Maximize Your Workout by Warming Up the Right Way (Science-based!)

Introduction

Did you know glute activation exercises prior to lifting actually scientifically cause worse glute growth? I’ll show you the science and also discuss what you should be doing to warm up that will actually help you perform to your max!

We all feel like we aren’t getting what we want from our home workouts. But changing up your warm-up routine could really maximize your workout! Here’s what the science says is the best way to warm up:

Low Intensity Steady-State Cardio (LISS)

LISS Makes you stronger!

Weight Lifting Warm Up Science Woman Deadlifting Light Weight Barbell

Here’s what the research says about how LISS prior to your workout can actually make you stronger:

One study from Barroso in 2013 compared the following warm-up characteristics on strength: low intensity vs high intensity, long duration (15 minutes) vs short duration (5 minutes), and no warm up. 

  • They measured participants’ 1RM strength on leg press before and after.
  • The only group that had significantly increased strength was the group that had done low intensity and long duration warm up. 

Meaning doing 15 minutes of light cardio before your workout will actually make you stronger!

Another study by Fradkin in 2010 was a very large meta-analysis looking at many different sports and exercise performance factors. 

  • It focused on the effect of only warm-ups that physically increased the body’s temperature.
  • Warming up the body before the workout improved performance in 79% of the elements investigated.
  • The only ones where it did not improve performance were in long-distance, endurance sports such as running and cycling.

This study also showed that warming up prior to your workout will allow you to lift heavier.

A final study by McCrary in 2015 was a systematic review that also found that warming up the body dynamically prior to working out enhanced power and strength performance.

LISS Decreases Injury

Weight Lifting Warm Up Science Prevents Injury picture of broken collarbone

Many studies have also shown that LISS prior to your workout decreases injury.

A Fradkin, 2006 paper was a meta-analysis of research looking at how warm-ups affected injuries during exercise.

  • They found that warm-ups that increased the body’s core temperature (LISS type warm-ups) rather than ones that did not (like stretching) significantly decreased all types of injuries.

This is likely because any stretchy or elastic material is able to stretch further without breaking when it is warmer, including your tendons, joints, and ligaments.

Physical Benefits of Heating Up Body & Muscles

Weight Lifting Warm Up Science Heat Temperature Fire

It seems like the research shows overall that warm ups that literally heat up the body are beneficial in many ways and actually help you perform better and lift heavier.

This is partly because increasing muscle and body temperature: 

  • Causes oxygen to leave hemoglobin in the muscle better (allowing you to use more oxygen) (Shellock, 1985)
  • Lowers the activation energy needed to perform chemical reactions that physically move muscle fibers (Shellock, 1985)
  • And similarly increases muscle cross-bridge cycling rate (McGowan, 2015)
  • Dilates blood vessels which deliver more oxygen & glucose and remove more carbon dioxide & waste products (Shellock, 1985)
  • Increases the speed of nerve impulses and increases the sensitivity of nerve receptors (Shellock, 1985)
  • Makes muscle more elastic and less stiff so you are fighting only the weight and not your own tissues (Shellock, 1985)
  • Increases muscle glycogen availability (McGowan, 2015)
  • Improves utilization of phosphocreatine and ATP which leads to better power output (McGowan, 2015)
  • Prompts an increase in motor unit recruitment, such that the ‘strain’ placed on each individual muscle fibre is reduced (McGowan, 2015)

Mental Benefits of LISS

Weight Lifting Warm Up Science Woman Warming Up

Many studies have shown even 15 minutes of LISS improves mood, and increases both endorphins and epinephrine (adrenaline).

This increase happens both in the immediate term and, when done regularly, over the long-term.

The biggest increases in mood come from exercises that are rhythmic, low-intensity, and involve large muscle groups (Guszkowska, 2004), examples below:

Types of LISS

  • Walking outside
  • Walking on a treadmill
  • Biking outside
  • Biking on indoor stationary bicycle
  • Stair climber machine or stairs
  • Rowing machine
  • Elliptical
  • Dancing
  • Mild calisthenics
Weight Lifting Warm Up Science Treadmills

Dynamic Stretching (NOT Static Stretching)

It is often falsely circulated that stretching before lifting is dangerous. 

I will clarify: Static stretching before lifting is dangerous.

Dynamic stretching is actually quite beneficial and will help you lift more. 

Negatives of Static Stretching

Weight Lifting Warm Up Science Girl doing Static Stretching

Static stretching is defined as holding a muscle in stretched position at the beginning of discomfort for an extended period of time (usually 30-90 seconds).

Indeed, Junior et al. (2017) showed that static stretching before resistance training led to fewer reps, less volume, and overall less muscle hypertrophy than the control group.

