Craig Valency, CSCS

Part One: Warm-up and Movement Preparation

Working out with a good trainer has its perks. First of all, you have a paid appointment, so you are more likely to show up. Of course, the main benefit is that you get a good workout. What you may not realize is that the intense workouts you do two or three times per week with your trainer are not just a bunch of treacherous exercises randomly strung together to take you to the brink of death. There is a lot of strategic planning involved in designing a good workout, and hopefully, your trainer plans your workouts carefully.

But what about the days when you want to work out on your own? Without a trainer, a lot of people feel lost at the gym. They wander around the room, randomly using and abusing the workout machines. Often, they resign themselves to an endless walk on the treadmill, just because they’re not sure how to best utilize an hour at the gym.

I’m going to outline a one-hour workout template that you can use to structure your own workouts properly. Hopefully, this will give you a new lens through which you can view your trainer’s workouts as well. In this first post, I’ll lay out a plan for the warm-up portions of your workout.

Each trainer has a different philosophy and background, so programs will always vary. Training for children, the elderly, post-rehab patients, and other special populations is obviously unique; so the layout I am presenting may not be appropriate for everyone. (This is starting to sound like the end of a pharmaceutical commercial!) Most human bodies in our society, however, are under similar stresses, suffer similar imbalances, and follow the same laws of biomechanics.

 1. General Warm-up (10 min.): I recommend a ten-minute general warm-up on a bike, elliptical, or treadmill. You can also walk or jog outside if you prefer. If you’re working out with a trainer, this should be done before you start your paid session.

2. Self-myofascial Release (5 min.): Using a foam roller or massage stick, roll out your muscles, focusing especially on your glutes, hamstrings, IT bands, and upper back. I also recommend rolling the bottom of your feet on a tennis ball, or a golf ball if you’re brave. Because you’ve already warmed up, your body temperature will be higher. This increases the effectiveness of the foam rolling, which remodels the plastic-like tissues, such as the fascia and collagen, that wrap around the muscles. This allows for less restricted movement during the workout and less chance for injury.

 3. Specific Warm-up (5 min.): The specific warm-up targets the flexibility of individual muscles of the body. Static hold stretches, despite what your seventh grade P.E. teacher said, are not recommended before movement, exercise, or sports. They tend to stretch the muscles beyond their functional lengths and can actually slow down response time. Instead, try some active and dynamic stretches. Rather than holding each stretch for an extended time, hold the stretch for one to two seconds while you’re moving your body. Here are some examples of active and dynamic stretches: walking knee hugs; skipping; single leg balance, reach, & walk; walking lunges with a side bend; or bodyweight squats.

 4. Mobility (5 min.): Mobility addresses joint movement, whereas flexibility refers more to muscle length. It’s important to mobilize specific parts of the body that are generally tight or restricted from typical lifestyle habits (sitting for eight hours at a desk, computer work, driving, etc.). These are the areas that most people need to target:

  • Ankles: Since your foot hits the ground first, any restriction in ankle joint mobility can result in compensation up the kinetic chain. This can lead to excessive torque at the knee among other problems.
  • Hips: Your hips are trapped between your knees and low back. Any restriction in hip mobility can go up or down the chain. This can cause compensations and pain at the low back or knees.
  • Thoracic spine: This is the upper back, which is designed to rotate. The low back vertebral architecture is not suited for much rotation; so if the upper back doesn’t move well, the low back compensates. Rotational exercises for the upper back can improve mobility and help prevent back pain. It is also important to work on thoracic extension to counter the rounded back posture that is so prevalent.

5. Stability (5 min.): After range of motion is optimized at key joints, it is important to stabilize and activate areas of the body that are typically weak and lack good neural stimulation. This will help optimize muscle recruitment patterns and ensure a safer workout.

  • Glute/hip activation: Most of us sit too much, which means our glutes are typically weak and the hip flexors are tight. Good glute activation exercises have a lengthening effect on the hip flexors.
  • Core stabilization: The mid-section, or core, is typically a weak spot for most people. Doing a weight-training routine without first doing stabilization training can result in back injuries. Don’t confuse core stabilization exercises with abdominal strength exercises such as sit-ups. I’ll get into this more in a later post.
  • Shoulder joint integrity: The most unstable joint in the human body is the shoulder joint. Your shoulders might be rounded from working at a desk all day, so it is wise to activate the back muscles and the muscles between your shoulder blades. If your shoulders are indeed rounded, than any overhead movements with the arms increase impingement on the rotator cuff tendon, which can lead to pain and possible tears over time. Joint integrity exercises are key if you want to avoid these problems down the road.

6. Dynamic Movement Integration (5 min.): This phase will activate and integrate whole body stability and balance. This will also stimulate neural pathways for smoother, more coordinated movements and improved reactions.

  • Balance: Static balance (standing on one leg with your eyes closed) and dynamic balance (hopping from one foot to the other) are separate skill sets, so you must train both modalities to get results.
  • Reactive Training: The unpredictable nature of reaction exercises, such as mirror drills with a partner, sharpens neural responses and improves reaction times.
  • Power Training: This sort of training optimizes the elastic properties of your muscles and recruits fast twitch fibers, which are lost preferentially with age. Jumps, sprints, and medicine ball slams are some examples of exercises that can accomplish this.

It may seem daunting to try fitting everything into a one-hour workout. Depending on your situation, you can partition the amount of time you spend on the warm-up routines accordingly. If you are new to working out, you might spend 70 – 80% of your time on these warm-up exercises before doing the strength training portion. You can’t do everything all the time, so alternate as needed. Ideally, you’ll at least fit it all in over the course of the week. In my next post, I’ll talk about how to design the strength training portion of your workout. In the meantime, you can start trying out some of these warm-up exercises. Let me know how they work for you.

Talk to me! What types of warm-ups have worked best for you?

Part 2