Warming up properly is one of the most critical things we can do to prepare our bodies for the demands of exercise. That being said, there can be a lot of confusion as to what a "proper" warm-up entails. For the purposes of this article, I will be going over how I use the 6 Phase Dynamic Warm-up developed by Dr. John Rusin for my clients and myself. For most people, this should take no longer than 10 minutes and have you fully prepared for the upcoming tasks.
This warm-up sequence is composed of six phases that are meant to progress from lighter-intensity, more passive movements to active, high-intensity activities to get your body and nervous system excited to work out. These phases are meant to flow together seamlessly to prepare you for your exercises in a safe, efficient, and effective manner. Most people will only need to spend about one minute in each phase, and with time for transitions, this can easily be completed in less than ten minutes. However, if you do require more specific development in a certain area, are coming back from injury or time off, or would like to turn this into more of a "workout" you can absolutely spend more time, which I will give some examples later of how to do so.
Before getting too far into the details of the warm-up it is important to understand this in the context of the Linchpin. The Linchpin is the ONE (yes, only one) area that you will be targeting during the majority of the warm-up. The Linchpin is the one thing that, if corrected, will have a domino effect that will help to improve other things. The Linchpin will change over time as areas improve in function, pain or injuries are resolved, or for different workouts and target areas. Everyone's Linchpins are most likely different, therefore I will not be going over any specifics for this article and will present more of a general template that is meant to be adapted to your unique situation and as you make progress.
Phase 1- Targeted Soft Tissue Work
Not all foam rolling is created equally, and there are certain techniques that should only be used at certain times. Many people may be familiar with using a roller before their workouts, and some may spend upwards of 10-20 minutes trying to get their tissue "warmed-up." This type of rolling, usually associated with long, sweeping motions over large muscle areas or large amounts of time spent trying to "break up knots" is not a good use of your time before exercise. This approach may be beneficial for recovery and relaxation, but before a workout, the last thing we want to do is to relax and "turn off" our muscles.
For our approach, we will be focusing on using an oscillatory motion (quick, two-inch back-and-forth) on the target Linchpin for the day. For example, this may be a "hotspot" on your hip flexors if you are preparing to squat, or it may be on your lats if you lack overhead range of motion and are preparing for that movement for the workout. If you are not experiencing any pain or dysfunction, pick two to three target areas per region and spend a TOTAL of 45-75 seconds addressing these areas. If you are experiencing pain or dysfunction, still target two to three areas per region but instead spend up to two minutes working on these areas. If you need any further attention or have several areas that must be addressed, it may be more beneficial to have a recovery-focused workout or participate in a physical therapy program until the underlying issue(s) is(are) resolved. Common target areas for the upper body include the thoracic spine, pectoralis group, and posterior shoulder girdle; the lower body includes quadriceps, adductors, and lateral hip group.
Phase 2- Bi-Phasic Positional Stretching
Just as all foam rolling is different, stretching is another world of varying techniques that can be implemented at different times for different purposes. For the purpose of this warm-up, a specific technique known as Bi-Phasic Positional stretching will be implemented. This type of stretching is meant to complement the Linchpin area from the targeted soft tissue work performed in Phase 1. The two phases of the stretch are first an oscillatory motion followed by a static, end-range stretch. The oscillatory stretch should be performed for approximately 30 seconds of solid, purposeful back-and-forth near the end-range of motion followed by holding a deep static stretch for 15-30 seconds paired with deep, purposeful breathing. Assuming both sides of the body will be stretched separately, this phase should take no longer than two minutes to complete. Again, if more mobility or range of motion is required or multiple body parts need to be addressed, these should be done in separate, mobility- or recovery-focused sessions or potentially require the assistance of a qualified provider to improve function.
Phase 3- Core Stability
This is where I deviate from the exact protocol from Dr. Rusin, who calls for Corrective Exercise in Phase 3, and opt for the attention to be paid to core stability that I adapted from Dr. Stu McGill, a leading expert in low back and spine health. The main reason for doing this is the idea that "proximal stability leads to distal mobility" and that the "super-stiffness" that can be achieved by doing targeted core stability exercises has demonstrated to lead to improved performance and decreased injury.
For this phase, I focus on the three zones of the core described by Dr. McGill, which he divides into the front, side, and back. Focusing on all these areas gives us a chance to activate our internal "belt" that surrounds and protects the spine and helps to protect from the deviation from an ideal "neutral" position. For the front, I tend to choose variations on planks or dead bugs which are great anti-extension exercises. For the side, variations on side-planks or the Pallof press work wonders for anti-flexion/extension/rotation. For the back, variations on the bird dog (a McGill favorite) and bridge are the go-to. For a much more in-depth look at core stability and how to choose, vary, and progress exercises, see my article on Core Stability Training https://www.evanmcdanielfitness.com/l/core-stability-training/.
For pain-free movers and fit individuals, this section should not take longer than about two to three minutes. For those who are experiencing pain or dysfunction, or people who need to pay more attention to their core training, this section can last anywhere from a few minutes to being the start of the "workout," in which case time spent is less important than what you are attempting to get out of it. In any case, the idea of practicing the movements correctly and choosing quality repetitions over quantity needs to reign supreme.
