Warming Up: Why & How

The exercise performance benefits of warming up and how to build your own effective routine. 

Sam Stephens

Updated July 2019

TLDR

Studies show that heating up the body (an increase of at least 1 °C) and progressively loading our muscles before a workout can result in a safer and more effective exercise session. 

To take advantage of these benefits, incorporate foam rolling (1 x 30 sec per muscle group), cardiovascular exercise (~5 min), dynamic stretching (2-3 sets), and plyometrics (2-3 sets) into your warm up routine. When combined, these different techniques improve blood flow, neuromuscular efficiency, strength output, fat loss, and general workout productivity. A great warm up also decreases our risk of injury, lactate accumulation, and time to reach a steady state heart rate. Lots of great stuff. 

Static stretching should not be performed during the warm up.

The exact structure of each warm up will vary based on the workout of the day but should be specific to your programming. Detailed examples of two complete warm ups are listed below. Aim to cap total warm up length at 10-15 minutes. 

This guide is intended to give you the tools to successfully and confidently create your own pre-exercise routine.

Thermodynamic Gains

After a long day spent stuck in an office chair hunched over a keyboard, you hop in your car and navigate through traffic in that weird asymmetrical driving position most of us have before finally getting to the gym. It’s been a rough day and you can’t wait to get started and relieve some stress. Three minutes after arriving you’ve managed to quickly change clothes and load up the bar with 315 lbs to immediately attempt a new one rep squat max as your first movement of the day. It’s go time. You brace under the bar, lift off, then… I don’t know? Probably die.

Sounds insane, right? Going into a high intensity or high load workout without a proper warm up is generally accepted to be a bad idea from both a safety and a performance perspective. This potential squat disaster is an extreme example, but the necessity of an effective warm up doesn’t change among various types of exercises. Whether you’re going for an easy run or setting a new personal best in your favorite lift, taking the time to ready your body before you start will result in a significantly more effective and productive workout session.

To lift more weight, build more muscle, and lose more fat, we need to warm up. 

In this guide, we’ll define ‘warm up,’ cover some of the benefits of an effective warm up session, and discuss how to build your own to get the most out of your workouts.

Warm Up Definition & Benefits

First, what exactly is a warm up?

A warm up is a brief (10-15 min) and easy exercise routine that occurs right before your main workout. This short preparation period readies us for the day’s session by increasing body temperature, boosting blood flow, and priming neuromuscular pathways. The warm up is not a time to treat injuries or perform significant amounts of rehab/corrective exercises – do these during your off days and/or between sessions. An effective warm up can be accomplished in a variety of ways, but they all share two common features – heat (an increase of at least 1 °C) and movement.

Warm up research primarily focuses on two different styles of warm up – passive and active. A passive warm up raises body temperature by external means (heavy clothing or a hot bath) while an active warm up increases heart rate/blood flow/heat through exercise. Both of these two modalities have been shown to positively affect physical performance and can be accomplished simultaneously.

Some of the most significant combined benefits of active and passive warm ups are listed below.

  • Increased ATP turnover rate (faster energy production)
  • Increased ATP utilization in individual muscle fibers (greater muscular performance)
  • Increased contraction speed (greater muscular power)
  • Increased O2 uptake (greater aerobic efficiency for endurance and fat loss)
  • Decreased lactate accumulation
  • Increased range of motion
  • Increased contraction consistency
  • Decreased risk of injury
  • Decreased joint friction
  • Decreased time to reach steady state heart rate
  • Increased mental focus and self-confidence
  • Increased motor unit recruitment (theorized)

In a resistance training setting, these benefits result in faster muscle growth, improved strength, and increased muscular endurance. For cardio focused sessions, warming up helps us burn more fat, improves our overall conditioning, and allows us to settle into a target steady state working heart rate range much sooner. Bigger and stronger muscles, faster and leaner bodies, and a decreased risk of injury – too many great things to pass up. But if we want to capitalize on these performance enhancements, we need heat and movement.

Thanks to the thermodynamic responses of catabolic reactions, exercise makes us hot and sweaty. This unavoidable product of moderate to high intensity movement means that we can focus entirely on the style, duration, and intensity of the active warm up while still taking advantage of all the passive temperature increasing benefits. This cause and effect relationship between movement and heat is the foundation of the Fitstra warm up and helps frame the outline of the overall structure. 

Building The Warm Up

By looking at a mixture of studies that cover heat, exercise intensity, duration, and self-myofascial release, I’ve put together a basic warm up outline that should be really effective for most situations.

