When people think about their workouts, the only part that often springs to their minds most of the time is the weight training part, but that’s only half the story.
An adequate and diligent approach to both preparing for the hard work in terms of doing warmups and properly concluding the workout through a cooldown is a must for ensuring the longevity and quality of both an individual training session, as well as one’s entire training career.
Each part of this process, the warming up and cooling down, can further be halved into distinct parts, one common to all the workouts, and one more specific for each one. We’ll cover all of them by explaining important parts and giving tips on how to make the best out of them.
The purpose of general warmup is to get you ready for the physical activity of weightlifting. It’s called “general” because it targets your entire body and covers the most basic aspects of warming up, and as such is basically the same for all your training sessions. In simplest terms, you can tell that it signals your body that you intend to work out. A more detailed list of purposes of general warmup is below:
a) Gradually increasing cardiopulmonary system activity – increases body temperature, blood flow, and reduces heart irregularities that may come from sudden exercising.
b) Lubricating joints, warming up soft tissues, and making muscles more elastic – all of these serve preventing injuries.
c) Priming the nervous system and heightening awareness in the body as a whole, as well as particular muscle groups – this basically means that you can’t lift if your muscles are asleep, and if your supporting muscles aren’t ready to be engaged on demand, you could be facing a serious injury.
d) Taking time to mentally prepare for a workout, which, as we all know, requires focus and detachment from everyday life.
Upon reading point a, most people thing that they have general warmup covered, as they spend 20-30 mins on a stationary bike or a treadmill before a workout. The most important thing to realize here is that general warmup is not cardio, therefore doing cardio can’t replace general warmup, and, if done instead of it, is actually detrimental to the workout. Because of this, there’s no point in doing cardio for half an hour prior to a workout. 5-15 mins should be fine. This basically depends on two things – how cold it is where you train (and outside), and how old you are.
Both conditions contribute to time that must be spent on the point a of general warmup. Besides the difference in length between regular cardio and cardio for general warmup, there’s also a difference in intensity, as cardio for general warmup should be mild or moderate at best – this means light jogging or riding a stationary bicycle or skipping rope – no running or hammering the stationary bike, and most certainly no sprints or tabatas or barbell complexes.
Note that doing cardio isn’t the only thing which contributes to point a. For example, I train at a home gym. This means that every time I go to workout, I have to prepare the gym for the session, which commonly involves moving a few hundred pounds of weights from or onto various bar or dumbbells, moving the stationary bike to clear up the cable spot, preparing the platform for squatlifting, etc. Then I realize that I had forgotten my T-shirt downstairs, so I run a couple of flights of stairs to get it. And when all of this is through, I am warm, sweating and ready to proceed to the rest of the general warmup.
Point b is accomplished by doing dynamic stretches. Dynamic – not static stretches, which weaken the muscle and could result in an injury if done “cold” (and no, just because your heartbeat is up, it doesn’t mean that your pecs are warmed up and can’t be pulled if stretched). I won’t go into the detail on dynamic stretching as it’s quite a lengthy topic on its own, but let’s cover some basic points and provide examples. Unlike static stretching, in which a part of your body is pulled in a position which is usually past the point of normal ROM, and held there for some time, dynamic stretching is about motion. And, unlike static stretching, it hasn’t been shown detrimental for strength training. There are lots of dynamic stretches, and you might opt for different combinations of those for different training sessions, to, e.g., emphasize the shoulder girdle on pressing day, or legs and hips on lower body day.
Point c is comprised of both the activities done in points a and b, but also those in the specific warmups, which we’ll be looking at shortly. I would just like to mention one finer point here which is often missed, and which I got from Stuart McRobert. He suggested doing some slight core work before the workout to thoroughly warm up that region, as well as to raise awareness in it. Now, notice the word “slight” – this is not a real ab workout followed by real work on the lower back, as there isn’t more dangerous a practice than that one, since it leaves your core drained and thus unable to protect you. This slight prep should be as exhausting and heavy as previous dynamic stretches were – as much as arms circles don’t tire out your shoulders, this core work won’t do anything but fully warm up your abs and lower back. My personal protocol is doing 15 crunches followed by 15 hyperextensions. Both are done on Swiss ball to allow for full ROM and pre-stretching. I use a very slow tempo here, focusing on feeling the muscles in there contracting, and visualizing how hard they’ll contract when I proceed onto the big lifts. (Just a comment – I’m not into mental games as much as, for example, Arnold or Kai Greene were/are, but such control of one’s thoughts in specific moments really does help with training.)
We’re left now with point d, and there’s isn’t really much to tell on it, since the entire process of warming up for weightlifting includes mentally preparing yourself for the workout ahead of you, both in the sense that it helps you get in the zone by suppressing everyday life and focusing on lifting weights, and that it helps you feel your muscles better, thus improving recruitment during the workout itself. The last part of this preparation continues as we proceed onto the next stage of warming up, the specific warmups.
