Here's what you need to know...
• Athletes who sprint, cut, and jump require specific, detailed warm-ups. For lifters, the emphasis should be on extra warm-up sets.
• Forget the "static stretching makes you weak" nonsense. You're not stretching immediately before performing a max effort lift and the increased mobility will improve your lifts.
• Foam rolling, activation work, and dynamic warm-ups can be helpful, but greatly depend on individual needs and preferences.
Part of the problem comes when lifters get their warm-up recommendations from physical therapists or strength coaches who work with athletes. When you're injured, you obviously need to place a greater onus on warming up and doing corrective work. Same goes if you're warming up to sprint, cut, jump, or play sports.
But if you're a healthy guy just looking to bench, squat, or knock out some chin-ups, that stuff is overkill. With that in mind, here are the main things to focus on.
It never ceases to amaze me when I see a guy go through an elaborate 30-minute warm-up doing every trendy drill under the sun, only to jump right into the lifting session by going straight into his first working set.
1. Warm-Up Sets
Let's say Justin foam rolls every inch of his body and does a long dynamic warm-up complete with activation work, but then jumps straight to his first working set of squats with 315 on the bar. (Or more likely, his first set at 185 pounds, because strong lifters don't warm-up this way.)
Now along comes Hugo, who walks straight from his car to the rack and starts squatting with the goal to do his first working set with 315. He begins by warming up with just the bar for two sets of 10-15 reps, doing the reps slow and purposeful, pausing in the bottom position to stretch his hips. He then does 95 pounds for 8, 135 for 5, 185 for 5, 225 for 3, 255 for 1, and then 285 for 1, all with great form and focusing on being explosive out of the hole.
My money is on Hugo incurring fewer squatting injuries than Justin, and his squatting performance will also be far better.
I'm not saying that all you should do is warm-up sets. I'm saying that warm-up sets are by far the most important part of the warm-up and are the only real "must" when gearing up to handle heavy weights.
There are several objectives for warm-up sets:
• Increase core temperature and tissue temperature (i.e., warm up).
• Lift-specific mobility work.
• Form rehearsal. This is why it's important to treat your warm-up sets seriously and practice solid technique.
• Acclimate yourself to the weight without creating excessive fatigue. That's why I recommend doing fewer reps as you work up in weight.
• Get your mind right. This is the time to stop thinking about whatever else you have going on in your life and start focusing on the task at hand.
You should strive to have a light sweat going by the time you start handling heavier weights. This won't be much of an issue if you live in a warmer climate and your warm-up sets may be all you need, but if you live in a colder climate you'll want to get moving around a bit before starting your lifting session.
2. Increasing Tissue Temperature
This could mean doing some light cardio, calisthenics, or dynamic mobility drills. Wearing layers is also a great way to expedite the warm-up process in colder weather. This portion of the warm-up should take between zero and 6 minutes.
The new trend is to recommend a dynamic warm-up in place of static stretching, but for lifters I still recommend static stretching for reasons I outline here. To be even clearer, I recommend short-duration static stretching, holding each stretch for 10-20 seconds.
3. Static Stretching
Some people use "the research" to suggest that static stretching decreases subsequent performance, but if you look closely at the existing research and use a little bit of common sense, you'll see that these fears are largely overblown and misguided, especially if you're using short duration stretches and waiting at least a couple minutes between stretching and handling heavy weight.
Another knock on static stretching is that it's largely ineffective for increasing long-term flexibility. I don't agree, but regardless, it's completely irrelevant to the discussion of stretching pre-workout.
All we're looking to do pre-workout is increase short-term range of motion to be able to get into better positions on our strength training exercises, and static stretching definitely helps with that.
Full range of motion strength training with good form is still the best way to increase mobility, but I also know that most guys – especially heavily muscled lifters – are unable to do full range of motion strength training without stretching first, especially when they're tight and sore from previous lifting sessions.
While a general stretching routine focusing on the major muscle groups is good, lift-specific stretching is even better pre-workout. For example, if you're squatting or deadlifting, spend 20 seconds in the bottom of the squat pushing your knees out with your elbows. Or if you're doing Bulgarian split squats, get in the bottom position and hold it for 15-20 seconds on each side to loosen up before your first set.
Start with a few general stretches, paying particular attention to areas where you're particularly tight, and finish with a stretch specific to your first exercise of the workout. All told, the stretching portion of your warm-up should take between 2-8 minutes depending on how much you need and what exercises you have planned for that day.
Recent research suggests that foam rolling can help improve range of motion without impeding strength, making it a good choice pre-workout. That said, I put much more stock in what I experience in the gym with my clients and my own training.
4. Foam Rolling
In that context, the verdict seems largely personal. Most seem to love foam rolling and report feeling much better and more limber afterwards. For these folks, I absolutely recommend foam rolling.
On the other hand, others don't seem to notice that much of a difference and could just as easily do without it. For these folks, I'd say it isn't as important. If forced to choose between foam rolling or stretching, I'd choose stretching because you can stretch in positions that closely mimic – or in some cases replicate exactly – the positions you'll need to achieve during your strength work. However, there's certainly no reason why you can't (or shouldn't) do both.
Foam rolling should take around 3-5 minutes. Some research suggests that you get best results from rolling an area for at least 10 seconds, so 10-20 seconds is a good rule of thumb. You don't need to go crazy, but don't rush it either. If you foam roll, do it before static stretching.
Dynamic warm-ups are the new thing and are purported to be much more effective than "old school" warm-up routines. However, I'm not sold when it comes to lifters.
5. Dynamic Warm-Up
I'm a big fan of dynamic warm-ups for athletes warming up to sprint, cut, jump, and play sports, but besides increasing core temperature, most dynamic warm-up drills don't have much application for lifters just looking to crush weight. Remember, the warm-up should be specific to the activity.
Most lifters are tight and need to focus on increasing mobility before their lifting session to be able to achieve the proper positions. If you watch people go through a dynamic warm-up, they typically just go through the motions exhibiting their current mobility levels rather than improving their mobility. Translation: Tight guys do the drills poorly and limber guys do them well.
If you want to do a dynamic warm-up to increase core temperature, that's fine, but don't let it replace stretching, which I like to think of as static mobility work.
Activation work is a catchy term that refers to doing a bunch of low-level exercises like band walks and bodyweight glute bridges before the lifting session. These exercises have value for more novice lifters – I often use them with older clients – but once you achieve decent strength levels, you quickly graduate beyond them.
6. Activation Work
There's certainly no harm in doing them, but I'd relegate them to the "waste of time" category for stronger and more advanced lifters.
I'm not against a long warm-up if you have the time or have some specific issue that needs extra attention, but for most people with tight schedules, a 10-15 minute warm-up is plenty, provided you don't dawdle and you spend your time focusing on the right things.
Warm It Up!
It's very, very important to warm up, but keep it quick so the majority of your training time can be spent, well, training.
MacDonald GZ, Penney MD, Mullaley ME, Cuconato AL, Drake CD, Behm DG, Button DC. An acute bout of self-myofascial release increases range of motion without a subsequent decrease in muscle activation or force. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2013 Mar; 27(3):812-21.
Sullivan KM, Silvey DB, Button DC, Behm DG. Roller-massage application to the hamstrings increases sit-and-reach range of motion within five to ten seconds without performance impairments. International Journal of Sports and Physical Therapy. 2013 June; 8(3): 228-236.