To quickly summarize the overall concept, we want to wake up the body and then practice movement patterns performed in the upcoming workout. The ‘wake up’ phase increases our core temperature through cardio and the ‘practice’ phase incorporates exercises that mirror the intensity and activities of the day’s session. These two parts are more commonly referred to as general (wake up) and specific (practice). When combined, they basically communicate a message that says, “Hey muscles, nervous system, heart, lungs, and energy systems, – here’s a sample of what we’re about to do. Get ready to perform these things well.” That’s what my warm up says, at least. It’s polite.

As shown above, the general section has distinct, separate parts while the specific half is a mixture of dynamic stretching and plyometric exercises that gradually become the workout. This is designed to maximize transition efficiency and maintain as much heat as possible from the warm up to the workout. From start to finish, the routine takes roughly 10-15 minutes to complete and it should leave you just slightly out of breath, a little sweaty, but still full of energy for the work ahead.

Let’s dive a little deeper into the general and specific components then look at some warm up examples used before different workout styles.

Warm Up Structure: General

The general section of the warm up takes roughly 8-10 minutes to complete and consists of just two components, self-myofascial release and cardiovascular exercise.

Self-myofascial release (SMR) is the first part of the warm up and can be accomplished using a multitude of tools but we’re going to focus specifically on the foam roller to keep things simple and quick. Studies have shown that in a pre-exercise application, foam rolling can acutely increase flexibility, blood flow, and neuromuscular efficiency without causing any of the potential negative effects associated with static stretching. This means that foam rolling boosts our range of motion while maintaining strength, allows for more nutrient carrying blood to be delivered to muscles, and may help lower the motor unit recruitment thresholds for type 2 fibers, leading to a more productive workout. Lots of good stuff from one little tool. Thanks, foam roller. 

Compared to longer SMR sessions after a workout or on recovery days, foam rolling during the warm up should only take a few minutes (one 30 second bout per muscle) to complete and focus primarily on the antagonistic pairs (opposing muscles in a joint/movement) being worked that day. However, if you aren’t in a huge rush to get started and want to focus on rolling out your whole body, go for it. Take this time to think about your intent and goals for the day. 

The example listed below is an example SMR routine that could take place before a day of pressing exercises like bench press or overhead press.

For a more in depth discussion of self-myofascial release, how to specifically use a foam roller, and the proper application of static stretching, check out the Post Workout Cool Down guide. 

The second part of the general warm up is the cardiovascular portion. As the section label implies, the goal here is to generally warm up the body through some type of cardio based activity that lasts 5-6 minutes. Light cardiovascular exercise is a great way to increase blood flow, prep us mentally for the upcoming session, generate heat, and prime the energy systems we’ll be using later. For a relatively small expenditure of energy, we get quite a bit in return.

Because most resistance based workouts utilize a mixture of fuel sources, we want the general cardio section to activate our ATP-CP, glycolytic, and aerobic energy systems while slowing raising body temperature. This can be accomplished by combining an easy, longer duration aerobic base with a short, high intensity anaerobic finish. This helps us passively generate heat and mimic upcoming energy system requirements without causing any major fatigue. The time you spend in each of these two zones will vary depending on your workout but generally about 80-90% should be in an easy to moderate zone with only the last 10-20% at a higher intensity.

For the most part, you’re free to pick whatever modality you want but running/jogging is recommended. Like to run too? Great. Is cycling more your thing? Go for it. As long as you can adhere to the following basic structure for duration and intensity, feel free to experiment with different exercise types. 

Using running as an example, let’s look at what the cardio structure before a session of resistance training might look like. As seen in the image above, the total time spent on the treadmill is just 5.5 minutes with the last 30 seconds dedicated to a high intensity finish. The aerobic section at the beginning serves to increase body temperature while the anaerobic closer maintains the heat and activates the energy systems (primarily anaerobic glycolysis and the breakdown of stored glycogen) that will be called on later when lifting.

In this example scenario, the 5 aerobic minutes would be completed at roughly a 4/10 intensity and the ‘sprint’ finish would be at least a 7/10. For most people that fall into the ‘pretty fit’ category, this translates to a moderate jog that transitions into a fast run. If you can’t currently maintain an easy jog during your warm up don’t stress out about it, but you need to work up to it. Check out the Fat Loss Programming guide and read up on why cardiovascular conditioning and work capacity are so important.

This general outline can be used with different fitness levels and easily scaled to fit the user. On the treadmill, a more fit runner has the ability to crank up both belt speed and incline while someone less experienced may want to walk at a constant pace and then raise the incline to achieve similar energy demands. Do what’s best for you. 

