There is much confusion and insecurity when it comes to the question of optimal warm up for weight training. The most common warm up that can be observed in gyms all over the world is the classical "hitting the treadmill for 10 minutes to get the blood flowing". But is this really the way you should go if for example today's training session consists of heavy squats and lower body assistance exercises? The short answer is definitely no! But what is the optimal warm up, if not "getting warmer" on the treadmill or stationary bike first?
Therefore it is essential to recall what weight training basically is: specific movement patterns under controlled loads. And how do you prepare your body for those kind of movement patterns? By exactly executing those movements under lighter load while gradually increasing the resistance. Thus your warm up should be exercise-specific.
How to specifically warm up for compound movements
Going back to the heavy squats and lower body assistance exercises mentioned above, an exercise-specific warm up would look like that:
Let's imagine a fitness enthusiast whose goal for his squat today is accomplishing 5 sets of 5 @ 120 kg. Starting off with 120 kg most certainly wouldn't be the way for her or him if interested in a sustainable and injury-free training career. Instead our imaginary trainee would get under the empty bar and start warming up exercise-specific for the squat.
Till we reach our first set of 5x5 @ 120 kg the warm up process could look like that:
1. Warm up set: empty bar (20 kg) x 12 | 20 seconds rest
2. Warm up set: 40 kg x 8 | 30 seconds rest
3. Warm up set: 60 kg x 5 | 30 seconds rest
4. Warm up set: 80 kg x 3 | 90 seconds rest
5. Warm up set: 100 kg x 1 | 90 seconds rest
1. Work set: 120 kg x 5 | 300 seconds rest
Utilizing this method our intermediate lifter can be sure that the central nervous system (cns) is optimally activated and prepared for the upcoming heavy squat work sets. The grade of cns-activation determines how effectively you can tell your muscles what they have to - simply spoken.
By gradually increasing the weight load while decreasing the amount of repetitions during the warm up phase the lifter also doesn't need to fear getting fatigued or her/his muscle glycogen stores emptied before the actual work set. It can also be mentioned that the warm up sets also activate cardiovascular processes even though those are not really crucial for genuine weight training.
What about a dynamic warm up?
The exercise-specific warm up is the bare minimum and should be nonnegotiable. However, if you want to get the maximum out of your training you should also consider utilizing a dynamic warmup before getting under the bar. A dynamic warm consists of soft-tissue work on the foam roller as well as dynamic stretches and serves the purpose of injury-prevention as well as mobility- & power-increase. I usually recommend investing around 5-10 minutes into a dynamic warm up prior to your exercise specific warm up and weight training.
When putting together your dynamic warm up routine always have in mind what kind of exercises are on the days menu. If your training is leg dominant aim for some dynamic stretches on your lower body and back and target areas like your hips, hamstrings or glutes when foam rolling (which all depends on your current mobility restrictions of course). If its an upper body workout you want to focus on warming up your rotator cuff and activate your shoulder blades for example. The video above can serve as inspiration for what kind of dynamic stretches and moves you can include into your routine.
Last words: Reasons contra cardio as warm up
In case you're still not convinced of cutting the habit of treadmill or stationary bike usage, I want to give you more reasons why you should stop this method and switch to the exercise specific (& dynamic) warm up.
As mentioned above cardiovascular processes don't play a crucial role when it comes to expressing strength during weight training. Therefore activating those processes (which are also activated anyway during exercise-specific warm up sets) is just a waste of valuable training time. Proper training already puts a high time demand on your weekly schedule, so why waste time on methods that are not necessary to your goals? Even when your goal is fat loss, the treadmill is not as crucial as generally propagandized. Proper weight training and the right nutrition will get you closer to a healthier and more athletic body- but this is a totally different story.
Furthermore cardio prior to weight training can produce slight fatigue that is contra productive to your strength goals. Let's also not forget about upper body training, where it remains mysterious, how the treadmill or stationary bike should initiate the popular "blood flow" in your pectoralis major (major chest muscle) or latissimus dorsi (major back muscle). Those muscles be better activated with warm up sets on the bench or the cable lat pulldown.
I wish you success with your new optimal warm up!