Questioning Warm-Ups: Solving An Often Overlooked Aspect Of Training

Q: All the techniques on your DVD are awesome! If you’re pinched for time, which general warm-up method would you use?

A: Make sure to perform dynamic stretching before every workout. It just takes a few minutes, but it can make a big difference in your performance.

To recap, when performing dynamic stretches, use the pendulum method: start slow and shallow, and gradually increase speed and range with each repetition.

1. Squat
2. Split Squat
3. Toe Touches
4. Waiter’s Bow
5. Side Bends
6. Trunk Twists
7. Arms Horizontal
8. Arms Vertical
9. Arms Vertical Alternating
10. PNF Pattern
11. Arm Circles
12. Wrist Flexion/Extension
13. Wrist Circles
14. Shoulder Shrugs
15. Head Tilt
16. Head Rotation

Many coaches prescribe too many repetitions for dynamic stretching. For instance, if we go to Hartmann & Tunnemann’s excellent text titled Fitness and Strength Training for All Sports, the following is recommended for the repetition stretching method:

“The repetition (also known as the dynamic or ballistic) method involves stretching with repetitive pulls or bounces using small intervals, rather than just one pull. An athlete begins the first repetition over a relatively small range of joint motion, gradually increasing the amplitude range, reaching after 15-20 movements, the maximal range. The process is then repeated 3-4 times, using body weight or an external force (weight, partner, etc.)”

Now, the authors are quick to point out that stretching methods should be performed after each training session; however, dynamic stretching as part of a warm-up can be useful to decrease muscle damage and improve performance. It will definitely help rev up the nervous system in preparation for activity. Keep in mind, though, that it takes only 10-15 seconds of contractions to raise the body temperature by 1ºC and a proper warm-up should raise body temperature by 1-2ºC (1.4-2.8ºF) to cause sweating; therefore, 5-10 reps per movement is all you really need.

Remember, the goal of a warm-up is performance not fatigue!

Q: I’m interested to know your thoughts on overshooting the training load in a warm-up for a set of 3×3. For example, if I were to do 3×3 in the bench press at 335, my normal warm- up would be something like this:


Then I would do 3×3 at 335. I’ve done this in the past and the set of 1 at a higher load then my work sets seemed to “wake up” my nervous system for the work sets. This is only anecdotal, obviously, but I’d be interested in your thoughts and any research on the topic that you were aware of.

A: Yes, this is a very effective method utilizing postactivation (aka post-tetanic facilitation/potentiation.) However, your jump from 315 to 365 is rather large – I would insert 1 or 2 more singles here. Keep in mind that as you ramp up the weight during your warm-up sets, the difference in load between successive sets should actually decrease.

Now if we review your scheme: 225 to 275 is a 50 lb. difference; 275 to 315 is 40 lbs; then 315 to 365 is 50 lbs. again. Rather, insert either 1 more warm-up set at 345 for a single (a 30 lb. difference) or ideally 2 more w-up sets of 335 and 355 for singles. Then, go ahead and perform your work sets at 335 and you should notice an increase in strength.

Q: At one of your workshops, I remember you mentioning that plyometrics are good during a warm-up. Other than various jumps, hops and bounds, what other exercises can you use for the lower body? I’m especially lost when it comes to upper body plyometrics. Any suggestions?

A: Yes, it’s true plyometrics can be very useful during a warm-up, but dont go overboard! They place a tremendous amount of stress on the nervous system  if you do too much prior to training, it will kill performance. Then again, if you do just the right amount, it can potentiate your strength! In general, though, plyometrics are best reserved for your athletes.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a video has to be worth at least a million, right? Im going to save myself a bunch of typing and simply direct you to this Explosive Upper Body Warm Up Video taken from my Warm-Up to Strength Training DVD. For lower body plyometrics, I highly recommend Christian Thibaudeaus Modern Strength Newsletter series which you can still access at

Btw, the DVD has a great application of the three-stance vertical jump test from my colleague, Chad Waterbury, that will increase your squat in no time.

Q: In a recent article, you state the following:

“Some strength athletes actually gauge their recovery by using an unloaded bar  or even a broomstick  during their warm-up. If it doesn’t feel right or feels strangely heavy, then they’re not ready to train yet and need an extra day of recovery.”

