How to Build an Efficient and Effective Warm-up

It’s time to change the way we’ve been warming up for our workouts. Here’s how to make them more efficient and worthwhile, part 2! 

In a previous blog, I discussed at length about whether or not your warm-up matters. These days, it seems as if many people spend way too long on the foam roller, do a ton of odd and funny looking movements, or don’t actually do anything at all.

Warm-ups should be focused and short. There is no need for them to be long, drawn out massage sessions; especially before hard training. They should feel good, and do exactly as its name implies – warm you up.

By itself, warming up does not produce long-term soft-tissue changes (sorry, my foam rolling friends). However, they can change your perception about how your muscles and joints feel, and make “tight and sore” feel supple and limber. This transient change is important because it can still make all the difference in your training immediately after you warm up. As such, your warm-up should be specific to the movements you’re training immediately afterwards.

And let’s not forget either, that working up to the weights that you will be using in your training session still counts as part of your warm-up. I do not expect anyone to hit a 405 deadlift, or a 315 squat cold, nor do I think that this is particularly safe! Working up to these heavy sets is a warm-up in and of itself. From the perspective of efficiency, it makes little sense to have a long warm-up in the beginning when you still need to warm-up for your heavy sets.

When it comes to designing a warm-up that is both efficient and effective, the following tips should help you get started.

1) Make your warm-up flow from the ground up.

Have you ever been in a situation where you were constantly getting up, only to sit back down before having to get up, again and again and again? How much energy did you waste doing this and how productive did you feel?

Chances are, this probably didn’t feel efficient at all. You don’t want your warm-up to feel like this either. To cite a very simple example, let’s say your warm-up consists of these 3 movements: a side plank with rotation, knee hug to reverse lunge, and a glute bridge with reach.

Do you think it’s most efficient to start with a side plank, get up for a lunge mobilization, only to return to the ground for a glute bridge? Imagine doing a full warm-up with 8-10 movements in this arbitrary order.

A more efficient order is indicated below: glute bridge first, side plank second, and lunge third.

You can just imagine how much easier and “flow-y” this new order is compared to the first one. Not only does this warm-up progress from the ground to standing, it also progresses from easier to harder. Your warm-up should be the same way. A simple supine position (lying on your back) moves smoothly into a more difficult side-lying position (the side plank), which then moves into a standing and dynamic position (the lunge).

A logical order to flow through based on positions is as follows:

  1. Supine
  2. Side-lying
  3. Prone
  4. Quadruped
  5. Kneeling
  6. Stance (standing in the same spot)
  7. Walking (standing and moving)

Just thinking about reorganizing warms-up so that move smoothly from the ground up can make a world of a difference. As a matter of fact, this order reflects the proper progression of functional movement that we learn as babies, and for some reason, forget as we grow older.

But wait, isn’t it lazy to make a warm-up flow smoothly? Perhaps you think it’s better for a typical, slightly overweight general population client to have to work more, even in his/her warm-up. Let’s have him move around, and make him have to get up and get back down as much as possible.

I’d argue that by making the warm-up flow from the ground up, you actually save time to do better things later on in the session. And if you want to, you can now do more warm-up exercises in the same time frame. How’s that for efficient and effective?

2) Progress from Static to Dynamic, and Simple to Complex

Just like you should flow from the ground up, you should also go from static to dynamic, and simple to complex.

Your warm-ups should focus on building stability first, and then building mobility. This is what going from static to dynamic means. Before you take a joint through its range of motion in a loaded environment, you want to make sure that you have control over that range of motion. This is a constant process of checks and balances.

In the context of a deadlift, for example, I might do this:

The Band-resisted Leg-lowering both mobilizes my hamstrings and encourages the proper core engagement to do so safely by way of the band resistance. Later on in my warm-up, I can then focus on my hamstrings in a more dynamic and unpredictable environment by way of a Single-leg RDL.

Even so, perhaps single-leg stance is too big of a jump for some people, especially those who struggle with single-leg balance anyway. This movement would be too “complex” for some. Maybe we should just work on the hinge movement in a bilateral stance instead.

As such, it is also important to progress from simple to complex. Take these push-up variations for example, particular with regard to the number of points of contact with the ground.

Push-up strength aside, can you see why one is more difficult than the other? If I were to design a warm-up with these two exercises, I would definitely go in this order. It moves from both static to dynamic, and simple to complex.

Complexity also refers to movements that actually have multiple parts like this. In addition to this being an exercise done standing, this also works better later on in the warm-up because of its multiple parts.

Finally, if you wanted something that goes from the ground to standing, static to dynamic, and simple to complex..look no further than the Turkish Get-up. It basically embodies the way a warm-up should progress.

3) Focus on troublesome areas, and the movements you’re emphasizing during your workout.

Just as there are an infinite amount of movements and exercises, there are also an infinite amount of things you can do to warm up. What’s a gym-goer to do with so much at his or her disposal? This now goes without saying, but once you can narrow down your troublesome areas and know what movements you’ll be doing immediately after your warm-up, you options become much more limited, in a very good way.

When it comes to troublesome areas,  I would say that 9 out of 10 people will need to focus on their ankles, knees, hips, upper back, and shoulders. If you are limited in any of these areas, make sure to work on them!

The more often, and not necessarily longer, you can work on these areas, the better. There is a dose-relationship response here where frequency is better than duration. Warm-up that area long enough to change your perception of that area, and then get moving. Over time, that perception of feeling good will feel more like reality.

Finally, make sure to emphasize warm-up exercises that will help you when it comes to the movements you are doing when you hit the weights. On a lower-body day featuring the squat, I may want to cut back on upper-body focused warm-ups, and feature more squat and quad-dominant mobilizations.

Wrap-up on Warm-ups

Hopefully, this gives you a good idea of how a warm-up should be designed. Based on the warm-ups we’ve shown here, here are two warm-ups that embody what we discussed:

Warm-up #1: Warm-up#2
1. Band-resisted Leg Lowering 1. Glute Bridge w/ OH Reach
2. Side-lying Thoracic Rotation w/ Reach 2. Alternating Hip 90/90
3. Push-up to Shoulder Tap 3. Side Plank w/ T-spine Rotation
4. Alternating Lateral Crawl 4. Standing Ankle PAILs/RAILs
5. TRX Scap CARs 5. Goblet Squat Iso Hold w/ Scapular Press
6. Bilateral KB Conventional Deadlift 6. Front-foot Elevated Split Squat
7. Alternating Lateral Lunge w/ Windmill 7. 1-leg RDL w/ Dowel
8. Bottoms-up Turkist Get-up 8. Knee Hug to Reverse Lunge

As far as sets and reps go, I would stick to 5-8 reps per exercise; the only exception here is the Turkish Get-up. Since the TGU is most complex, I would do no more than 3 reps on that.

If I were to emphasize one thing from all that we’ve discussed here, it would be this: make your warm-up flow. It should feel like you’re building something bigger and better as you go through your warm-up. Think of it like a pyramid that points to one thing: better performance in your workout to come.

by Jeremy Lau

Jeremy Lau

Jeremy Lau Halevy Life Staff CoachJeremy Lau is a Senior Staff Coach at Halevy Life.

Jeremy graduated cum laude from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute with a BSc. in Biomedical Engineering and received his Master’s in Exercise Physiology at Columbia University. In addition to his academic accolades, Jeremy is a Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist (CSCS).

Prior to joining the team at Halevy Life, Jeremy completed a coaching internship at Cressey Sports Performance, where he coached both amateur and professional athletes, among whom were many professional MLB baseball players.

As an athlete, Jeremy has played baseball competitively for most of his life.