Yamaguchi, et al (2005) found that static stretching for even 30 seconds decreased leg extension power.

Of note: Behm, et al (2011) did find that static stretching during separate training sessions actually increased safety and performance during resistance training other days. So it is still important to include in your exercise routine, just separately from strength training days. Or possibly after strength training if time allows.

Benefits of Dynamic Stretching

Weight Lifting Warm Up Science Dynamic Stretching Girl doing lunges

Dynamic stretching is moving a joint through its full range of motion in all planes repetitively at no level of discomfort for 15-30 seconds per joint. 

Think of dynamic stretching as targeting joints more than muscles.

McCrary, et al (2015) found that dynamic stretching prior to resistance training actually increased power and improved strength during that workout.

Yamaguchi, et al (2005) the same study that found decrease in power from static stretching, found that dynamic stretching increased participants’ strength on the leg extension machine.

Behm, et al (2011) also found increasing benefit to longer durations of dynamic stretching.

Pyramid/Ramped lifts

Weight Lifting Warm Up Science Pyramid Sets

There is much research that shows certain rep ranges and rest times per set are better for hypertrophy vs strength, that 3 sets are best at minimum, that varying sets over time is better than not, etc.

However, I am unable to find any research at all investigating common intra-workout rep/set structure. Common examples are ramped sets, pyramid sets, drop sets, straight sets, etc.

If you know of research on this topic, I would love to read it; please email me at belleofthebarbell@gmail.com.

However, remember that physically increasing the temperature of the muscle is significantly beneficial (Shellock, 1985; McGowan 2015). 

So it would make sense that doing some easier sets prior to going full force to heat up the muscles you will be using would be advantageous.

You can do full ramped sets, or true pyramiding, or even just one or two sets at 50% 1RM.

Adding these sets (onto your bigger lifts especially) will specifically target the muscles you will need and increase their temperature, giving them more power.

Foam Rolling – You can if you want

Weight Lifting Warm Up Science two girls Foam Rolling

You may be wondering about foam rolling, as many athletes often perform this before their workout.

Most of the research I found studied the use of foam rolling after a workout to prevent DOMS (delayed-onset muscle soreness).

Two studies that I was able to find regarding foam rolling prior to resistance training basically showed no change in performance. (MacDonald, 2013, Madoni, 2018)

No improvement, but also no deficit.

One study, Monteiro, 2016, did find negative impact of foam rolling quads on knee extension performance.

As we are looking to improve our workout, I won’t recommend it officially but there really is very minimal research on using it during warm-up so if you feel like it improves your workout personally, go ahead and keep it up! 

Glute activation – Not a Good Idea

Weight Lifting Warm Up Science Don't Do Glute Activation Picture of Girl doing donkey kick

You seriously have to hear me out on this one. 

I searched long and hard for all of the research I could find on this one. There surprisingly isn’t much given the extreme popularity of this practice. 

I found 7 total articles published in peer-reviewed journals that studied the use of any kind of low-intensity glute-specific warm up with measurement of glute use and performance in the same workout afterward.

Two of the studies showed improved force (Crow, 2012; Pinfold, 2018), three of the studies showed no difference in performance (Cochrane, 2017; Healy, 2014; Parr, 2017), and two of the studies showed WORSE performance (Barry, 2016; Comyns, 2015).

It’s worth noting that 5 of the 7 studies were performed on the same group of professional rugby players. Of the two studies that were independently done, one showed no improvement and one showed negative performance.

It’s also worth noting that all of the studies looked at performance of jumping or sprinting, all multiple muscle group exercises.

I don’t really care about overall sprinting speed, I care about how hard my glutes are working. The studies that looked specifically at glute activation on EMG during the test showed decreased glute activation.

Also, none of the studies measured long term strength or hypertrophy of glutes which is really all of our primary focus with this activity.

In the future, I may to 1-2 REPS of glute activation work but certainly not a whole set. You’re more likely to use up the glycogen stored in your glute muscle. Then other supportive muscle groups, which are still fresh, will compensate for your already used glutes.

I will write up a more in depth discussion of this research soon because I think it is super interesting, given how popular this practice is. 

I myself had been doing this until I started researching the topic and it blew my mind.

How you should warm up:

Depending on the time you have, be sure to include as much warm up as possible prior to your workout.

Ideal warm up

  • 15 minutes LISS
  • 10 minutes dynamic stretching
  • 2-3 minutes ramping each major lift

Realistic warm up

  • 5-10 minutes LISS
  • 5 minutes dynamic stretching
  • 1 set of 50% 1RM prior to each major lift

Super short warm up

  • 10 minutes dynamic stretching

Conclusion

Weight Lifting Warm Up Science Woman Squatting Starting with Light Weight Barbell

So overall, whether we are stuck lifting at home or still getting our pump on in the gym, making the most of your warm-up can help you get more from your work out.

