Functional Health Services for Your Well Being

The Perfect Warm-Up

written by Alex Boersma

Warming up, Olympian style.

Anybody who has worked out regularly for more than a few years will probably have had the dubious distinction of being among the ranks of the exercise disabled.  Sprains, strains and anything-itusis!  Nothing will set back your training goals as much as a knee that won’t bend or a back that won’t straighten.  I should know, I’ve had plenty of my own.  Shoulder and elbow “itus”.  Strained back muscles.  Chronic neck pain. Torn hamstring.  Torn calf.  Torn adductors.  Shin splints.

And I should know better.  I’m a professional!

How could this all have been prevented?

Granted, a significant proportion of musculo-skeletal injuries can be prevented by controlling lifestyle.  Consuming a healthy diet, moderating  alcohol consumption, being able to have a drug Recovery, reducing stress, taking recovery days, using appropriate post workout supplementation and getting 8 hours of uninterupted sleep every night are all important factors in maintaining an injury-free body.

Who does that?

Well, I admit, I am getting better at all that stuff.  And it does help.  But it doesn’t make up for the drive to keep getting stronger and the foolishness of pretending you are twenty years younger than you really are.

Having said that, I have noticed something over the years.  Never once  have I or any of my clients ever been injured in a workout which began with an effective warm-up.

Notice the judicious use of the word effective?

I say effective because for much of the last 10 years I was either not performing a warm-up, or I was doing what I now know was an ineffective warm-up.  I only really figured out what an effective warm-up should look like about 5 or 6 years ago.  Knowing what it should look like, of course, did not immediately translate into implementing it religiously.  That took another half dozen injuries or so!  Even to this day, I often have to make a conscious decision to include a warm-up, even if that means, due to time constraints, that I must fore-go one or two of my favourite exercises.


Before we begin choosing warm-up exercises, we should understand what it is that we expect the warm-up to achieve for us:

  1. Elevate your heart rate. Anybody who has ever run a race without warming up knows how hard that first half mile at race pace can be.  Your body simply doesn’t deal well with going from rest to full speed in a short amount of time.  Elevating your heart rate will signal all the hormonal and neurological systems to begin switching from resting status to exercise status.
  2. Excite your neuro-muscular system. As alluded to above, your brain is in control of your body functions.  A warm-up should tell the brain to switch into exercise mode. This will slow down some of the less essential (at least while you’re exercising) systems such as the digestive system and the reproductive system and put the emphasis on getting fuel to the muscles and getting messages to and from the muscles.
  3. Lubricate your joints. Many of your joints have a fluid called synovial fluid in them.  When the joints are not being used, much of this fluid is stored in the actual tissues of the cartilage. Moving the joint through a full range of motion stimulates the synovial fluid to move into the spaces between the cartilage where it can lubricate the joints.
  4. Activate “dormant ” muscles. Our sedentary society tends to develop muscular imbalances which lead to “inactive” muscles.  A few of the most common culprits are the glutes, the inner core muscles and the lower trapezius.  An appropriate warm-up always “wakes up” these muscles so that they become more active and contribute more effectively to force production and joint stabilization.
  5. Loosen your muscles. Ever try to stretch a frozen elastic band?  Higher muscle temperatures allow the muscles to contract and relax more quickly and more forcefully.  Warm muscles can also be stretched farther before tearing.  Tearing is not a good thing!
  6. Unglue your fascia. Unglue your what?  Isn’t fascia the stuff you put up around the sides of your roof?  Different fascia. This fascia is actually a thin bag of tissue which literally surrounds and connects every muscle in your body.  For a variety of reasons, including micro trauma, postural imbalances and overuse issues, fascial tissues sometimes get stuck together and/or produce pressure points.  Manual therapies such as massage and ART frequently address problems with fascial adhesions.  Here’s a very oversimplified explanation of the problem:
    • You know the thin layer of tissue surrounding a chicken breast…if not, then you need to spend a little more time in the kitchen.  Anyway, that thin layer is the fascia.  Now imagine if you could somehow glue the fascia of 2 chicken breasts together.  Now imagine you try to stretch one breast lengthwise while holding the other one still.  Can you see that there might be some tension created where the fascia are glued together?
    • Now, take a look at the picture below of  the IT Band:
    • The IT Band is a very strong layer of fascia which connects the outside of the pelvis to the outside of the knee.  As you can see, it runs over both the outer hamstring muscle and the outer quadriceps muscle.  It is supposed to glide  smoothly over these muscles, providing stability to the knee and assisting with both flexion and extension.   Now imagine that the IT Band becomes “stuck” to either the quadriceps muscle or the hamstring muscle (or both).  Every time you flex or extend your knee, the IT Band comes along for the ride.  Now it can no longer stabilize properly at the knee, so you will likely begin to have issues with your knees.  There will also obviously be pressure points where the muscle and the IT Band are stuck together.  And because the IT Band runs all the way up to the pelvis, there will probably be some dysfunction and pressure points around the hip as well
    • By releasing the fascial adhesions and pressure points, you can return both the hip and knee to normal working condition, maximizing strength and minimizing the risk of injury.
  7. “Groove” movement patterns. You shouldn’t ask your brain to create powerful movements without giving it a chance to learn the movements first.  It would be like hiring an assistant and, on his first day, tasking him with preparing a major presentation which you are delivering that day.  He might get it done, but probably not as well as you would have liked.  Similarly, if you just load 300 lbs on a bar and start deadlifting, your brain hasn’t quite warmed up to the idea of deadlifting.  Being a helpful sort, your brain tries to do the job even though it isn’t quite sure how.  In the process, it may ask the wrong muscles to do the heavy lifting.  These muscles, not being adapted to this type of work, could easily tear.  If nothing else, they will certainly not produce the force you were looking for.  So, either the bar stays on the ground, or it comes up reluctantly, possibly to the tune of popping muscles!


