How the right kind of warm-up can make you stronger
*The following information is not intended as medical or health advice and should not be construed as such.
When it comes to physical activity - whether it's sports or a workout - there are 3 kinds of people: those who jump right in to their workouts, those who do 5-10min of cardio and a couple of stretches, and those who mindfully prepare their bodies for the work they're about to do.
Very few people fall into the latter category, but I'm going to convince you that it's the best option for you if you actually want to get stronger, move better, and train without pain or injury.
Let's start with the purpose of the warm-up: the point is to prepare your body for the movements you're about to do - whether that's a heavy leg day, a cross-fit WOD, playing a sport, or going for a run - you want your body to be prepared so that you're not just jumping into your activity completely cold.
Regardless of the activity you're doing, there are 3 steps to warming up: mobilization, activation, and integration. If that sounds daunting or confusing, I promise you, it's surprisingly simple :)
Mobilization refers to creating space in your joints. There are a number of ways to create space in your joints. You can do passive stretching, where you're just holding a stretch position for a period of time. You can do soft tissue manipulation, like foam or ball rolling. If you have the set-up for it, you can even do a bit of traction with a resistance band. Some mobilization exercises are a bit more active, like cat-camel, or spinal rotation.
How can you tell which areas to mobilize? The easiest way is to do a self-screening, where you check in with your body to assess what's tight, and what feels limited. Start by stretching those areas. Usually that'll include calves, hip flexors, hamstrings, low back, front of the shoulder, and back of the neck. Once you've stretched what's tight, consider which of your joints need to be mobile for the activity you're about to do, and which ones are feeling rigid. For instance, if you're going for a run, you need to be able to rotate your spine so that you can freely swing your arms and legs. You also need freedom of movement in your hips and shoulders for that same swinging action.
Once you've done your mobilization exercises, you need to do some activation. Why? Because muscle activation creates stability, and where you have mobility, you also need stability. What do I mean by that? Let's go back to the running example: you've mobilized your hips, shoulders, and spine so that you can have your arms and legs swing freely, but you don't want them swinging wildly - that would be inefficient. You need stability through your entire core to keep that from happening. So you need to throw in a couple of exercises that activate your core muscles (not intensely - just a bit) so that you have that stability.
The other reason you need some activation exercises is to get your motor neurons firing. Your nervous system controls your musculoskeletal system, and if you aren't "warming up" your nervous system, you're going to have, at best, a mediocre performance in your workout or activity.
The best type of exercises for muscle activation are isometric exercises (where you engage your muscles without moving them), because they allow you to feel the muscles firing without putting you in compromising positions or over-working the muscles in your warm-up.
Finally, once you've completed your mobilization and activation exercises, you want to integrate that mobility and stability. This part is highly dependent on what kind of activity you're going to be doing, because integration is essentially your movement prep. Think of it like a very light version of the activity you're warming up to do. So if you're going for a run, your integration exercise might be some light step ups, or walking lunges. If you're warming up for a sport where you have a lot of lateral (side-to-side) movement (i.e. tennis, hockey, football, etc.), you want to include some lateral exercises in your warm-up.
If you're warming up for a gym workout, your integration exercises can just be lighter versions of the exercises in your workout, allowing you to focus on the quality of the movement.
If this sounds like it would take a lot of time to do before each workout or activity, consider this: a 15-minute warm-up for every session will take up far less of your time (and money) than doing hours of rehab because of an injury sustained on account of not warming up. The other benefit is that you will have consistently higher performance because of that warm-up, so if you're looking to make gains in the gym, you're actually saving yourself a whole bunch of time.
Want to learn more about how to warm up for your activities? Click to book a discovery call with me.