Yep, Your Warmup Exercises Are Just As Important As Your Workout

Photo: Getty Images/ White Packert
When you walk into the gym, chances are you're ready to hit the ground running (or spinning, or strength training, or elipitcal-ing) from the outset. Your playlist is queued, your sneakers are laced, and it is go time. But, according to the pros, you could be missing out on getting the most from your sweat sesh if you make the common mistake of skipping out on your warmup exercises.

Sure, they aren't as exciting as pumping the treadmill up to a level 10 and starting out with a full sprint, but they are a necessary element to your entire routine. "It is important to warm up before you work out to prevent injury and also to get the most out of your work out," says Alisha Ciolek, a Tier 3 trainer at Equinox Chestnut Hill. "A warmup puts your body and mind in the right state to exercise."

It's tempting to skip out on this critical few minutes for the sake of the other zillion things on your to-do list (and admittedly, they can often feel better spent emptying the dishwasher or responding to emails), but trainers agree that you've gotta do it. After all, there's a reason why literally every workout class you've ever set foot in starts with at least a song or two of warmup exercises to ease you into what's to come.

"A quote I use often is 'motion is lotion,'" says Katie Merrick, Gold’s Gym Personal Trainer, NCSF. "A tight body is more prone to get injured if you try to move it too quickly or lift too heavily without your muscles being prepared. I like to compare it to a new balloon. It's more difficult to immediately start inflating the balloon. If you stretch and move it well first, it will inflate much easier. Our bodies are very similar."

So, what makes for a good warmup?

Think of the warmup as a way to prep your body for exercise—not only does it help you mentally transition into your time at the gym, but it also gets your body ready for what you're about to ask it to do. According to Ciolek, an effective warmup session should activate your muscles, increase your body temperature, and mobilize you to be able to move more easily.

"When I think of a warmup, I think of dynamic movements to prepare your body for a workout. You perform movements that will increase your heart rate while preparing the right muscles to move well for your workout," says Merrick. "Squats, push-ups, sit-ups and overhead shoulder presses are some of my favorite warmup movements. They target the majority of your body: legs, butt, chest, back, core and shoulders, biceps, and triceps."

And then, there's the stretching, which is a good idea no matter what activity you're about to embark on. "Stretching is a way to lengthen muscles, maintain range of motion, and increase recovery," explains Ciolek, calling out "dynamic stretching" (AKA holding each move for only a few seconds) as your best bet before you get moving.

How can you cater your warmup exercises to your particular workout?

All workouts are not created equally, and neither are all warmup exercises. "Different types of workouts require specific warmups, and within each type of exercise a warmup can get even more specific depending on what muscles you will be focusing on during that workout," says Ciolek. When you're deciding which warmup exercises to do, first consider which major joints you'll be using during your workout. "Then you want to incorporate a few mobility exercises or dynamic stretches to get those joints ready. For example, if you are barbell back squatting, you will want to pick exercises that will mobilize your ankles and hips," she explains.

Once your joints are warm, you then want to activate the muscles you're going to be using. "For this part of the warmup, I like to use progressions and regressions of body weight exercises—like glute bridges, planks, push-ups, pull-ups, squats, or lunges," says Ciolek. When doing these moves, focus on your breathing and be sure to time it with the movement, which will help your body to coordinate proper breathing and moving mechanics to ultimately make for safer and more effective movements once you start your workout.

Next, Ciolek notes that you'll want to think of what type of "stimulus" you're looking to create for your body during your workout—for example, "explosiveness" during box jumps, quickly recruiting large muscle groups during squatting, or long duration cardio if you're going on a run. "Depending on what stimulus you are trying to create, you will want to incorporate exercises that prime your nervous system appropriately," she explains. "For example, if you are going to be back squatting at some point during your warmup, it would be a good idea to do some type of jumping. Jumping engages a muscle-mind connection with your legs that will have great transfer to increasing the power out of a back squat."

Finally, consider adding some sort of exercise that will amp up your heart rate and body temperature, a la a minute on the bike, treadmill or rowing machine. Cycle through this series of three to five exercises for three or four rounds, and you should be good to go.

To get your body buzzing, try three of Ciolek's favorite moves:

1. Dynamic planks: Prop yourself into a forearm plank, and drop your knees to the floor. Push away from the floor through your through your elbows driving your shoulder blades apart from each other, keeping your chin slightly tucked to your chest. Inhale through your nose and exhale deeply through your mouth. While you're exhaling, try to tuck your pelvis under, thinking about pulling your knees towards your elbows and your elbows towards your knees without actually moving either. Do this for three to five breaths, and try to hold each exhale for three to five seconds.

2. Glute bridges: "Most people have a disconnection from their glutes, and it is so important for your glutes to be firing during your workout," says Ciolek, calling these butt-busters out as one of her favorite warmup exercises. Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet planted, and push up through your shoulders to lift your butt and back off of the ground. Clench your glutes and core, and you will feel the burn in seconds.

3. Single arm rows: Grab a cable, and set it to about sternum height. Holding the cable in one hand, take a few steps back, and set your feet evenly about hips-width apart. Bend your knees slightly, tuck your pelvis under and engage your core. As you row the cable back with your right arm, inversely reach your left arm forward focusing on protraction your left shoulder blade, without any rotation in your hips. Then as your right arm returns to the starting position, 'ghost' row with your left arm. Think of the tempo like a seesaw—as one arm rows the other reaches. This will help open up your thoracic spine, and get your scapular moving.

Or, try this 5-minute series, care of Merrick

1. Start with one squat, one push-up, and one sit-up.

2. Add one rep to each movement till you reach 10 reps.

3. You should end with 10 squats, 10 push-ups, and 10 sit-ups.

What you do after your workout is just as important as what you do before. Here are the best foam rolling moves for every type of workout, and why skipping out on recovery days could be keeping you from getting stronger.

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