Order of operations is a term in elementary grade math describing how we should attack a math problem with multiple signs in it. It’s important to follow a specific order because changing the order can have a profound effect on the outcome of the problem. For instance, 10 – 4 x 2 could theoretically come out to 12. Or 2. It depends on whether you follow the correct order of operations. PEMDAS. Anybody remember PEMDAS? i bet the new math program they have all the kids doing nowadays doesn’t have cool acronyms like PEMDAS.
Did you know that in the UK, PEMDAS is actually BODMAS? You learn something new every day.
I think about warm-ups a lot. Probably more than any coach/trainer should. I attribute this to the vast array of warm-ups that I’ve seen over my few short years of training.
I’ve seen guys warm-up for 30 minutes before even touching a weight. I’ve also seen guys walk into a gym and, before even putting their headphones in, throw six plates on the bar. I’ve seen people foam roll every muscle in their body until they look like Gumbi. There are so many books on workouts. Do this, do that, and if you do, you’ll be stronger/leaner/more awesome-er.
But there aren’t many books on warm-ups. Recovery sessions tend to be an afterthought because their doesn’t need to be much thought put into them. And that might be true for somebody that trains clients for a living; the training itself becomes second nature.
But somebody needs to write the book on warming up.
Today, I want to touch on the order in which your warm-up exercises should be performed.
General Warm-up and Foam Rolling
The first things you should do are complete a general warm-up and your soft tissue work for the day. I don’t really have an opinion on which you should do first. Your general warm-up could be something as simple as jumping rope or jogging on the treadmill. You don’t need to be dripping sweat, just warm. That’s the point of a warm-up.
Foam rolling should be short, sweet, and to the point. For me, I’ll take a lax ball and roll my calves, glutes, TFL, and pecs. Then I’ll use the PVC pipe for my thoracic spine, lats, quads, and adductors. All told, this doesn’t usually take more than 10 minutes. If you have poor tissue quality in certain areas, spend a few extra good rolls on them.
Something to keep in mind though is that pre-workout foam rolling isn’t meant to work out every single adhesion/trigger point that you have. Many times, a single foam rolling session won’t be enough. This is why you need to foam roll on your off-days!
Pre-workout foam rolling exists to release muscles with excessive resting tone. (A.k.a. your calves get tight from all the driving and running you do so myofascial release helps to alleviate that.)
These are the first two things you should do. People would feel a lot better if they only did these two things before they worked out instead of jumping right to the cable machine and doing 40 sets of chest flys.
But we won’t stop there!
The next “group” of things that we need to do to complete our warm-up is stretch/activate. And this is where I like to really think about my exercise order. The first thing that we’re going to do is activate the parts of our body that require stability, but not mobility.
And there’s really only one group of muscles that has this type of demand: the core.
Considering that lower back mobility and power seems to be directly related to spinal injury, I think it would be safe to assume that we do not want to spend a lot of time mobilizing our lumbar spine. So we make activation of the core musculature priority numero uno when we’re warming up.
First, it ensures that we don’t forget it somehow. Second, it also allows us to neutrally activate these muscles before we move into anything dynamic, thus making it easier to brace the core and gain mobility where we actually need it.
The other group of drills that I like to use at this point in my warm-up are any posture/pelvic alignment/breathing drills. Before we drive the car, it’s important to make sure that the wheels are aligned correctly.
A good example of this would be realigning the hips in the sagittal plane by reestablishing normal hamstring tonicity and length. That way, we don’t get caught up in stretching our left hamstring when it’s actually long in the first place due to rotation at the hip.
Using myself as an example, I like to throw in some side planks, planks, chops, and a few PRI drills to realign my hips right after I foam roll. (In fact, I usually use the PRI drills to reestablish alignment before I even attempt to activate the core.)
After I establish stability and alignment in the right places, I can achieve more appropriate mobility in the right places. As another example, it might seem that I lack internal rotation in my left hip and I might aggressively stretch out my external rotators on that side. But if I reset my hip alignment first, perhaps I’ll gain that mobility and it wasn’t even a question of tightness.
Regardless, we need to be mobile through our ankles, hips, thoracic spine, and shoulders. All told, we probably only need 4-6 quick drills to achieve all of this, maybe less if we combine with drills like a walking spiderman with a hip lift and reach.
After a quick bout with general mobility exercises, we’re in the home stretch! All we need to do is complete our lift-specific mobility and activation. For simplicity’s sake, we’ll use a lower body day as an example.
We won’t kill ourselves with hip mobility in the previous section on a squat day because we’ll be concerned with using prying and squat-to-stand drills to achieve the mobility that we need for the day.
And for our lift-specific neutral activation, we’ll perform some bulgarians before we hop into the squat rack. Bulgarians will activate the quads, hamstrings, and glutes in the sagittal plane, but will also activate all of the intrinsic stabilizers that give us control over internal and external rotation of the femur. Additionally, it will reaffirm our new hip alignment and our ability to “get into” the right and left hips.
I think this is something that is often overlooked as part of a warm-up, but it has plenty of value, no matter what kind of lifter you are.
When we lift, we want our neuromuscular system firing “on all cylinders.” You wouldn’t want a cylinder in your car firing slowly and quick, explosive movements are a good way to ensure that all of our motor units are neutrally activated and ready to go!
For this, I like simple movements like plyometric pushups or jump variations. Even if you aren’t necessarily an “athlete,” doing some jumping beforehand can help you feel athletic while ensuring that you get the most out of your training session.
After these brief summaries, here’s what your warm-up could look like for a lower body, squat-dominant workout.
- General warm-up (5 minutes jump rope)
- Foam rolling (paid extra attention to adductors, TFL, glutes, and lats)
- Alignment circuit (90/90 hip alignment plus activation of IC adductor, glute med, and glute max)
- Stability circuit (front plank, side plank, side plank, half-kneeling band chop)
- Mobility circuit (pushup to downward dog, hip flexor stretch)
- Lift-specific mobility/activation circuit (squat-to-stand, bodyweight bulgarians)
- Neuro-activation (box jumps)
I like to run through two sets of 8-10 reps on each of the circuits. You should be able to complete a warm-up like this in about 15 minutes, maybe a bit more. To some, a 20-minute warm-up might seem like much, but the benefits you’ll receive from stretching and activating the right musculature will be well worth your time.
To others, this may seem a bit short! But if you run through each circuit quickly, you’re guaranteed to have the stability and mobility necessary for your workout, not to mention you will have probably broken a sweat.
As always, this is just food for thought. Try breaking your warm-ups down to the bare essentials of alignment, stability, mobility, lift-specific, and neuro-activation. This will help you keep your warm-ups short and to the point!
So now back to the original point. If you don’t do the multiplication first in 10 – 4 x 2, you’ll get the wrong outcome. You must follow the order of operations. Warm-ups are no different. If you don’t follow a general warm-up first, your body temperature might not be high enough to achieve the proper mobility. And if you don’t realign your hips first, your workout will drive imbalance in the body. A Gray Cook says, adding strength to dysfunction.
So before your next workout, don’t forget GFASMLN. Great Friends Always Stop Making Lumpy Nachos.