“Working out is a lot like sex.”
I don’t remember if I said it or if my hetero lifemate, Tanner Baze, said it. But it felt like the truest statement ever uttered in human history. Because, well, it’s true.
Think about it: when it comes to sex, you’re gonna have nights of euphoric pleasure. Then you’ll have those days where it’s good, but not “as” good as past episodes. And then you’re gonna have nights of “omg, that was ‘almost’ as disappointing as Attack of the Clones.”
And anyone who has also lifted consistently for a couple of years will tell you that’s exactly what happens at the gym, too. There are great workouts. So-so ones. And there are the massive disappointing, “please don’t let it be this bad next time” workouts.
But if there’s one thing I’ve learned about sex, it’s that you can’t skip foreplay. It’s important for a better overall experience.
When it comes to working out, if you want to lift long term and not jack yourself up with injuries, you need to have a good “gym foreplay.” Or what less lascivious-minded people would call a warm up.
But here’s the thing: your warm up doesn’t need to be more than 3-5 minutes (though, if you have areas like knees/shoulders that are crankier than the rest of your body, you might want to spend another 1-2 minutes on the grouchier spots).
When you choose your warm up intelligently, it can even be a part of your workout for the day. Which, it should always be considered that way: a precursor before the main event.
How I Program Warm Ups for My Clients
For the majority of my 1-on-1 online training clients, their first two exercises function as their warm up. That doesn’t mean that I don’t want them to do some warm up sets before they squat, deadlift, or bench (more on that below). But their first two exercises are programmed as a primer for their supporting musculature.
Let’s say today is bench press day for my client. Instead of having them do some pre-exhaust movements like dumbbell/machine flys, which is a great strategy to use, I program in things that get the supporting muscles of their bench press movement primed. So a client might start the day doing some dumbbell incline y-raises superset with chest supported dumbbell rows or push-ups.
My goal isn’t necessarily to have them hit their pecs from the get-go. Again, we “could” do that depending on what the current program is focusing on. But many of my clients sit at desks all day. So spending some time getting the muscles of their mid and upper back and shoulders primed before they bench will help them stay more stable during the main event.
Better stability means better execution of the main lift. Stability must come before strength. Unless you want to injury yourself down the road (then by all means, be unstable).
Does that mean that once they’ve primed their supporting muscles that they then go from 0 to 60 in their bench press? No. That’s never a good idea. What I teach my clients to do, and what I do myself, is to take 2-3 warm up sets of light(er) weights and perform 6-8 reps to get their nervous system even more lubed up.
What I don’t want out of those warm up sets are sloppy, drunken frat boy reps either. I coach my clients to hit those light reps with the same focus on form and quality of execution they would their “working” reps.
So if they were bench pressing, they might use 15 pounds for a set of 6, rest 30-60 seconds, then lift 20 pounds for 6 more reps. And then they could start the day with their working weight of 25-30 pounds for their sets.
That’s only one example. There are a whole host of other exercises I use myself or have my clients do when it comes to priming their muscles for the work that’s about to happen.
Hitting legs today? Great, then warm up up those knees by hopping on the leg extension and leg curl machines. Do a 2-3 supersets of 10-12 reps of super slow leg extensions and leg curls before you squat or hit the leg press. Note: your goal here isn’t to move heavy weight. Your (main) focus is to get blood pumped into your lower body.
And if you happen to have crabby old-man knees, you might wanna spend more time getting those hamstrings warmed up. So you could also do a few more sets of leg curls, front foot elevated split squats, or my favorite, leg curls with a swiss ball.
If you have shotty shoulders, some of the best things you can do are 2-3 sets of light and slow face pulls, t-spine opening with dowel rod, wall slides, serratus press with foam roller, scap push-ups. Actually, if you have cranky shoulders you should probably bookmark Eric Cressey and go read everything that dude has ever written.
He’s basically the Yoda of shoulders.