Specific warmups consist of gradually increasing the weights on the exercise(s) you plan to do in your weight training, up to your working weight. One of the most absurd things that people do is skip this part. Okay, I realize if you aren’t aware of the value of dynamic stretches and like to bike for an hour prior to your workout, but what in the world makes people think that you can just lie on the bench and press a hundred kilos right away? (Actually, these people most often don’t press half their bodyweight, but they do like to sit on a machine and pick the heaviest weight that they can handle, which is equally deadly.) Specific warmups are a must!
General warmup can be abbreviated if necessary (but you most likely do have 5-10 mins to spare for the bare essentials of it), but specific warmups cannot, as this would negate the most important reason behind doing them, and that’s injury prevention (and you can debate this to be the most important thing in lifting as a whole).At the same time, the priming effect which specific warming up has on your nervous system ensures the quality of your working sets, which, again, is the basis of proper work in the gym which, through continuous progress, leads to results. We’ll cover both of these in more detail shortly.
As I said a few lines ago, I don’t understand how come the fact that, if you plan to do bench press, you have to warm yourself up doing the bench press, and not by jogging on the treadmill, isn’t obvious, but again, it’s common that things we take for granted aren’t as plan nor simple as we like to believe. So I’ll repeat it – for the sake of thoroughly warming up your joints and muscles and gradually exposing them to heavier loads, do some warmup sets before your working sets. If people did this part properly, there would be lots less pec or quad tears (think Jean-Pierre Fux and that lethal photo shoot), pulls, strains, torn rotator cuffs, etc.
Another important reason behind doing specific warmups is rehearsing the form of each exercise. It really doesn’t matter if you’ve done the exercise so many times that you think that you can call yourself a master at it – there are always tiny cracks in one’s form, which occur in various magnitudes on various sessions. For example, say you’re bench pressing (I’ve mentioned that exercise so many times already that people will start considering me a bench freak – I’m not, I actually hate the flat BB BP) – one day, you might lower the bar far too low on your chest (because, say, you’re still slightly sore from overhead pressing the other day), then you might find that you’re pushing more with your left arm since your right wrists hurts from something, etc, etc. All of these make the form rehearsal while increasing the weights very important to ensure its perfection (or being as close to it) on work sets. This is even more important if you’re going very heavy (5 reps or less) or are getting very close to failure (or reaching it) – at those points, form begins to break down, and all those tiny things which are corrected by rehearsals during warmup sets become quite serious and can ruin a set or, even worse, injure you.
The last, but not least, doing warmup sets primes your nervous system, allowing you to recruit more muscle fibers when you reach your working sets, thus making your training more productive. Neurophysiological discussion on the essence of muscular contractions and the role of the CNS in all of that is beyond this article, but I’ll give a simple example to illustrate what I mean. If you have warmed up properly, your first work set should feel hard (as there is, after all, a weight jump between the last warmup set and that one), but it should also be perfectly manageable, and the second work set should be just slightly easier. On the other hand, if you haven’t done your specific warmups properly, your second work set should feel a lot easier than the first set, meaning that your CNS wasn’t ready to handle your working weights already. Do note that I’m talking usual, bodybuilding submaximal sets, which almost never go below 5 reps. Warming up for maxing out or extremely heavy work is a bit more complicated, and relies more on priming the nervous system through the usage of acclimation and potentiation sets (although they can be used with bodybuilding training as well, no problem there).
There are a few simple rules regarding warmup sets. The first and foremost is that they cannot be fatiguing in any way. In practice, this means doing half the reps that you can with the weight on the bar. E.g., say you’re warming up for a working set of five reps, and one of your warmup sets is at 70% of your 1 RM. At that weight, you can most likely do about 12 reps before reaching failure (this, of course, varies according to the fiber composition of a given muscle), but since this is your warmup set, you don’t want to go anywhere near fatigue or failure, so you stop at 6 reps. This isn’t necessarily so, but it gives a good rule of the thumb on how many reps to do in a warmup set. The second rule says that warmup sets can go slightly faster than working sets, meaning that you can cut the rest times between them to 75-50% of the rest times between working sets (this depends on magnitude of the exercise and intensity of the working sets). Of course, don’t rush it too much so that you accumulate fatigue.
How many warmup sets do you need, if any, depends on several factors. First and foremost is whether or not have you already warmed up for a similar movement – e.g., if you did incline barbell bench press first in your routine, there’s no need to do warmup sets for DB bench press after it. Similarly, your biceps are most likely warmed up from doing chinups, so you don’t have to warm up for curls after them, etc. Do, however, try to warm up for all the major compounds, mainly due to the need to rehearse the form on them.