The main takeaway here is that this general outline can be modified and adapted to your needs. There is no single, perfect warm up protocol – lots of different variations can be really effective. Feel free to experiment with times, durations, and intensities within the suggested parameters outlined above. If you are increasing blood circulation and core body temperature within a 5-8 minute window and left feeling energetic, you’re most likely on the right track.

If you’re in a cold gym or live in a cooler climate, wear a light jacket and/or pants during your warm up and throughout the entire workout to help speed up the heating process and maintain higher body temperatures. By this point, you’ve worked hard enough to sweat – don’t let air conditioning or cooler weather negatively affect your efforts.

Now that you’re warm, sweaty, and ready to exercise, let’s look at the specific warm up portion.

Warm Up Structure: Specific

Unlike the individual components and various effective approaches of the general warm up, the specific warm up is a progression of movements and intensities based on the distinct exercises of the upcoming workout. In theory, you could perform the same general warm up before each session but the specific warm up will change depending on the demands of the day. From start to finish, the specific warm up should take about 4-6 minutes to complete.

Dynamic stretching is the first style of movement in the specific warm up. Dynamic stretching is a warm up technique that aims to prepare the targeted muscles for the workload ahead by slowly introducing loads/force to muscles, boost blood flow/nutrient delivery, and increase joint lubrication while avoiding fatigue through the application of low intensity movements and light exercises. These stretches typically use our own bodyweight, safely introduce resistance to our muscles, and take our joints through full, if not slightly exaggerated, ranges of motion. If possible, compound movements that require core activation like push-ups, ring rows, and air squats are recommended. Dynamic stretches should be easy to perform and use a rep pace that’s just barely slower than ‘normal’ speed – don’t rush through your reps, feel the contraction/tension at every point. The exact rep count you should use will vary based on your experience and ability levels, but most people should aim to complete 5-10 reps per exercise for 2-3 sets.

Plyometrics, or low force, high velocity power based exercises that result in a very quick stretch-shorten cycle of the muscle, form the second component of the specific warm up and are included to boost neuromuscular activity and coordination. Plyometrics are typically only associated with lower limb movements, but they can target upper body muscles as well. These exercises should be performed with a high (90+%) intensity, light weight, low rep count (4-6), and not induce fatigue while operating within a 2-3 set total. Like dynamic stretching, plyometric movements should ideally incorporate bodyweight exercises like squat jumps, plyo push-ups, kettlebell swings, kipping pull ups, and explosive wall balls, etc – fast/explosive/light weight stuff. Because a nearly instantaneous stretch-shorten cycle is the primary defining characteristic of plyometrics, all chosen movements should start with the targeted muscles in a contracted, or shortened state. For example, an explosive ring row would begin at the top of the row instead of the bottom with arms extended, jump squats begin standing completely upright, and plyo push-ups start at the top with arms extended. 

Some examples of plyometric exercises for common movement patterns are listed below.

Without diving too far into the science, the inclusion of plyometrics before lifting is a way to hopefully capitalize on the concept of post-activation potentiation (PAP). PAP is a theory that basically states our muscles remember how much fiber activation was recently required and will be more prone to recruit at least the same amount of motor units during subsequent activities. Post activation potentiation can result in increased fiber recruitment towards the beginning of a set, greater strength output, and more volume completed under heavy loads.

For example, a max effort squat jump doesn’t load our muscles with a ton of weight, but it does require 100% motor unit recruitment. When performed before a heavy barbell squat, the jumps prime our neuromuscular pathways, create a short term contractile history, and make the motor neurons involved more easily excitable due to their recent activation. Performing one exercise that mimics the motor unit recruitment requirements of another essentially lowers motor unit thresholds by decreasing the stimulation needed to create action potentials. Studies have shown that this muscular response works with both high speed/low resistance (plyo push-up to improve bench press) and low speed/high resistance (heavy squat to improve sprint time) efforts. Post activation potentiation is what makes moderate weight feel extra light when performed after a much heavier set. More research needs to be done on PAP to fully understand it, but enough studies point to its effectiveness to ignore it completely.

To read more about motor units and fiber activation, check out the Strength and Hypertrophy Programming guide.

The final phase of the specific warm up is the transition into the actual workout. As we gradually progress through dynamic stretching and plyometrics, we can incorporate increasingly heavier sets of the opening exercise until we reach our first working set. The example below highlights one way to lead up to a day of squatting for strength training.

As seen in the table, the exercises begin with dynamic stretching in the form of walking lunges, alternates between this first modality and squat jump plyometrics, then phase out stretching and plyo activities as the barbell work is incorporated. Rest time is kept to a minimum until heavier working loads are reached. The final exercise on the list is the first working set of the day and it’s at this point that the actual workout begins. Dynamic stretching and any plyometric work are performed for 2-3 sets each. 

