As I watch the members of various health clubs and gyms go about their routines, one of the things that strikes me the most is just how few bother to do any type of warmup. The majority walk into the weight room, drop their gym bags and proceed to lift. What’s more, only a very few do any stretching before they lift, or afterward, for that matter. Once they complete their workouts, they grab their bags and rush out the door.
Proper warmup and stretching are certainly neglected principles in strength training. Many believe the two are the same, but they’re not. They actually serve different purposes, and while stretching may indeed be a part of the warmup process, it’s not the same. some people think that doing some stretches before they start training is sufficient warmup, but it’s not.
Athletes are well aware of the importance of warming up thoroughly before practicing or competing in their sports. Football, basketball, lacrosse and soccer teams spend considerable time going through a series of stretches and warmup maneuvers prior to each practice or contest. Nevertheless, the same athletes think nothing of walking into a weight room, flopping down on a bench and starting in.
Warming up the body has a great many benefits for those who lift weights. That’s even more true for people who lift in cold climates to who are about to do explosive movements such as power cleans, full cleans, snatches or clean and jerks. Those dynamic exercises requite that all the muscles, attachments and joints be prepared, and that is accomplished by getting an adequate warmup. Warming up properly not only cuts down on the risk of injury, but it also helps the body perform at a higher level.
One of the ways it does that is by allowing those enzymes that are responsible for the many chemical reactions that occur during exercise to be activated. The energy system depends on those enzymes, and folks who begin their routines without taking the time to trigger them will be more sluggish than if they’d warmed up.
A warmup routine helps transport more oxygen to the muscles. Hemoglobin is responsible for delivering oxygen to working muscles, and it does its job much more effectively when the muscle fibers are warmed up. The slightly higher temperature also creates a positive pressure between the muscles and the bloodstream, which enables more oxygen to get to the working muscles.
In addition, the elevated body temperature assists the entire cardiovascular system, helping the arteries, veins and capillaries deliver nutrients and carry away the unwanted negatives in the process. An often overlooked advantage of warming up is the benefit to the nervous system. It’s been shown that the higher core temperature facilitates the transfer of nerve impulses. That’s most critical to those who plan to do explosive lifts. While weight training may not be considered a cerebral activity, concentration is certainly a key factor in the success of any workout.
Perhaps the main reason that sports coaches make sure their charges do some warrmups before practices and games is to reduce the risk of injury. I was scanning a fitness newsletter someone gave me when the title of an article jumped out at me: “Warmups May Not Prevent Injuries.” Naturally, it was of great interest because I’d always thought just the opposite. Well, it turned out the researchers had performed their tests on rabbits. How ridiculous, I thought. I never knew of a rabbit that did heavy squats or clean and jerks or ran full tilt into another rabbit.
There are really two stages in the warmup process. The first is to do some movements that will raise your body’s overall temperature and enhance the muscles’ elasticity before you do any serious exercising. The second stage s more specific to the activities ahead, and the same individual will warmup differently before a run than for a heavy squat session.
You can accomplish the first stage of warming up in a number of ways. Calisthenics are effective. Some people like to jump rope or ride an exercise bike to get the blood moving. I’ve found that if I do several exercises for my trunk, midsection and lower back, I get thoroughly warmed up rather easily. I do one set of situps for 200 reps and then one set of hyperextensions for 100 more reps. Then I do a set of standing or bent-over twists with a stick for 100 reps and one set of side-to-side bends for 50 reps. In colder weather I do a bit more if I don’t feel sufficiently warmed up, and in hot weather I abbreviate the stick work.
The second stage is equally simple. If I’m going to squat, which I always do first in my program, I do one set of leg extensions and a set of adductor work. I use a light weight and perform reps until I feel my legs responding. In case you’re wondering why I skip leg curls for my leg biceps, the higher reps on the hypers hits them nicely. Again, if the weather is cold, I’ll spend more time on this preparation stage – until I start sweating. The stage should also include some stretching to prepare the muscles for the upcoming work; for example, performing some hurdler stretches for the hamstrings before squats or using a towel to stretch out the shoulders before doing benches. As mentioned above, warming up assists the nervous system, and I use that to help me prepare for the workout. The warmup movements are repetitious and monotonous, so while I do them, I think ahead to my workout. By running the planned numbers, along with some key points, through my head I set myself up for a better workout. At the same time I let my body know that it’s time to go to work. Once I begin my warmups, my body knows from experience what’s coming next: “Get the juices flowing, he’s going to squat!”
There’s a truism in weight training that you can never start too light, but you can start too heavy. Unfortunately, many people don’t heed that piece of wisdom. For some reason they find it difficult to understand. They want to get right to the heavy weights and believe that doing too many warmups will tap into their energy stores. That’s a mistake, however. Doing a few reps with a very light weight, even an empty Olympic bar, is never the wrong course.
