Always warm up before any workout or training.
Yes, it’s the part that we always want to skip. We want to jump right into the nitty gritty – throwing iron around, dropping sweat and losing pounds like crazy.
But the warm up is more important than you might think.
Every warm up has 3 main goals:
- Increase your blood and oxygen flow
- Open and strengthen the neural pathways
- Mentally prepare you for the workout
And alright, those goals seem obvious – but there’s a little more to them than meets the eye.
WARM UP GOAL 1: Increase Blood and Oxygen Flow
Rubber bands are great for turning your fingers into a semi automatic weapon of destruction. But there’s a trick to using rubber bands – they can’t be cold. If it is, as soon as you stretch that sucker, it snaps. Not back into itself where it hits your fingers and leaves welts. I mean it snaps in half. It’s lost all its rubbery and stretchiness and just breaks.
Cold muscles are the same as cold rubber band. They don’t have the pliability we need for our exercises. And if you try and squat or press with tight and cold muscles, you’re just asking for them to be snapped, ripped or injured. Obviously not a good thing for your fitness goals.
So the goal of every warm up should literally be that – to warm you up. To increase your body temperature.
But sitting in a sauna until your dripping sweat doesn’t actually cut it. Sure, that may let a rubber band stretch fine, but it’s not the best way to warm up your muscles.
Instead, you have to be moving.
The more you move, the faster your heart pumps. The faster your heart pumps the quicker your blood flows through your body. And that moving blood raises your body temperature. Cool.
But your bloodstream is also the oxygen supplier to your muscles and cells. And when it delivers fresh oxygen your muscles get a dose of energy.
So the warm up increases our body temp and get our muscles warm, loose and energized for mobile movements.
WARM UP GOAL 2: Strengthen the Neural Pathways
You know the old saying “it’s just like riding a bike?” Well the idea behind this bike-riding saying is that once you learn something, you’re never going to forget. We can do the same thing with our training.
So let me explain these neural pathways for a minute.
You see, the human body is a crazy thing. It’s made up of millions of pieces that all have to communicate and interact with each other in order for you to function.
Your body communicates by sending nerve signals. Your brain sends out a signal to a nerve to tell that nerve what to do. And the path that communication takes to get from the brain to the nerve is called a NERUAL PATHWAY.
When you know something super well – like how to ride a bike – that neural pathway is strong.
But if your brain is telling your nerve to do something new and unfamiliar – there might not be a pathway yet. And one has to be formed.
How do these pathways form?
Pretend you’re going on a hike to find a secret cabin in the woods. Someone told you it’s there, but you really have no idea where it is. So you start your little trek and wander around aimlessly for a while. Eventually you find it! And it’s so incredible that you decide you want to return back tomorrow.
Now, because you kinda know where it’s at, when you head out the next day, you get there a little easier, but still get lost a few times. But you find it a faster than the first time.
And you decide to come back again the next day. Now this time you get there pretty quick, not lost at all. Because you’ve already gone down that same path a few times and you know where you’re going.
When you keep going back, day after day, eventually you create your own little path in the forest. A clear and easy to follow path directly to that cabin. Super fast and efficient.
Well that clearly formed path is your strong neural pathway. This is what we want in our training. And the best way to form these are during our warm ups.
Why do we care about these pathways anyway?
We all know that technique is important in our training. Not only does it prevent injury, but it also lets us lift more weight – which ultimately means faster success.
Our neural pathways are what help that good form become second nature. Things we could do with our eyes closed and without our brain having to think about it.
Let’s think about squats. We know that our toes should be forward, our knees pressing out, and our spine neutral. But if we’re lifting a crap ton of weight, these things can be hard to think about.
But if we practice this technique in the warm up, let’s say with body weight squats or light weight goblet squats, we can start forming that neural pathway to make this proper technique something we don’t have to think about.
And the more we practice those movements, the stronger that pathway becomes. The more efficiently that muscle movement happens. And the better you ultimately perform on those squats.
Because when we start adding weight to that squat, the neural pathway will tell our bodies to naturally fall into the correct form and technique. Goodbye injury and hello PRs.
A nerdy study:
There was even a study that looked at how well these neural pathways worked.
A group of women were introduced to strength training and over 4 months, researchers worked with them to build neural pathways for proper form.
After those 4 months, the women were told to “take it easy” for the rest of the year. That meant no more strength training for 8 months.
But at the end of the year, when those women were brought back into the gym, almost all of them could still do the exercises with the correct form. Because they had formed their neural pathways. Their weight lifting was just like getting back on the bike.
So when you warm up and practice your form and technique, you strengthen your neural pathways for the exercises you love. But not only do you strengthen them, that warm up also opens up old pathways that may not have been used for a while. All from that pre-workout warm up.
WARM UP GOAL 3: Mental Preparation
The final goal of the warm up is to get your mind set for your workout. Can you imagine walking into a gym and the first thing you do is pump out a 1 rep max on the squat?
Heck no. You aren’t mentally prepared yet for that intense of a workout.
Just like you have to prep your body, you also have to prep your mind. And you don’t have to sit in the car, jamming to Metallica to pump yourself up.
The warm up can actually serve that purpose.
Researchers have shown that the warm up plays a huge role in the motivation of your motivation. Your willingness to push yourself. Because that gradual movement starts increasing your dopamine and serotonin levels in your brain. It gets your feel good chemicals moving so you can rely on them during the workout.
So the better the warm up, the better prepared your mind to overcome those challenges.
So What Should This Warm Up Look Like?
There is no one warm up that works for every person. And heck, each person shouldn’t do the same warm up each day.
Because if you’re looking to raise your body temperature – someone training in Hawaii on the beach will get warm a lot faster than someone training in the dead of winter in Alaska.
And if you’re only training one major muscle group, you can get those muscles moving and neural pathways open much faster than if you have to warm up multiple muscle groups.
So there’s no magic time or exercise to get you ready for your workout.
Instead, focus on these principles to make sure your warm up is effective:
The Guidelines for Every Warm Up:
- Did you do the warm up? Uh, if you didn’t you need to.
- Do feel physical warm? If you didn’t break a little sweat, you’re probably too cold to be a stretchy rubber band. Keep moving.
- Do you feel fluid? If you feel tight and stiff, your neural pathways are probably still blocked. Spend some more time doing slow body weight or light weight exercises that will work those stiff areas.
- Are you mentally ready to kill your workout? A half-assed warm up will lead to a half-assed workout. If you aren’t ready to give all you got, spend more time getting your body and mind warm and prepped. And maybe consider a little head-banging if needed to psych you up.
If you’ve hit all those guidelines, then you should be golden.
And one last thing – if you aren’t sure if you’ve warmed up enough, keep going. It’s better to over prepare than under. So don’t skimp or cheat your warm up. Or you’ll be paying the price in sucky workouts and injury.