Full disclosure: I’m watching the Brazil Butt Lift infomercial as I write this post. One guilty pleasure of mine is watching fitness infomercials. And laugh. Now, most of you would look at that and call me a narcissistic a-hole, which might be partially true. But there’s no way that every one of my friends doesn’t watch those infomercials and laugh. Really? Do people really still believe this stuff?
I think a smaller debate currently going on (and always ongoing) in the fitness industry is about the length and content of a good warmup. On one side, you have a camp that doesn’t believe that anybody needs to do anything besides jump on the treadmill or jump rope before you lift. On the other hand, I’ve seen warm-ups that extend well past the half-hour mark and consist of every mobility and activation exercise every thought of. So what’s the answer?
I think the answer should reflect the goal of the actual warm-up … to warm up.
So where do I fall? I’ve written things on pre-lift activation and dynamic stretches and I’ll stick by them in this post. However, I will say that in order to determine what constitutes a good warm-up, you must only ask yourself a simple question: is this activity helping me to warm-up? Or is it helping me recover, feel better, waste time, etc?
So what about the jump rope or treadmill? I like them. Know why? Because they will literally warm you up. Jumping rope for 3-5 minutes is a great way to get your core temperature up and that’s what we’re going for before we lift. We need something like this before we attempt to stretch anything .
After our core temperature is up, we need to begin moving through our dedicated mobility drills. On a squat day, for instance, I’m concerned with ankle, hip, thoracic spine, and shoulder mobility. So I will use 3-4 exercises to address these. I will not be static stretching. Putting aside all the arguments against it, it just doesn’t help me warm-up. It also doesn’t help keep me safe during a squat like hip mobility does, therefore it has no place in my warm-up.
From here, the third part of warm-up consists of lift-specific activation. For the squat, that might mean core and glutes. It all depends on the person. I don’t need to warm-up with a ton of goblet squats because I’m going to go through a specific warm-up once I get under the bar (consisting of sets with the bar, 95lbs, 135lbs, and so on until I reach my work weight).
I will say that I frequently throw things like band pullaparts or side planks in the activation part of my warm-up, regardless of the workout. This allows me to perform 3-4 sets of these exercises each week without having to do them during my *actual* workout. It helps me get in and out of the gym quicker.
So what about foam rolling and soft tissue work?
I like to do all my soft tissue work before I even start warming up. I don’t think you necessarily need to be dripping sweat in order to get the effect from foam rolling in the way that stretching improves with increased body temperature.
In fact, my clients always foam roll first, before they touch anything else in the gym. Why is foam rolling not necessarily part of the warm-up? Because it doesn’t warm you up!
Do I really like foam rolling before a workout? Yes. I think foam rolling can help release tight muscles and restore some balance to the body before you start loading your body with weight. But I don’t spend 15 minutes flopping around the floor making sure my adductor longus is thoroughly knot-free.
In fact, my most intense foam rolling is done during recovery workouts. Here, I have the extra time and patience to spend rolling each muscle, ensuring that there aren’t any super tight areas. Recovery workouts are also a good time to reinforce mobility and stability patterns, while ensuring that you aren’t additionally stressing your body.
So what’s the difference between warm-ups and recovery workouts? In my eyes, not much. A little more dedicated foam rolling to recover and maybe some extra exercises on those recovery days. A little bit more specific with the mobility activation exercises during warm-ups. But in both cases, we ultimately want to get some blood to our muscles and balance ourselves our (either before a lift or after a long day of sitting at a desk).
A good way to look at it is this: a warm-up or recovery session should leave you ready to exercise, not like you’ve already worked out. If you find your workouts dragging on a little bit longer than they should, try looking at your warm-up length. Throw out anything that doesn’t contribute to the task at hand: warming you up. This way, you can spend less time in the gym and more time at home watching Chopped re-runs and pretending you’re a professional chef.