Surely, you must be kidding about the broomstick, right?

A: No, I’m not kidding at all. Something I learned from both Poliquin and Kinakin is that Mike MacDonald would start his warm-up by benching a broomstick. If it felt weird then he would not train that day!

And for those that don’t know, the powerlifting bench press world record has been held by Mike MacDonald in four different weight classes: 470 lb. bench at 181, 540 lb. bench at 198, 573 lb. bench at 220 lb., and a 577 lb. bench at 242 lbs. These were held at the same time for five years straight, from 1976-1981. In fact, Mike set 36 world records in the bench press across those four different weight classes. And here’s the kicker, he performed those lifts raw without the aid of a bench press shirt or elbow wraps. Success leaves clues…

Also (and perhaps not quite as dramatic!), a broomstick can be used during a warm-up as a diagnostic. Perform an overhead squat with only a broomstick since loading will cause compression and greater flexibility (i.e. a false measure.) Then, look for things like forward lean, heel rise, knee position, foot rotation, squat depth, spine curves, position of arms and head, etc. Address those issues with specific stretches (refer to my Stretch For Strength Online Video Presentation for more details.) This will help increase flexibility and strength, and will decrease the likelihood of injury during your workout.

Q: I’ve got a client with a classic kypholordotic posture. He’s had issues with his lower back in the past. How should I go about warming him up?

A: Okay, to address a kyphotic (i.e. hunchback) posture, have your client lay on a foam roll lengthwise along the spine working up to 15-20 minutes a day. If performed prior to training, this simple maneuver can increase strength by as much as 3%.

Then perform this series of exercises:

1. Camel/Cat: 5-6 cycles
2. Dog Maneuver aka Fire Hydrant: 5-10 reps
3. Birddog aka Dynamic Horse Stance: 5-10 reps
4. Ab Vacuum: 10-12 reps @ 5-10 sec. contractions
5. Pelvic Tilt: 10-12 reps @ 5-10 sec. contractions
6. PNF Stretches: 2-5 sets @ 6-8 sec. contractions
7. Swiss Ball Stretches: 15 sec. (static), 6-8 sec. (PNF), 5-10 reps (dynamic)
8. Dynamic Stretches: 5-10 reps per movement

You’ll recognize most of these movements from my Warm-Up to Strength Training DVD. The first 4 drills are performed in the quadraped position (i.e. hands and knees) while the next two are in the supine position (i.e. laying on your back.)

Make sure to perform passive PNF stretches on your client for the following areas: calves, hips (i.e. piriformis, gluteus maximus, tensor fascia latae), hamstrings, hip flexors and knee extensors. I go into extensive detail in my Stretch For Strength presentation.

Have him perform a static abdominal stretch laying over the Swiss ball then instruct him to walk forward slightly so that his upper back and head are resting on the ball. At this point, perform a passive PNF stretch for the pecs. Get your client to then perform a solo PNF stretch for the pecs (3 positions) and shoulders (dynamic side-to-side and forward-and-back) ending with a standing PNF stretch on the ball.

Finally, your client is ready to perform the dynamic stretching circuit as outlined in an earlier Q&A column. Remember, if he experiences low back pain, caution should be used when performing toe touches, side bends and twists. It would be wise to eliminate these exercises initially. Furthermore, encourage neutral spinal curvatures with braced abdominals to maintain a stable core throughout his workout.

Q: Great DVD! Any more warm-up tricks to increase strength?

A: An effective warm-up method involves post-tetanic potentiation. By gradually ramping up your low rep warm-up sets beyond your working weight will increase strength for your work sets. There are different ways to really tap into those high-threshold fibers such as performing eccentrics or heavy supports with loads that are greater than your working weight. Another way to play with your nervous system is to add chains to the bar which will naturally slow down the concentric speed (although the intent must always be fast.) Then remove the chains for your work sets and you’ll go through the roof!

Also, a simple piece of advice that I derived from the writings of Ironman’s Editor-In-Chief, Steve Holman, is to lock out (i.e. full ROM) on each repetition of your warm-up sets. This will better lube the joints. I said it before and I’ll say it again, warm-ups should be about performance not fatigue. If you do not lockout and keep a slight bend at the top range of the movement, you will increase tension and promote fatigue. Good for hypertrophy training, not so good PRE-hypertrophy training!