That’s really the final phase of the warmup process. It’s generally built into the program, since most people train with progressive resistance – which simply means that they start with a relatively light weight and move on to heavier ones. That warms up the muscles and attachments thoroughly, which, in turn, enables them tot be stretched out. It also gives you the opportunity to sharpen your technique.
One of the best bench pressers I ever trained with always did at least one set with an empty Olympic bar, and sometimes he did two or three. I do the same for any movements that bother an old injury. As we grow older and start to accumulate a host of problems, it imperative that we move to the heavier poundages quite deliberately. For anyone who’s nursing an injury, the process is even more critical – even if the exercise you’re about to do doesn’t seem to hit the injured area.
Sometimes it’s necessary to warm up an area that seemingly isn’t involved in the lift at all. Each year several of my athletes come to me complaining of experiencing shoulder problems at the end of their squat workouts. Since, as has always been the case they all do squats first in their programs, I know the problems aren’t the result of any prior shoulder work. I explain to the athletes that they are, indeed, involving their shoulder girdles during the squats, especially if they work heavy and set the bar low on their backs.
When you lock a loaded barbell snugly on your back, you’re doing an isometric contraction for the shoulder girdle. It’s similar to what happens when you try a maximum bench press without the benefit of a warmup. The remedy for my students is merely to take some time to warm up their shoulders before they squat, which can be accomplished with some light dumbbell presses. I also have them stretch out their shoulders using a towel or stick. The problems disappear right away.
A similar thing happens to a few athletes who like to do deadlifts first in their programs. They too get aches and pains in their shoulders until they start doing warmup movements and stretches.
There are three types of stretches: static, passive and ballistic. Passive stretching occurs when someone assists you with an exercise in order to help you gain flexibility through forced motion. An example for a lifter is to have a partner help you loosen your shoulders, elbows and wrists prior to doing front squats. While you grasp a barbell, your partner gently elevates one arm, then the other, then both together. In another example you sit on the floor as someone steadily pushes against your back to stretch your hamstrings and lower back.
Ballistic stretching involves a rhythmic, bouncing motion. It’s really not recommended, for it is potentially harmful. The best of the three types of stretching is static. You perform static stretching by placing some part of your body in a stretch position and holding it there for a certain length of time. Some experts say that 20 seconds is plenty, but I like to hold for a full minute, as I can feel the muscles loosen during those final 15 seconds.
Static stretching could also be called gentle stretching, for it’s never forced. When place the muscles in a locked, contracted state, you activate the stretch reflex, which is a built-in safeguard against overextending and injuring the muscles. Rest assured, injuries can and do occur during stretching. How can you tell if you’ve triggered the reflex? If the stretched position is unusually painful, most likely you’re overstretching and the stretch reflex is telling you to back off. That’s all you have to do: Ease up just a bit, allow the muscle or muscles to relax and hold the more comfortable position for the desired count.
Static stretching benefits the weight trainer in a number of ways. Quite obviously, it gives you a better range of motion, which is critical for certain lifts. The shoulder girdle must be flexible enough to hold a barbell properly on your back or be able to rack a power clean correctly. Stretching also helps the body re-synthesize the accumulated lactic acid and remove harmful waste products from the tissues. That’s the reason stretching helps alleviate muscle soreness.
You should do some stretching prior to your workout, in conjuncture with your total warmup routine. In addition, one of the very best times to incorporate stretching into your program is during the workout itself. The dead time between sets is the ideal time to stretch those muscles that you’re putting under stress. By doing some stretches for your hamstrings between sets of squats, for example, you enhance your flexibility and keep those muscles from shortening before you put weights on the bar. The same principle applies to doing some stretches for your shoulders between sets on the bench press or incline. The muscles are most conducive to being stretched during exercise, since they’re warm. Another good time to stretch the body is after the workout, when it’s flushed with blood, but I seldom see anyone doing that. When most people finish their last set, they leave the gym, in which case I recommend stretching later on that night. It may not be as productive as stretching immediately after the workout, but it’s a more realistic goal. If you take some time to stretch while you’re watching television after a tough session, you’ll greatly reduce your soreness the next day.
Many of my athletes say that if they remember to do a bit of stretching right after they get out of bed, they’re better prepared for their workouts than if they don’t. It’s a fine idea. Notice that the first thing a cat does when it wakes up from a nap is to stretch. When it comes to stretching, more is better than less.
Older athletes have to pay closer attention to warming up and stretching than their younger counterparts. Older muscles and attachments aren’t as supple as young ones, so they need more time to prepare for the work ahead. In addition, anyone who has weight trained for a number of years has accumulated a number of injuries. It just goes with the territory, and you must care for former injuries by warming up the areas thoroughly, even if you’re not going to work them directly that day. As everyone knows, when you reinjure an old injury, it takes 10 times as long to bring it back to normal as it did when you hurt it the first time.
So, if you aren’t taking the time to warm up before training, start now. If you haven’t been doing any stretching, start now. Both will enable you to train harder and for a much longer time. After all, isn’t strength training a lifelong quest?