Cardiovascular machines and stretching.  Simple enough.  Get on your favourite machine and move at a moderate intensity for about 5 to 10 minutes or until you achieve a light sweat.  Then find a mat or squeeze into the “stretching room” at your gym and perform whatever stretches you deem applicable.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Its just not optimal.

In reference to our list of expectations, let’s see how much the traditional warm-up accomplishes:

  1. Does it elevate heart rate? Yes, unequivocally.  One point for the traditionalists.
  2. Does it excite the neuro-muscular system? Yes, it does, but not unequivocally.  Because the cardiovascular work is repetitive, uni-planar (all done in one plane of movement) and limited in range of motion, the messages being sent to and from the muscles will be kind of one dimensional.  Fine, if your workout is going to be more of the same.  But if your workout is going to involve multiple movements in multiple planes of motion, there are more effective ways of getting your systems excited.
  3. Does it lubricate your joints? Yes, but again, not as well as it could.  The problem here is with the limited range of motion.  The synovial fluid gets squeezed into the synovial space by the pressure of the joints moving.  The more range of motion you move the joints through, the more lubrication you get.  No cardiovascular machine I have ever seen gives you anywhere near full range of motion in most of your joints.  And stretching often also only moves the joint in one direction or plane.
  4. Does it activate dormant muscles? Not so much.  If anything, it puts them into deeper sleep.  Riding a stationary bike, for example, will tend to de-activate the glutes because the movement is hip flexor dominant.  Because you are seated with hips and spine flexed, the inner core muscles will often be dormant.  And because you are usually leaning forward with arms outstretched, the lower traps and rhomboids will be long, stretched and inactive.
  5. Does it loosen your muscles? Yes, as long as your body temperature goes up, so does your general muscle temperature.
  6. Does it unglue your fascia? No, not at all.  In fact, stretching  fascia that has adhesions will often make the problem worse.  Imagine stretching an elastic that has a knot tied in it.  Does the knot go away?  Of course not.  It just gets tighter and harder to release.
  7. Does it groove movement patterns? Only if the workout is going to be the same thing as your warm-up.  For example, running at a slow to moderate pace might be part of an effective warm-up for a running workout.  But not for a squat workout!


Perform a dynamic warm-up.

A dynamic warm-up meets all the expectations of an effective warm-up.  And it does so in a very short time.  Here are the components in the order they should be performed:

  • Calisthenics. That’s right.  Back to grade 9 gym class.  Maybe they were on to something way back then.  What have we got?   Stride jumps.  Star jumps.  Shoulder circles.  Hip rotations.  Side bends.  Inch worms.  Mountain climbers.  Lunges.  Side Lunges.  Those are just a few of the basic ones I use.  There are literally hundreds of options out there.  In case your high school memory fails you, here are some visual reminders:
  • Remember that the point of the calisthenics is to move all the joints through a full range of motion while bringing heart rate and body temperature up.  Exercises must be chosen wisely with these goals in mind.