Q: Quick question, in an article of yours, you stated that some studies show absolutely no difference in performance with or without a prior warm-up. So why bother warming up then?

A: Quick answer comes from pg. 161 of Supertraining: “Almost all studies which show warming-up to be detrimental used untrained subjects who apparently cannot tolerate high-intensity warm-ups.” Furthermore, “athletes in endurance events or low intensity sports do not benefit much from warming up.” (Siff & Verkhoshansky, 1999)

Q: In your Warm-Up to Strength Training DVD, you mention that static stretching may decrease strength. I used to do at least half an hour of static stretches before weights. Then, I would use a light weight to warm-up on each exercise. What a big mistake! Ever since I started incorporating your dynamic stretching circuit with the specific warm-up suggestions, I’ve actually started to make some progress. Just curious, anything else that zaps strength?

A: Well, there is something else but you may not want to hear it. I’ll let the following abstract break the news. You ready? Sit tight, this may be painful…

Alterations in grip strength during male sexual arousal.
Jiao C, Turman B, Weerakoon P, Knight P.
Int J Impot Res. 2005 Oct 27
School of Biomedical Sciences, University of Sydney, Sydney, NSW, Australia.

Although it is known that alterations in grip strength occur under a number of conditions, little is known about relationships between grip strength and sexual arousal. This relationship was investigated in 30 healthy heterosexual males, who viewed both erotic and nonerotic videos. A questionnaire was used to assess the extent of sexual arousal. The grip strengths of both hands were measured with a five-position (P1-P5) dynamometer, before and after watching the videos. After watching the erotic video, there was a statistically significant reduction in grip strength for the P2 position, with nonsignificant overall reductions in grip strength for all other positions tested. No such effect was observed in control tests. The results indicate that during sexual arousal, the neural system is likely to reduce the output to muscles not directly related to sexual function, presumably to enhance the physiological responses of sexual arousal.

Take-Home Message: Sexual arousal is great anytime of the day EXCEPT right before training!

Q: I have been diagnosed with a SLAP tear in my right shoulder. Haven’t decided whether I’m going to go through with the surgery yet, but I don’t want to make things worse with my training. The exercises you outline in your Strong and Healthy Shoulders article are really helping. Are there any good stretches I should perform?

A: Anyone experiencing shoulder instability should do themselves a big favor and study the 3-part series “The Disabled Shoulder” by Burkhart, Morgan and Kibler in Arthroscopy: The Journal of Arthroscopic and Related Surgery. You’ll notice a version of the anterior/lateral reach that I originally picked up from Stephen Holt and presented in the Warm-Up to Strength Training DVD. Well, here is an exercise termed the sleeper stretch that anyone with a SICK scapula (Scapular malposition, Inferior medial border prominance, Coracoid pain and malposition, and dysKinesis of scapular movement) should perform prior to training.

Lay on your side with the involved arm against the floor and perpendicular to the body. The shoulder and elbow are flexed 90 degrees. The shoulder is passively internally rotated by pushing the forearm toward the floor around a fixed elbow, which acts as a pivot point. This will effectively stretch a tight posteroinferior capsule.

Another variation involves the roll-over sleeper stretch where the shoulder is only flexed 50-60 degrees and you roll forward 30-40 degrees from vertical side lying.

To stretch the posterior musculature more than the posteroinferior capsule, use a traditional cross-arm stretch. Stand with the shoulder flexed 90 degrees and passively adduct the arm. This stretch can also be performed against a Swiss ball.

Finally, a doorway stretch should be performed where the shoulder is abducted 90 degrees and the elbow is flexed 90 degrees on the edge of an open doorway. Lean forward to apply a stretch to the (inferior) capsule of the shoulder.

About The Author

John Paul Catanzaro, BSc Kin, CSEP-CEP, is a CSEP Certified Exercise Physiologist with a Specialized Honours Bachelor of Science degree in Kinesiology and Health Science. He owns and operates a private gym in Richmond Hill, Ontario providing training and nutritional consulting services. For additional information, visit his website at or call 905-780-9908.

Note: John Paul has just released his new book The Elite Trainer: Strength Training for the Serious Professional. The book features 55 programs, dozens of training methods and cutting-edge techniques, and over 100 exercise illustrations. Pick up your copy today at

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