Once upon a time, group fitness instructors started their strength training classes with a relatively static warm-up that consisted of single-joint movements, such as head circles, shoulder rolls backwards and forwards, and hip swings side to side. As the industry progressed, warm-ups became more varied and we branched out—maybe too far out! Today’s warm-up options range from no warm-up at all to 10-minute, low-impact cardio warm-ups, with many variations in between.
What’s a strength training teacher to do with so many conflicting choices? Is one type of warm-up more effective or more practical than another? Does it depend on the relative weight lifted or the class level? As is the case with most resistance training information, there may be no clear-cut answers to these questions. In the absence of hard data, we interviewed several high-profile group strength training teachers to get their ideas and suggestions for creating effective, up-to-date strength training warm-ups.
We know that to prepare the muscles and connective tissues for the physical challenges of any workout, we need to include in the warm-up component movement patterns that will actually be performed in the body of the class (American Council on Exercise [ACE] 1993). This neuromuscular approach, often referred to as the “rehearsal effect,” is used by many instructors teaching group strength training classes today.
“I still believe muscles and the body need to be warmed up for the workout,” says Sherri McMillan, MSc, owner of NorthWest Personal Training and Fitness Education in Vancouver, Washington. “The body will perform much better if sufficiently prepared.”
Dody Benko Livingston, a group fitness instructor and personal trainer based in Santa Barbara, California, considers neuromuscular learning, or coordination, the highest priority of the warm-up. “My goal in the warm-up is to teach technique and form,” she says. “By the time I’ve got my group to focus on safe range of motion (ROM), the path of motion, shoulder retraction, spinal alignment and which muscles are moving versus which are stabilizing, we have increased the core body temperature. I find the warm-up to be a critical time to assess the participants’ levels and abilities. As they warm up without load, I am mentally revising or affirming my class design based on the form I am seeing.”
Regardless of the intensity of the workout to be performed, the warm-up provides a smooth transition from inactivity to activity. An effective warm-up stimulates the cardiorespiratory and neuromuscular systems, as well as the metabolic energy pathways. This stimulation results in a gradual increase in heart rate, stroke volume, blood flow, cardiac output and breathing rate (ACE 1993). At the same time, body temperature gradually increases and blood flow to the working muscles is slowly redistributed.
Oxygen exchange between blood and muscles increases, and carbon dioxide elimination is enhanced. The metabolic rate increases, which in turn leads to more efficient calorie burning. This improvement in energy production, which limits lactic acid buildup, allows participants to work out longer, since their energy systems adjust more readily to exercise (ACE 1993).
The physiological manifestations of a warm-up also include the following:
- increased secretion of synovial fluid in the joints, which prepares the body for more strenuous activity
- improved joint ROM
- improved elasticity of muscles and connective tissue, which decreases the risk of acute injuries to soft tissues
- increased force and speed of muscular contractions
- improved speed and sensitivity of neural message pathways to the muscles, resulting in better muscle control and reactivity
- increased arousal and greater focus on exercise, resulting in psychological preparation for higher intensities (ACE 1993)
There is a general consensus among those interviewed for this article that before formatting any warm-up, you first need to determine the goal of the class and evaluate the targeted population. After completing those steps, many instructors start their resistance training classes with some full-body, rhythmic, continuous movement.
“We begin with basic marches, step-touches and grapevines with [a resistance ball] in hand to elevate the core temperature,” says Mike Morris, president of Resist-A-Ball Inc. and a personal trainer certified by the National Academy of Sports Medicine.
Leigh Crews, a Reebok University program developer and master trainer, begins her client sessions with gross motor movements designed to elevate the heart rate and warm up joints and muscles. She feels it is not necessary to incorporate traveling patterns, since a strength training workout is stationary in nature. Instead, she emphasizes large ROM movements and “long lever arm patterns and simple footwork, such as side lunges and squats.”
Beate Missalek, a fitness professional based in Germany, organizes her resistance training warm-up sessions in a logical order “from small to bigger movements, from stationary to moving, from single-plane to multiplane movements.”
Benko Livingston also designs her warm-ups to include multijoint, “noncombo” movements. She rarely—if ever—adds resistance during this part of her strength training classes. “We can’t teach technique with a load,” she stresses. “Forget choreography and adding weight. Teach the move before moving on.”
According to Jessica Smith, ME, in her article “Strength Training for Women,” (IDEA Health & Fitness Source, May 2001), “The warm-up should consist of low-intensity aerobics, walking, stationary cycling or jogging in place, followed by stretching and some specific, low-intensity resistance training exercises targeting the major muscle groups.”
Most experts agree that if low-impact, dynamic movements are incorporated into the warm-up, they should be kept simple and not too choreographed, since choreography is not essential in strength training sessions. Instructors may also find that participants in a strength training class may be uncomfortable with choreographed movement patterns and could become discouraged.
What better place is there than the warm-up for creating a more functional body that performs well? Why not include movements for stabilization, strength and flexibility?
When teaching a functional strength class, Crews includes in the warm-up a multijoint activity that mimics some important aspects of the class. “I use multiplanar moves, such as diagonal patterns and slow rotations, as well as some simple balance challenges to engage core musculature.”
Missalek likes to add some balance and stabilization work performed in the standing position to increase body awareness and prepare the core muscles for the workload to come.