Now that we’ve briefly covered the specific warm up, let’s put both sections together and look at an example of a full warm up.

Complete Warm Up Examples

This example is designed to work with a hypertrophy or strength focused pressing workout that leads up to bench press. Both the general and specific sections are combined below.

The main focus of this warm up is to heat up the body, activate the anaerobic energy system, prime our neuromuscular pathways, and introduce increasing levels of resistance to our chest/shoulders/triceps as we lead up to the first set of bench press. Reps for both regular push-ups and plyo push-ups are kept far from failure. In this workout, the first working set of bench press starts with six reps of 185 so the weight increases based on that end goal – keep the rep counts of your ramping loads the same as the first working set. 

Heavier working loads will require different ramping speeds but all working sets should be progressively introduced as you transition from exercise to exercise you should always perform some type of warm up/ramping load progression when you start a new exercise during your workout. For example, after finishing bench press, don’t immediately start with your first working set on overhead press. You don’t need to perform the entire dynamic+plyo sections again, but 1-2 sets of plyometrics staggered between ramping 1-2 loads is recommended. This is much more important if you’re completely transitioning away from a muscle group (moving from chest to back).

Because pre-exercise prep is not limited to resistance training, let’s switch gears and look at a running warm up. 

The general warm up first readies us for the challenge ahead by rolling out our lower limbs and then slowly takes us from an easy jog to our normal running pace over the course of 5 minutes. This should increase our metabolic efficiency and allow us to burn more fat, making the session a bit easier. Unlike the bench press warm up, this pre-run routine does not contain any anaerobic cardio – our long run won’t include sprinting or high intensity exercise so there’s no need to cause any unnecessary fatigue. However if you plan on chasing a new PR or bumping up intensity at the end, a quick (30 sec – 1 min) anaerobic finish would be smart to add in. 

The specific warm up follows the same formula as the bench press with easy to complete and minimally fatiguing dynamic and plyo based exercises. The muscular demands of cardiovascular exercise aren’t the same as a resistance session, but we still want our muscles to be awake and ready for what’s coming. Unlike the bench press example, this outline doesn’t have a first working set to ramp up to. Instead, we rest for a few minutes after all dynamic/plyometric movements are completed and then start the run.

We could easily spend all day covering every possible workout scenario and ten different warm ups that might pair well with them, but I’m going to stop with these two. Within the framework provided above, there are endless combinations of effective warm ups. Hopefully these outlines have provided enough clarity on the overall structure to give you the tools the build some of your own. For both the dynamic and plyometric sections, if you pick warm up exercises that mimic the movement patterns of the upcoming working sets, you’ll be fine – don’t overthink it. Feel free to play with different variables and try different things. If you have questions, let me know – let’s work together to set you up for success.

Static Stretching?

I don’t recommend that you do any static stretching before or during a workout.

Although there’s some conflicting research regarding the effectiveness and safety of static stretching prior to exercise, there are too many studies that show a negative effect on performance. If you’re so tight that foam rolling and dynamic warm up exercises have little to no impact on your range of motion, it may be best to shift your fitness priorities for that day. Consider taking some time off to work on flexibility/recovery. 

However, if your current warm up routine does includes some static stretching, don’t cut it out immediately. Instead, slowly phase it out over the course of a few weeks. Dropping it all at once might screw with your pre-session confidence. Reduce the duration of each stretch by a few seconds each time it’s performed until you reach zero. But if absolutely no convincing will change your mind about warm up static stretching and you just have to do it to feel fully prepared for a session, cap each segment duration at 10 seconds and stay away from pain or any muscular discomfort. Shorter stretching lengths (less than 30 seconds) shouldn’t have a negative impact on exercise performance. 

For a more in depth discussion of static stretching and it’s uses, check out the post workout Cool Down guide. Static stretching is an important part of any good routine, it just needs to be implemented at the right time.

Wrapping It Up

You might be thinking that this was a overly complicated way of saying that you should do cardio and some light exercises before you workout. You’re probably right. But at least now you know how an effective warm up contributes to exercise performance, have an outline that can help you design your own, and may have learned something new along the way. 

Foam roll > cardio > dynamic stretching  > plyometrics > workout. Pretty easy, right? 

If you have any questions about what was covered here or would like to chat with me about building your own warm ups, please let me know. I’d love to work with you.

Experiment by manipulating different variables. Find out what works best for you. Share what you discover. Have fun.

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