Phase 4- Muscle and Pattern Activation
In this phase, we are continuing to ramp up the intensity and move closer to the main exercise we will be performing for the day. Many of us are going to require patterning and activation on the backside of our bodies as these are the areas that are typically abused with poor posture, prolonged periods of sitting, and a general lack of control and awareness of the musculature we cannot easily see. Typically for the upper body, we will focus on the posterior shoulder girdle or lats, and for the lower body the focus will be concentrated around the glutes and hips.
Choose one to three exercises for the target area and, depending on the goal, perform one to five sets of three to twenty repetitions, focusing on the quality of movement and activation of the target musculature. This may seem like a huge range, but depending on the exercise selection and quality of movement the variety is almost endless. For simplicity, a great upper body series is the Rusin Banded Shoulder Circuit, which consists of the band up and over drill followed by face-pulls and finished with band pull-aparts, which can be performed for 1-3 rounds of 10-20 repetitions each. For the lower body, highly-focused and purposeful glute bridges can be performed for 3-5 sets of 3-5 reps with a 5/1/5/0 tempo to activate that muscle group. For those not in pain or dysfunction, this phase should take no more than a few minutes at most. If you are experiencing pain or dysfunction, again this section can be thought of as more of the "workout" in which case the time spent is less important than what you get out of it.
Phase 5- Foundational Movement Pattern Development
In this phase, the goal is to match the movement pattern with the primary strength movement for the training day. The Foundational Movement Patterns, at least according to Dr. Rusin, are the squat, lunge, hinge, push, pull, and carry. I will note that there is a seventh movement pattern, rotation, that is considered the "glue" that holds the other patterns together but is not foundational because it is not easily scalable. The intent in this phase is to "grease the groove" that you plan to work for your main movement for the day, so if you are performing a bench press, prepare your pressing pattern and if you are performing a deadlift, perform a hinge, and so on.
The protocol for this phase is continuing to focus on high-quality, concentrated, and relatively fewer repetitions over the number of movements and prioritizing thinking and feeling through the movement. Choose the movement pattern you intend to develop for the day and practice it for three to five repetitions at a time for the number of sets it takes to achieve the goal. This may be bodyweight or light goblet squats, push-ups, or good mornings, but they must be done with a high level of focus, activation, and attention paid to the movement. For pain-free movers, it may be useful for a partner (or your trainer) to attempt to perturbate your movements during this time to ensure the maximum amount of irradiation (or co-contraction) of your musculature is taking place and should be done for 2-3 sets of 3-5 reps. If you have any movement compensations or faults, this is a great time to implement corrective strategies in order to further improve on the movement pattern, and can again be thought of as the "workout" in which the time spent is less important than the goal of making improvements.
Phase 6- Central Nervous System Development
The final phase, or Central Nervous System (CNS) Development, is the most excitatory phase and is intended to fully excite your nervous system for the upcoming demands of the workout. The best ways to activate the CNS are through heavy load movements, which is not ideal for a warm-up, and high-velocity movements, which fit the bill. Similar to the movement pattern development in Phase 5, choose a movement that complements the main strength exercise for the day.
Performing "twitchy," high-velocity movements are the perfect approach for this phase. For a lower-body workout, performing jumps or bounds are great ways to prepare for squats and deadlifts. Performing med ball throws or slams are perfect for preparing your upper body for bench press or pull-ups. Adding in a few jumping jacks or seal jacks can further add to priming the best CNS result. Try performing 2-3 sets of 3-5 reps for each movement with enough rest between to get the maximum result from each rep. Perform no more than 25 total repetitions in this phase as a little can go a long way with these types of movements and then move on to your hard-earned workout. For the understimulated population, or those that need more attention paid to explosive movements, this phase can extend beyond the recommendations outlined previously.
For general programming, pain-free movers should be able to complete this warm-up in 6-7 minutes. Assuming only minor levels of pain or dysfunction this protocol can be extended to up to 15 minutes, and longer if there is more attention that needs to be paid to areas undergoing significant correction or physical therapy to address deeper issues. If these warm-ups seem to be taking longer than expected, ensure you are not spending excess time transitioning between sections. If you notice areas that require further attention, consult your trainer, physical therapist or doctor if necessary to address the root of the issue.
These different phases can be divided into three main categories, or blocks: Phases 1 and 2, Parasympathetic; Phase 3 and 4, Preparing Movement; Phases 5 and 6, Stimulation. The Parasympathetic category's goal is to focus on mobility and "opening up" the potential for movement. This block is meant to bridge the gap between your daily life and meaningful exercise, and can also serve as a time to mentally prepare for the upcoming workout. The Preparing Movement block is meant to improve movement patterning, allow for new skill acquisition, and activate and enhance movement potential. This category is useful for spending time enhancing movement quality, preparing our core to resist deformation, and helping create proximal stability and distal mobility. The third category, Stimulation, has the goal of practicing our foundational movement patterns in a non-threatening environment and tap into our neural system to activate a high level of Post-Activation Potentiation (PAP). Time here is spent improving our default pattern for the day; improving positioning, stability, and control; priming the CNS; and developing the explosive PAP carryover to our training.
No matter the level of trainee or status of pain or dysfunction, this warm-up can serve as a useful framework to establish a productive, inclusive, and pain-free preparation for performance. For the healthy and pain-free population, this warm-up should take no longer than 6-7 minutes to complete. For those of us that may need more time, this can serve as a framework to prioritize our exercises and progress effectively and safely into further levels of development.
For more information on this warm-up, take a look at the article linked below on Dr. John Rusin's website.