Focus primarily on activities that increase your body temperature, like LISS and ramp sets. Dynamic stretching can also benefit your work out. Continue foam rolling if you want or move it afterward but minimize the glute activation exercises!

Sources

  1. Barroso, R., Silva-Batista, C., Tricoli, V., Roschel, H., & Ugrinowitsch, C. (2013). The effects of different intensities and durations of the general warm-up on leg press 1RM. Journal of strength and conditioning research, 27(4), 1009-13.
  2. Barry, L., Kenny, I., & Comyns, T. (2016). Performance Effects of Repetition Specific Gluteal Activation Protocols on Acceleration in Male Rugby Union Players. Journal of human kinetics, 54, 33-42.
  3. Behm, D.G., & Chaouachi, A. (2011). A review of the acute effects of static and dynamic stretching on performance. European journal of applied physiology, 111(11), 2633-51.
  4. Cochrane, D.J., Harnett, M.C., & Pinfold, S.C. (2017). Does short-term gluteal activation enhance muscle performance. Research in sports medicine (Print), 25(2), 156-65.
  5. Comyns, T., Kenny, I., & Scales, G. (2015). Effects of a Low-Load Gluteal Warm-Up on Explosive Jump Performance. Journal of human kinetics, 46, 177-87.
  6. Crow, J.F., Buttifant, D., Kearny, S.G., & Hrysomallis, C. (2012). Low load exercises targeting the gluteal muscle group acutely enhance explosive power output in elite athletes. Journal of strength and conditioning research, 26(2), 438-42.
  7. Fradkin, A.J., Gabbe, B.J., & Cameron, P.A. (2006). Does warming up prevent injury in sport? The evidence from randomised controlled trials. Journal of science and medicine in sport, 9(3), 214-20.
  8. Fradkin, A.J., Zazryn, T.R., & Smoliga, J.M. (2010). Effects of warming-up on physical performance: a systematic review with meta-analysis. Journal of strength and conditioning research, 24(1), 140-8.
  9. Guszkowska, M. (2004). [Effects of exercise on anxiety, depression and mood]. Psychiatria polska, 38(4), 611-20.
  10. Healy, R., & Harrison, A.J. (2014). The effects of a unilateral gluteal activation protocol on single leg drop jump performance. Sports biomechanics, 13(1), 33-46.
  11. Junior, R.M., Berton, R., de Souza, T.M., Chacon-Mikahil, M.P., & Cavaglieri, C.R. (2017). Effect of the flexibility training performed immediately before resistance training on muscle hypertrophy, maximum strength and flexibility. European journal of applied physiology, 117(4), 767-74.
  12. MacDonald, G.Z., Penney, M.D., Mullaley, M.E., Cuconato, A.L., Drake, C.D., Behm, D.G., & Button, D.C. (2013). An acute bout of self-myofascial release increases range of motion without a subsequent decrease in muscle activation or force. Journal of strength and conditioning research, 27(3), 812-21.
  13. Madoni, S.N., Costa, P.B., Coburn, J.W., & Galpin, A.J. (2018). Effects of Foam Rolling on Range of Motion, Peak Torque, Muscle Activation, and the Hamstrings-to-Quadriceps Strength Ratios. Journal of strength and conditioning research, 32(7), 1821-30.
  14. McCrary, J.M., Ackermann, B.J., & Halaki, M. (2015). A systematic review of the effects of upper body warm-up on performance and injury. British journal of sports medicine, 49(14), 935-42.
  15. Monteiro, E.R., & Neto, V.G. (2016). EFFECT OF DIFFERENT FOAM ROLLING VOLUMES ON KNEE EXTENSION FATIGUE. International journal of sports physical therapy, 11(7), 1076-81.
  16. Parr, M., Price, P.D., & Cleather, D.J. (2017). Effect of a gluteal activation warm-up on explosive exercise performance. BMJ open sport & exercise medicine, 3(1), e000245.
  17. Pinfold, S.C., Harnett, M.C., & Cochrane, D.J. (2018). The acute effect of lower-limb warm-up on muscle performance. Research in sports medicine (Print), 26(4), 490-9.
  18. Shellock, F.G., & Prentice, W.E. (1985). Warming-up and stretching for improved physical performance and prevention of sports-related injuries. Sports medicine (Auckland, N.Z.), 2(4), 267-78.
  19. Yamaguchi, T., & Ishii, K. (2005). Effects of static stretching for 30 seconds and dynamic stretching on leg extension power. Journal of strength and conditioning research, 19(3), 677-83.
Weight Lifting Warm Up Science Pinterest Lunges
Weight Lifting Warm Up Science Warm Up Ideas
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