, they feel that they are getting the most out of it.
So why put people through a stupid warm up? The simple answer is: So that I can push you very, very hard without injuring you.
Warm Up Duration and Intensity
The more intense your workout is, or is going to be, the more thorough your warm up has to be. I would never have someone try to get a personal record on the bench press without warming them up thoroughly.
I would never, ever, ever have someone sprint at an all-out pace without some serious warm ups.
In fact, sprinting is a very intense exercise. I haven’t seen that many injuries because I warm my people up good. But I have seen the most injuries in sprinting.
Think about it. You’re moving your entire body weight across 100m or so, as fast as you possibly can. Even when you do heavy deadlifts you’re usually only lifting 1-2x your body weight no more than 30”. In sprints, we’re talking about moving your body weight over 100m.
How Difficult Should a Warm Up Be?
A warm up should get you warm. Like, sweaty.
Many new people I work with are concerned about how hard their workouts are going to be if the warm up had them that out of breath. To calm them down I say “Ignore what is going to happen and be happy that you’re in the gym breathing hard. That’s what you wanted to do today and you’re achieving that goal. I’m not here to injure you. I need you back tomorrow.”
Then I may slip in a joke about how the torturer in a dungeon isn’t hired to kill people. He gives them as much pain as they can take without dying, then he comes back tomorrow. (Insert evil laugh)
This concern melts away once these new people become regulars and they see that I’m not actually trying to force them into failure.
Then once they see how far they have come with their fitness, they get hooked.
But warm ups should be done on a gradient.
Gradient Increase in Intensity
All a warm up is, is adding small increases in intensity until you get up to your desired level of intensity for the workout.
A stupid example would be this:
If you are going to see how much you could possibly lift in a biceps curl, you would start by just standing up straight and bending your elbow. You may do this a few times and then stop.
You then do it with a 2-pound weight for some repetitions. Then with a 5-pound weight, then a 10-pound weight, then 15, 20, 25, 30, 35 and so on until you fail.
Your warm up was the fact that you did everything on a gradient and didn’t just go to the 35 pound weights. You are liable to tear something if you just jump up that high in intensity.
There is no secret, mystical reason for a warm up. It is just the gradual increase of stress on your body so that when you do hit the level of maximum stress, you’ve gotten there on an easy gradient.
Broad Warm Up, Then Movement Specific
My favorite warm up is a broad warm up that gets a person sweaty, followed by a sport-specific warm up. The “sport specific” part would mean that if you’re training the deadlift that day, then you’re there going over form with a PVC pipe or other very light bar.
This is a bit of insurance on a trainer’s part.
I’ll give you an example:
I’ve got a client named Jerry. Jerry is a lawyer who sits at a desk most of the day. If we are doing deadlifts that day per the program I’ve written out, I need to make sure that he is thoroughly warmed up. He could have, as many desk workers do, tightness in his upper neck and back. He could have tight hamstrings. And that’s only if he has good posture while working at the desk.
So I warm up Jerry. Thoroughly.
In doing so, I am not only priming his muscles for the work to come, but I am loosening up the muscles that are locked up. His neck muscles have already been worked hard from holding his head up for eight hours. His back is already being yanked forward by his hip flexors, so I have to loosen those up so that he’s got a fighting chance with his deadlifts.
Warming up is not just about priming someone for work to come. It is about changing them from desk mode to deadlift mode.
If Jerry were a construction worker, I would address a whole other area of tightness (his posterior chain), but I would still train the deadlift.
Once Jerry is done with his general warm up, we would then go into the movement-specific warm up. This would involve training the deadlift with a PVC pipe or other light bar.
Sweat will be dripping from the face and profanities may even come out of the subject’s mouth.
Side note: You kind of have to be unemotional at times if you’re going to be a trainer. You’re asking people to do things that they would not normally do, and this puts them in some rather comical emotional states. Just roll with it and thank them for every profanity, threat and evil look. They’ll thank you later.
So when Jerry gets good form with his PVC pipe, you start loading the bar up and having him work out until his form gets poor and it gets unsafe. Then you back off.
So we got a person who is very warm and just reached the maximum intensity. Do we just stop there?
You can, but he’s liable to feel worse the next day than if you back it off easy.
After a really good workout, I usually have my classes do a “victory lap.” This is a walking lap done around the outside of the building to recover.
After an intense workout, you sometimes see these people on the ground struggling for air. That is not the best way to recover. Get moving.
I once read a study on the subject of recovery. They had both groups exercise intensely on a stationary bike for a few minutes. One group stopped and didn’t do anything else. The other was told to continue cycling at their own pace for as long as they wished. Measurements were taken of blood lactic acid levels (a waste product of your muscles) in each group, as well as their perceived level of recovery (basically, how they felt).
There was no difference in either group on their blood lactic acid levels. But there was a major difference in how they felt.
I was in college and working in a gym when I came across this study. I immediately implemented the “victory lap” after the intense workouts and my classes left the gym with so much energy, it was unreal.
The owner of the gym came up and asked me what I was doing. I told him to look around and to ask a few how they felt. It was like magic.
So apparently our bodies like to have a gradient increase in work and a gradient decrease.
A good fitness trainer won’t have you do something just because he wants you to do it. He does it because it is based on his training and his experience with clients.
I have said before that injury prevention is probably 90% of my job.
Anyone can throw weight at you and have you do too much, too fast.
No matter who is training you, don’t forget that you are in charge of you workout.