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When you’re crunched for time, it’s tempting to skip a warm-up and get right to training. But while your brain is ready to go, your body has not yet gotten the memo. A warm-up serves as this wake-up call, getting your blood flowing, increasing range of motion, and preparing your muscle fibers and nervous system to work. But with all the different techniques these days, it’s difficult to know which warm-up goes best with which kind of training and which will do the most good. No worries — we’ve done the matchmaking for you. Use this go-to guide for warming up and get more out of your training while also preventing the risk of injury.
Best Before: Any kind of workout.
Cardiovascular activity is an excellent way to warm up — to raise your internal temperature — because it gets your whole body moving, infusing your muscles with oxygen, blood and nutrients and preparing them to hit the ground running (literally!). Sometimes cardio is sufficient in and of itself as a warm-up if you’re simply doing some easy aerobic work, but if you’re doing heavy lifting or an intense high-intensity interval training session, this technique should be combined with another protocol — such as the ones below — to properly and fully warm up.
What You Should Do: Any activity that gets your body moving and grooving is great — jogging, rowing, biking, stair climbing.
Keep in Mind: It should be done at an easy pace for no longer than about five minutes to simply get you warm, not to make you break a sweat. So even if you love to run, anything beyond 10 minutes of light jogging ventures into full-on workout territory and is no longer considered a warm-up.
Best Before: Any workout but particularly heavy strength training.
Improving range of motion (ROM) is something to prioritize when you’re about to pump some iron, and according to research, using a foam roller can help increase ROM without negatively affecting performance. Foam rollers work as a sort of self-massage, helping break up and release the fascia — the connective tissue that surrounds the muscles — which can become tight and inflamed. Rolling improves ROM even before you lift a weight.
What You Should Do: Position yourself on top of the roller, and using your bodyweight, roll along the muscle starting at the origin and moving slowly through its entire length. Pause when you encounter an area that is tight or tender and hold that position for several seconds to help it release. Aim for a minimum of five passes in each direction per muscle before moving on to the next, and do a total of about five minutes. Note of caution: Never foam-roll your lower spine because the area may seize up.
Keep in Mind: There are different “levels” of foam rollers, ranging from moderately soft to rock solid, so if you’re new to the technique, start with the softer ones and move up as you become adept at rolling (and as your body adapts to the hardness). In addition, foam rolling can make you sore, especially if you’re super tight or have a lot of adhesions — areas of tightness in your fascia. So don’t be surprised if that IT band is grumbling the day after you roll the heck out of it.
Best Before: Explosive workouts such as plyometrics or powerlifting and sports.
This technique involves moving a limb actively through its entire range of motion, helping push blood into the muscles while releasing synovial fluid within the joints, lubing them up and getting them ready to work. It also can help you perform better: One study published in the Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness found that dynamic stretching as a warm-up helped improve performance in basketball players.
What You Should Do: Actions that focus on multi-directional movement at the joints — leg swings, arm circles, bear hugs — are examples of great dynamic stretches. Begin in a shorter, gentler range of motion and gradually allow your actions to become larger and more dynamic.
Keep in Mind: Spend about five minutes on the large muscles and joints in the body, paying special attention to any that have chronic tightness or those that will be worked extra hard that day.
Movement Prep (aka warm-up sets)
Best Before: Strength training and CrossFit-type WODs.
Movement prep is really a going-through-the-motions sort of gig. You do several sets of the exercises but at a lower intensity. This alerts your central nervous system that heavy work is coming its way and establishes a movement pattern for the forthcoming exercises that your body can remember when the going gets tough. This helps you produce force efficiently and explosively, making movements more effective and workouts more intense. And of course, you reduce the risk of injury.
What You Should Do: Assess the lift you’re focusing on for the day and do some movement prep appropriate to that lift. For example, if your goal is to back-squat 120 pounds, your movement prep could start with bodyweight squats, also known as air squats, for a couple of sets using perfect form; then you could move to squats with an empty Olympic bar for a couple of sets. Next, you’d start building, dropping the rep range down to three to five per set and adding weight in 20 percent increments per set until you reach your target weight.
Keep in Mind: How long the actual prep lasts depends on the lift in question and how strong you are at it. If you’re a veteran, chances are your movement prep will take longer than a novice. Also, know that single-joint isolation movements like a biceps curl requires less prep because they affect fewer muscle groups and joints.
Muscle Activation (aka isometrics)
Best Before: Heavy lifting days.
Isometric contractions — wherein you contract your muscle against an immovable object — done preworkout have actually been shown in some studies to increase power up to 51 percent. This kind of contraction stimulates the central nervous system to recruit more high-threshold motor units (those responsible for innervating the fast-twitch muscle fibers), improving contractile strength and force output, resulting in more powerful lifts.
What You Should Do: Think about the movement you’re about to do, then find a way to simulate it against an immovable object. With a bench press, for example, place your hands in the benching position flat against the wall, then actively try to press the wall away from you, tensing and contracting all the muscles you would be using in an actual bench press. Hold each press for 10 to 15 seconds, then rest 30 seconds. Go for two to three sets, and with each set, make the contraction a little more intense.
Keep in Mind: This technique can easily drain you, so limit the amount of actual work to no more than three minutes.