Five years ago if you looked at me you would have thought I was doing everything right in the gym. I was lean, you could see my abs, and I was a pretty strong guy for someone weighing 170-ish pounds.
But I was a mess. More accurately, I was a hurt, achy, mess—which is not a good combination when you’re still in your mid-to-late twenties. And it’s especially bad when you’re supposed to sharing information with millions of people designed to help them look and feel better. The result: my workout mistakes were passed down to you.
When I look back, it’s easy to see the workout mistakes I was making. About every three months I would suffer some sort of injury or setback. And while I was training hard, the sessions were painful. My joints hurt. My strength increases were fewer and farther between, and in all honesty, my body just wasn’t changing that much.
Turns out, the problem was me and my approach to exercise.
Everything became clear on a trip to Fair Lawn, NJ, in 2008 and my first meeting with Martin Rooney. I was there to observe his NFL combine prep at the Parisi Speed School. But like most assignments, instead of just observing I threw myself into the fire and competed with several soon-to-be NFL players.
My “a-ha” moment happened within the first 15 minutes. That’s when Martin put me through a warmup that literally changed how I start every workout. I had seen many warmups before, written stories about the benefits of a “dynamic” approach, and read enough research on the stretching vs. not stretching topic to never want to discuss the topic again.
But Rooney’s approach was different. The “warmup” was harder than some workouts I had performed. By the time I was done, my heart was pumping, my face was flushed, and my body was lathered in sweat. As I tried to catch my breath, the NFL hopefuls just laughed.
“You’ve been Rooney’D,” was the ongoing joke.
Shift Your Mindset
Most people would think that such a challenging start would wreck havoc on your training. After all, why waste all that energy on a warmup?
Because great workouts are not guaranteed. If you want them consistently, then you have to put in a little extra work before you start.
After the warmup, I went through a training session that could only be described as the best I’d felt in years. There were no aches or pains. No uncomfortable range of motion. I set a PR on a few lifts, including the bench–an exercise that I’m known for avoiding because of past injuries in my shoulders.
Just like that, my understanding of why warmups need to be performed was crystallized. The analogy I commonly use is to compare your unprepared muscles to a cold, frozen, rubber band. What happens to a frozen rubber band? It doesn’t work all that well and it can snap very easily. The same concept applies to your muscles.
You don’t just walk into a gym and train. You must prepare for every workout and prepare your muscles to generate energy, have more elasticity, and be prepared to be put to use. Ignoring that reality is a mistake far too many people make.
Over the last 5 years, I’ve adjusted my approach. Some people need a lot of warmup time and others need a little. Some can even do their “warmup” with work done outside the gym. But for the average lifter, some warmup is needed that goes beyond walking on the treadmill or cranking out a few light sets of an exercise. That approach will save your body, your muscles, and most importantly—lead to better workouts.
Why NOT Warming Up is a Big Mistake
I recently had the chance to catch up with Rooney, and I mentioned my life-changing training session.
If I can’t convince you to spend a little more time warming up, here’s what the world-famous strength coach, and creator of the Training for Warriors system, has to say about the importance of starting your workout the right way.
As you know (and have experienced) I am not only big on warmups, but I consider the Warmup the cornerstone of Training for Warriors training. A common mistake in training, however, is to use either an inadequate or no warmup at all before training. Since a trainee often thinks training itself is great at getting the heart rate up and increases core temperature, they often skip a warmup completely and jump head-first into the session.
In most of the training books and DVDs out there, a warmup is quickly glazed over as if it is unimportant. This is definitely not the case and unfortunately sets the tone as if it doesn’t count.
There are a number of reasons I cite using a proper warmup. A proper warmup is first and foremost about injury prevention. If you are injured you cannot train. If you are injured because of an improper warmup, this is a training tragedy.
A proper warmup can be used to increase heart rate and blood flow to and the temperature of the muscles. This increase in blood flow and temperature will lead to improved strength and power development. With this increase in strength and power, a proper warmup can also be used to increase speed of movement, balance and neuromuscular stimulation.
Because a warmer muscle can be a more pliable muscle, a proper warmup can be used to increase flexibility. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I use a proper warmup as an opportunity for my athletes and clients to focus on the upcoming workout and set the tone for the session. The warmup is the buffer between your life in and outside of training.
As far as upgrading your mindset, I would remind you that the warmup is not something to get THROUGH, it is something to get FROM. Take it seriously, hold people accountable for their technique and use that time as a powerful opportunity to improve in your coaching and presenting skills.
A Quick Guide to Less Pain and More Gain
Even after everything I learned from Rooney, I’ve continued to refine my warmups and find what works for me and others. Here’s a look at my most common warmup and something I frequently use with most of my online clients. This will typically take about 10 minutes. If you’re looking for something shorter, you can try this routine that I put together for STACK Magazine.
Bird dog 2 sets x 8-10 reps per side
Elbow to instep 2 sets x 8-10 reps per leg
Hip Flexor Stretch 1 x 30 seconds per leg
Thoracic Rotation 1 x 10 reps per side
Lunge and Reach 1 x 10 reps
Hip raise 2 x 12 reps
Wall Slides 2 x 10 reps
Seal Jumps 1 x 20 reps
Scap Pushups 1 x 12 reps
Adam Bornstein is a New York Times bestselling author and, according to The Huffington Post, “one of the most inspiring sources in all of health and fitness.” An award-winning writer and editor, Bornstein was the Fitness and Nutrition editor for Men’s Health, Editorial Director at LIVESTRONG.com, and a columnist for SHAPE, Men’s Fitness, and Muscle & Fitness. He’s also a nutrition and fitness advisor for LeBron James, Cindy Crawford, Lindsey Vonn, and Arnold Schwarzenegger. His work has been featured in dozens of publications, including The New York Times, Fast Company, ESPN, and GQ, and he’s appeared on Good Morning America, The Today Show, E! News, and The Cheddar.