You first heard it from your gym teacher. Then from your softball coach. Then from your personal trainer: Don’t skip the warm-up. Each time, you listened patiently and nodded earnestly, all good intentions. And then, three days later, you went back to skipping the warm-up.
That temptation is understandable. Compared with a rousing cardio session or circuit workout, warming up can seem about as entertaining as watching somebody else on a treadmill. Besides, most preworkout drills just don’t feel like they’re doing any good. All of which can lead one to wonder: Can’t I just skip the preamble and jump right to the serious stuff?
It’s a reasonable question. But a focused, intelligent warm-up routine has a long list of benefits that make it eminently worthwhile:
- Your core temperature increases, making movement easier.
- Your joints become lubricated, improving flexibility.
- Your metabolic rate increases, so oxygen is delivered to the working muscles more quickly.
- Your blood vessels dilate, allowing nutrients to enter the working muscles, which helps you lift more, run faster and jump higher.
- Your mind becomes focused and clear, making it more likely that you’ll attack a pending workout with purpose and intensity.
If these happy side effects aren’t enough to persuade you, the additional perks listed on the following pages likely will. But there’s another factor that makes a good preworkout warm-up especially important: Most of us spend a lot of our day sitting. And while perching behind a desk may not sound like high-risk behavior, research shows that just 20 minutes in your favorite desk chair causes key ligaments in your spine to overstretch, leaving you stuck in a closed-off position, or “flexion,” that can take up to two days to fully undo.
“Lots of people come into the gym looking like a giant ball of flexion,” says Tony Gentilcore, CSCS, co-owner of Cressey Performance in Hudson, Mass.
Working out in this condition is like driving with the brakes on. Which is why one goal of a good warm-up is to open up the front of the body and undo some of the damage long-term sitting causes.
Drills like the Supine Bridge With Reach and the Quadruped Extension/Rotation (the first two moves in our warm-up) lengthen the muscles on the front of your body while firing up muscles in the hips, back and shoulders that become inactive after hours in a sitting position.
Finally, unlike your average toe-touch or treadmill plod, the following routine offers a wide variety of movements, all of which help remind your body that it’s capable of a lot more than propping you up to stare at a computer screen.
Squatting, lunging, turning and other athletic moves feel much easier and more fluid. You’ll lift more weight, get more air and react faster (on the tennis court, the track or the hardwood) than you would if you’d jumped into your workout cold.
“Once people get the hang of warming up correctly, most of them feel so good they never go back to skipping their warm-ups again,” Gentilcore says.
The All-Purpose Warm-Up
Perform the following routine — which requires only a single dumbbell or kettlebell — before any cardio session, strength-training workout, game or competition. Also use it on your days off from formal exercise to loosen up and improve posture. Unless otherwise noted, hold the stretched position in each movement for a two-count, return to the starting position, and repeat as indicated.
1. Supine Bridge With Reach
- Lie on your back with your arms on the floor at a 45-degree angle from your torso, palms down.
- Bend your knees and place your feet flat on the floor.
- Keeping your lower back in its natural arch, press your heels into the floor and lift your hips as high as possible off the floor, keeping them there throughout the exercise.
- With both arms straight, extend your right arm up and across your body, rolling your shoulders to your left, and touch a spot on the floor a foot or two above your left shoulder.
- Return your arm to the starting position and repeat using your left arm, keeping your hips bridged throughout the entire set.
Reps: Eight per side (alternating).
Target areas: Shoulders, upper back, hip joints, glutes, lower back.
2. Quadruped Extension/Rotation
- Assume an all-fours position with your hands directly under your shoulders and your knees beneath your hips.
- Place the palm of your right hand on the back of your head and keep it there for the duration of the exercise.
- Keeping your hand in contact with your head, bring your right elbow down and across your body, reaching between your left arm and left knee.
- Lift your right elbow back and up as far as is comfortably possible, turning your head as if to look at the ceiling over your right shoulder.
Reps: 10 per side.
Target areas: Upper spine, shoulders, neck.
Coaching cues: Don’t rock your hips back or forward as you rotate; keep your hip joints over your knees.
3. Wall Hip-Flexor Mobilization
- Stand facing a wall with your toes about 8 inches from the baseboard.
- Step your right foot back and drop your knee to the floor (place a pad under your knee if necessary).
- Take hold of your right ankle with your right hand and hold it there for the duration of the exercise.
- Steady yourself with your left hand against the wall, press your right knee into the floor, and shift your hips forward.
- Lunge forward on your left leg, pushing your left knee toward the wall, until you feel a stretch in the front of your right hip and thigh.
- Pause, then rock back to the starting position.
Reps: Eight on each side.
Target areas: Hip flexors, glutes.
Coaching cues: Keep your hips and shoulders square and your head and neck aligned with your spine throughout the movement.
4. Rocking Sumo Squat Mobilization
- Stand with your feet parallel, about a shoulder-width-and-a-half apart.
- Bend forward until you feel a stretch in your hamstrings, by touching your toes, ankles or shins. Then place your elbows on the insides of your knees.
- Keeping your lower back in its natural arch and your elbows pressing outward on your knees, bend your knees and lower your hips as far as possible.
- At the same time, look up and lift your chest forward and upward.
- Pause and return slowly to the starting position.
Target areas: Hips, hamstrings, ankles, upper back.
Coaching cues: If you find this move difficult, do the same exercise holding on to a squat rack, suspension trainer or something solid.
5. One-Arm Farmer’s Walk
- Stand holding a medium-to-heavy kettlebell or dumbbell in your nondominant hand.
- Keeping your chest high, both shoulders back and level, and neck in neutral alignment, walk forward 30 to 40 steps (a circular or figure-eight pattern also works if space is limited).
- Switch the weight to your dominant hand and walk back to the starting point.
Reps: 30 to 40 steps in either direction.
Target areas: Shoulders, core.
Coaching cues: “Minimize leaning to either side on this exercise,” says Gentilcore. “And don’t use too heavy a weight. Remember, you’re still warming up.”
6. One-Arm Waiter’s Carry
- Stand holding a light-to-medium kettlebell or dumbbell in your nondominant hand.
- Press the kettlebell overhead.
- Keeping your chest high, both shoulders back and level, and neck in neutral alignment, walk forward 30 to 40 steps (a circular or figure-eight pattern is also fine).
- Switch the weight to your dominant hand and walk back to the starting point.
Reps: 30 to 40 steps per side.
Target areas: Core, shoulders.
7. Power Skip
- From a neutral stance, propel yourself forward by quickly driving your right knee upward and hopping forward slightly on your left foot. Simultaneously swing your left arm forward and your right arm back.
- Step forward with your descending right foot and immediately repeat the move on your opposite leg.
Reps: 10 to 15 steps per leg.
Target areas: Hips, ankles, calves, core, and full-body explosive force.
Coaching cues: As the name suggests, this is a normal skipping movement performed with extra speed and power.
Andrew Heffernan is a contributing editor for Experience Life.