The Yoga Plex
Of course, you could always choose to do a warm up that hits your entire body vs individual muscle groups. And if that’s how you’d like to stay a bit more limber, then you should totally make the yoga plex your warm up of choice.
The yoga plex is a warm up created by the aforementioned Eric Cressey. It takes your body through a multitude of movement patterns:
- Hip extension
- Thoracic rotation
- Opens up your hips
- Stretches your groin
It takes all the best parts of yoga and combines them all into one movement. You can do 5-6 reps per side for 2-3 sets.
The Baze Special
Remember my hetero lifemate Tanner Baze? Well he has a warm up that he absolutely loves. It’s not something that many can do, especially if you’re a bit overweight or obese. But it does hit nearly every muscle in your body. And it’s something that will challenge even the strongest and most spry of humans.
Here’s why this little bodyweight mobility flow is great. By doing this you increase:
- Thoracic spine mobility
- Hip mobility
- Core stability
- Shoulder stability
Don’t go as fast as the slick-talking Texan in the video clip goes. Because one thing you want to do with this is slow it down. Yes, you’re working on mobility, but you don’t want to sacrifice stability either. So make sure your hips and shoulder aren’t dipping as you thrust your junk towards the sky.
Do 6-8 reps per side for 2-3 sets. And you can also combine this movement with the yoga plex if you so desire.
Some Final Thoughts on Warm Ups
One common question I receive on warm ups is if someone should do cardio before hand. I mean, you can. But if you’re gonna do legs that’s probably not the best idea. And if you’re focus that day is upper body, well, running doesn’t do a damn thing to get your upper body primed for benching, rowing, or hitting arms.
But hey, if you like running, then I’m not gonna tell anyone to avoid it as a warm up. Cardio does have it’s benefits and if that’s how you get it, do you boo.
There are a few other exercises that are great for warm ups. And some considerations you should think about with in regards to choosing your warm ups.
Face pulls are great for any upper body work you plan to do. And for desk jockeys it might be a great exercise to do for a couple of sets of 12-15 reps every day you’re in the gym.
When it comes to lower body warm up exercises, you can’t go wrong with bodyweight hip thrusts, monster walks, or even the abduction/adduction machines. Those two machines are great for getting your glutes and hips ready for heavy leg days.
You can even use the old school bodybuilding tactic of pre-exhaust to get more of your targeted muscle(s). Pre-exhaust is when you’re using a lighter “activation” exercise like dumbbell split squats or a dumbbell squeeze press before you squat or bench press. My favorite “activation” exercise before back day are lat-focused dumbbell pullovers.
When it comes to creating or doing a warm up for your workout, what you don’t need is to complicate things. Simple mobility flows like the ones above, when done properly, will help you increase mobility and get your body warm. Execute them well, and then move on.
If you have cranky knees or cranky shoulders, spend a little more time getting your body primed. Don’t go all sloppy drunk one-night stand on the reps you’re doing. Make sweet, sweet love to those warm up sets. Your body will thank you later.
More importantly, make sure you’re ramping up in intensity in your working sets as well. The strongest and healthiest gym goers don’t go from 15 to 80 pounds in one set. They use their warm up sets to “get a feel” for how their body feels that day. And they might even realize that today ain’t the day for setting PRs, so they have no problem with backing intensity down.
Yes, what I’m trying to say in all this is that your warm up, however you go about it, should get your muscles lubed up and ready. No dry dogging it here. At the end of the day, you only have one body; you’re not buying another one. And the older you get, the more you need to warm up and keep the muscles and joints greased for action.
Or hey, don’t warm up intelligently and take the chance of jacking yourself up and spending far too much time, and money, on rehab and surgery.
PS: Yes, lifting heavy helps you build big muscles. But some exercises aren’t suited for heavy loading. Swinging 60 pound dumbbells for curls while looking like you’re having a seizure is a one way ticket to Fuckedupsville…over time. Don’t use the head attached to your testicles. If you want to lift longer and with less pain, be smart. Warm up.