A useful approach when teaching a strength training class that includes “integrated” exercises (combining two or more moves) is to warm up with a more nontraditional movement sequence. A good example is the Ashtanga yoga Sun Salutation, which emphasizes neutral posture and active, internal stabilization of the torso. Through repetition, this sequence of yoga poses enhances coordination and produces efficiency in movement. Another important aspect of this type of warm-up is that it promotes total-body integration through closed-chain (weight-bearing) exercises. It also prepares the body to be functional, strong and ready. Some instructors precede this nontraditional warm-up sequence with some traditional dynamic movement, thus combining Eastern and Western philosophies.
More and more strength training classes incorporate some type of equipment, from weighted bars to small hand weights, barbells, stability and medicine balls, tubing and bands. The question is, Should we incorporate this equipment during the warm-up?
According to Crew, “If I am teaching a more traditional strength training class, with the emphasis on heavier weight and multiple sets of eight to 12 repetitions, my warm-up is usually a general cardio, gross-muscle movement type of warm-up, emphasizing ROM, so that I can use that portion of the warm-up as a sort of ‘assessment tool’ to evaluate the mobility of my clientele. After the general warm-up, I like to do one set of a specific exercise using relatively light weight, again to assess the ability of the group. This also helps participants develop correct motor patterns before loading the joints with heavier weight.”
Missalek suggests that the “first two to four repetitions in the warm-up set be performed in a slower manner to focus on technique and body posture.”
Morris continues his warm-up with specific dumbbell training, starting with multiple-joint movements. To “neurologically connect,” he performs a particular exercise using little or no weight. He then recommends upping the intensity by increasing load, number of repetitions or speed or by decreasing rest between sets. Moving to the next exercise of choice, he repeats the whole process. His progression moves from larger muscle groups and multiple-joint movements (e.g., squat, lunge, chest press, shoulder press and “lat” row) to smaller muscles and single-joint movements (e.g., knee extension, hamstring curl, triceps press and biceps curl).
In his book Your Personal Trainer (Human Kinetics, 1999), Douglas Brooks, MS, suggests, “If you’re going to lift weights, use exercise that warms the whole body. . . . It’s a good idea to start with lighter weights or resistance when strength training and progress to heavier weights. Lighter resistance can serve as a warm-up by itself, but to most effectively prepare your muscles for safe, effective and injury-free strength training, use both” [i.e., warm the whole body and use lighter weights to start].
Although the jury is still out on this, most research has found that stretching before exercise, especially static stretching, does not necessarily prevent injuries (Pope et al. 2000; Shrier 1999). However, some experts have concluded that clients who perform an active warm-up prior to stretching obtain the greatest ROM (Shrier & Gossal 2000).
Morris always includes a combination of active, passive and dynamic stretches in the warm-up segment of his resistance training classes. Both Crews and Missalek believe that adding multijoint dynamic stretches to the warm-up not only increases ROM around the joints but also keeps the heart rate elevated and contributes to the warming process.
According to Bob Sewak, PhD, a Delray Beach, Florida, researcher who studies the effect of music on the human organism, “Music can create more psychophysiological shifts than any other stimuli that we know.” The music choice can be a vital and motivating factor in any type of group exercise and may set the tone for the class. It may also be one of the reasons your participants perform at a high level during the class.
Music speed, or beats per minute (bpm), in strength training classes should allow for full ROM. Crews likes to be “directed” by the beat. “I try to pick music that is high energy and that the vast majority of the group will like and be energized by,” she says.
McMillan uses 125 bpm and also likes to work on the beat. According to Missalek, who prefers 124 to 128 bpm, “You can be on the beat, but you don’t necessarily have to stay on it.” Her music choices vary from current, pop, top-40 music to a more New Age sound.
The experts interviewed for this article share the following suggestions for enhancing your own strength training warm-up sessions:
- Start by welcoming your participants and confirming that they are in the desired class.
- Use the warm-up to introduce verbal and visual cues, class-specific terminology, combination-building techniques and safety recommendations.
- Design a warm-up component that is anywhere from six to 10 minutes long.
- Use the warm-up time to gauge and discuss form and technique.
- “Use lots of verbal imagery and have more than one way to cue an exercise or alignment tip,” advises Crews. “What seems perfectly clear to one person may be confusing to another.”
- Take Missalek’s lead by starting your classes with some simple deep-breathing techniques to encourage participants to relax their shoulders and get focused.
- During your own strength training workouts, practice what you teach, suggests McMillan. “There’s nothing worse than a group instructor teaching a weight training class with poor technique and no muscle tone,” she says. “You have to know what you’re doing in order to cue it effectively verbally and visually.”
While many strength training instructors are still including warm-ups in their classes, the trend now is to make the warm-up component more functional and specific to the class and participants. In general, fitness experts recommend designing warm-ups that combine rhythmic limbering with multijoint movement patterns.
Light weights may be used in an initial or first strength training set, with a gradual increase in load. Dynamic stretching is often used, and there is a migration toward exercises that promote total-body integration and core stability. More and more often, instructors are borrowing warm-up movements from yoga and Pilates. Many warm-ups are done to music to encourage participation. According to most experts, the warm-up session for a one-hour class should take anywhere from six to 10 minutes.
Since most participants respond better to a strength training workout after performing a dynamic warm-up, you are most likely to have positive reactions and results if you include this component. So get started . . . with the warm-up!