Exactly how many sets you’ll use to warm up and which percentages of 1 RM (or working weight) will you use is highly variable so I won’t list any common warmup scheme. Of course that you’ll use more sets with higher weight jumps on the deadlift than you’ll do on curls, but this isn’t all that is to it. An example of a finer point is taking into account your equipment. If you train at home, it’s likely that you don’t have an Olympic bar, or that you lack plates at a particular weight, which forces you to start warming up at a particular weight, and make a different jump than it would be optimal (e.g., you don’t have 10 kg plates, but 15 kg, so you’re forced to do a 30 kg jump instead of 20 kg). Just stick to the rules which I had outlined above and you’ll figure all of these for your own training in no time, it really isn’t that complicated.
After a muscle has been worked out, it needs to be stretched in order to preserve the normal range of motion in the joint the muscle is attached to (or even expand it, but it’s basically the same story). People tend to attribute stuff to stretching, like reducing spasms and soreness, although this is more anecdotal than researched (e.g., this research shows no significant improvement regarding soreness with and without stretching), but that’s all less important, as our primary goal for stretching justifies its usage.
Specific stretching in bodybuilding is simple – stretch the muscles you have just worked on directly after working them out. These muscles are warmed up and elastic, thus making the risk of an injury minimal. Don’t stretch other muscles on that same session – presumably, you’re working your entire body out twice in the 7-10 day range, so there’s no worries that you’ll stay tight in an area.
Now, when exactly to stretch is variable, but closely related to our resolved question on when to do warmup sets, and when not to. Again, it all depends on how your routine is structured – if you’re training chest and calves today, chest first, then calves, stretch the chest before doing calves, and stretch the calves at the end of the workout. Similarly, you might have a gap in your training that allows you to recuperate slightly before moving on to the second part of the training (I have this 10 min gap between the lower body and back workouts on my B1 training day) – if so, use this gap to stretch the muscles worked in the first part of the session. If, however, you’re doing the exercises for a muscle group (or similar movements) until the end of the workout, do the stretching at the end of the workout. It’s really not that complicated. The important thing is to have these muscles warm so you don’t get injured, and not to stretch before using these muscles again, as there is a neuromuscular inhibitory response related to static stretching before lifting weights.
There isn’t much to say about general cooldown except for few details which people tend to forget, and which further build up on the entire idea of this article, and that’s to make weight training injury free over your entire training career.
First I’d like to say a few words on doing cardio directly after workout – for one, don’t do it, because you shouldn’t be able to – weight training is a strenuous activity (how strenuous varies in your training cycle), and if you had worked hard in the gym that day, pushing your own limits, your body should kind of have the urge to get out of there. Now, I’m not saying that each and every workout should waste you, because it shouldn’t, far from it, but weight training is (or should be) an activity that is stressful for the entire body, and, unfortunately, a lot of times people picture the gym as sitting on a machine for an hour without even breaking a sweat. This is not how proper training looks like. You could do cardio after your training, but it would most likely be far less productive than it would be if done 8 hours later, or some other day.
The first thing you have to do after your training is done is relax. Walk around the gym, breathe deeply and contemplate on personal records that you have set today. Use these thoughts to keep your motivation levels high, as well as to usher more sense of accomplishment and fulfillment in your life. While breathing out, I like to make a long “Hoooooooo!” sound, and think how all my tiredness and tensity is going away as it leaves my mouth.
Next thing you should do is stretch your core and hips – these are the areas that are engaged in every proper training session, and also the areas which give posture problems and back pains. Alongside this, do some wall slides to maintain the ability of proper T-spine extension. All of these are even more important if you have a desk job where you’re hunched over looking at a computer for hours. Besides these major stretches, stretch your wrists and hands, as properly extending them is also something that gets forgotten both in our computer-related jobs and weight training which only makes your grab and hold something (I’ll talk about this a bit more in my next article).
Then, go over to the pullup bar, and spend some time hanging from it. This is especially important if you had done some (or a lot) of weight lifting that involves compressing the spine – heavy squats, overhead presses, shrugs, etc. Similarly to what I had said about the few stretches mentioned in the previous paragraph, this is something you might want to do every day, especially if your work involves a lot of sitting. So, hang on the pullup bar, feel the stretch in your scapulae and decompress the spinal discs in the process.
Last thing I’d like to mention in this article isn’t so much training related, but it’s of utmost importance so I can’t overlook it – please, immediately after a workout, log it. Write down everything you had done that day so you can have a reference for future training sessions. If you read some of my articles, you most likely understand why I harp so much on keeping strict logs – numbers are immutable and confident, perceived effort and instinct slow down or halt progression. Please, bear this in mind.
Train smart, train well!