  • Fascial release. Once the body has warmed up, it is time to release any fascial adhesions that might impede your workout.  If your training partner happens to be a massage therapist or an ART practitioner, you’re in luck.  If not, then you’ll probably have to invest in a foam roller and/or some other tools for self treating fascial adhesions.  There are a handful of different tools, each of which is associated with a number of different techniques.  I use a foam roller for IT band release and thoracic mobilization.  I use a hard medicine ball for rolling hip flexors, hamstrings, adductors, lats and sometimes back extensors.  I use an indian rubber ball for rolling the bottom of my feet, my glutes and TFL.  I use two tennis balls taped together to roll my back erectors and mobilize the thoracic spine.  And finally, I use a theracane for releasing rhomboids, traps and rotator cuff.   Now if you are one of the many people who have never heard of fascial release and for whom most of the stuff I just wrote is pretty much gibberish, these visuals are for you:

Obviously, you don’t have to roll everything before every workout.  Just the tissues you know are tight and will affect the exercises you are doing that day.  But every now and then, spend an hour or so with some of these techniques and look for new areas of tension.  You will be surprised to find adhesions and pressure points where you didn’t even know you had them.

  • Dynamic stretching. Now that the knots are out of your elastics, it is time to give them a stretch.  Dynamic stretching is different from static stretching in that you don’t hold a stretched position for any serious length of time.  Basically you repeat full range of motion stretches, going into and out of the stretched position about 8 to 10 times for each muscle.  Here’s an example for the hamstring:

Leg Swing

As you can see, the leg swing is a simple matter of swinging the leg gently back and forth.  Each time it swings forward, the hamstring stretches dynamically.  Also, each time it swings forward, the range of motion should gradually increase.  When you are performing dynamic stretches, be sure to keep the movement gentle, and not compensate elsewhere in the body.  Another similar type of stretching called ballistic stretching uses more violent movement and is accompanied by compensations in other parts of the body.  It is also often accompanied by the sound of tearing muscles!  Not exactly what we are looking for.

Once again, there are hundreds of dynamic stretches you can use.  And once again, you don’t have to do a whole bunch of them.  Just the ones that are most applicable to you and to the workout you are about to do.

  • Muscle activation. Finally, we come to muscle activation.  Muscle activation exercises are meant to “wake up” dormant muscles which will be required in the workout either for primary movement or stabilization.  For a variety of reasons, mostly postural, certain muscles seem to not activate as well as they should.  The most common culprits here are the gluteal muscles (turned off by excessive hip flexor tension) the inner core muscles (turned off by excessive sitting and flexionof the spine) and the shoulder blade stabilizing musculature (rhomboids, lower traps and serratus – all turned off by rounded shoulders, excessive forward reaching and excessive spinal flexion).  I use things like glute bridges, plank variations, reverse crunches and wall slides to activate some of these muscle groups, which will exercise all muscles and make people look better, although there are other methods like getting a Metro Laser & CoolSculpting Medspa treatment that can make your body look younger and better.

Once you have completed these 4 elements, you are basically ready to go.  From this point, the only thing left is to groove the movement patterns, which is accomplished by doing warm-up sets of the particular exercises you are going to do.  For example, if my first exercise is deadlifts, I will do my warm-up and then follow up with 3 or 4 sets of deadlifts at gradually progressing sub maximal weights.  In these sets, I will focus on “grooving” all the technique patterns I have learned over the years.  By the time I get to my heavy sets, my brain and body will automatically be doing things like activating the glutes, pushing the heels into the ground, bracing the core, activating the lats and whatever else I may have taught them.  My conscious mind can now simply focus on getting the lift up.

Don’t skip the warm-up!

I know how tempting it can be.  Only have 45 minutes for your workout, and you have a whole bunch of stuff planned for it.  Surely you can skip that pesky warm-up…just this once!  Believe me, it isn’t worth it.  You might get away with it, but you will never get as good a workout as you might have had.  And there is a good chance you could injure yourself, in which case you will set yourself way farther back than you would have by skipping a couple of exercises instead of the warm-up.

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