If you are middle aged and over and you have decided to adopt strength training into your lifestyle, there is something extremely important that you MUST do before every session.
It is critical that you correctly warm up and prepare your body for the challenge of your training session. We have all seen the youngsters just set their bar, throw on some weights and get to squatting. Us older lifters do not have that luxury! Our bodies will revolt, and if you're even able to get through your training session, you'll sure know about it in the subsequent days. So proper warm ups are the best defense from developing these ill effects post workout.
Is a treadmill warm up a good idea for strength training?
Since adopting strength training exclusively I have not been on a treadmill or elliptical at all. Not even once. I do not believe it is necessary to do a treadmill 'warm up' in order to prepare for lifting. While it might start the blood pumping more it isn't an activity close enough to lifting that it will adequately prepare the nervous system and muscles for what is about to come.
The older we become the less pliable our muscles, tendons and ligaments are when we arrive in the gym. We need to do some exercises that better mirror the exercise we're about to do. If you are on a standard progressive strength training program then you'll be squatting every workout, and usually as the first exercise. It therefore makes sense to do a warm up routing that better prepares you to squat.
Now if you get your kicks of doing a treadmill or elliptical session then please don't let me stop you. Just know that it isn't the ideal way to warm up in preparation.
What is the best way to warm up to squat?
It has been said that the best way to warm up to squat is with a squat, namely air squats. I would agree with this, but up to a point. I don't know about you but sometimes I get into the gym and everything just feels painful and getting into an air squat position just isn't happening right away.
My original coach Nick taught me the following warm up 'moves', which I've sworn by before every session I do. I have added a couple of my own moves to the sequence and it always gets me prepared to meet the challenge ahead of me.
Step 1 - Butt kicks
We want to start stretching the quads, so standing tall kick a leg back so that you almost kicking your butt. Don't do this too quickly because remember we're trying to warm the muscle up and we don't want too much momentum. Set the foot back down back into the start position. When you have completed one, switch to the other leg and do the same. Repeat these so that you have done twenty reps on each leg.
Step 2 - High Steps
Next we want to start stretching the hip flexors, and to a lesser degree the knee flexors. Again standing tall, one leg at a time bring the knee up as high as you can, and then set it back down. Again, don't do this too quickly because we're trying to warm the muscles up and we don't want too much momentum. Repeat these so that you have done twenty reps on each leg.
Step 3 - Touch Toes
Next we want to stretch the ham strings and glutes. This one may be more difficult and will require some practice - it is one of those the more you do it the better and more flexible you will become. Standing tall with your feet together reach down - keeping your legs straight - and touch your toes. As you come back up make sure you squeeze your glutes (butt cheeks!) to get them firing and assist in your hip extension. If you can complete 20 of these you're in good shape.
Step 4 - Leg Swings
These are easier if you are using a power squat rack as they are easy to hang on to. Hold the rack in your leg hand and swing your right leg up so that your leg is horizontal (in line with your hip) and then swing your leg back behind you as horizontal as you can get. This will really start to warm you up around the hips. Do this 20 times on each leg. Obviously for the other leg, you will hold onto the rack with your right hand for stability and swing your left leg.
Step 5 - Side Leg Raises
Again use the rack to hold onto for stability. With your left hand holding the rack bring your right leg up to the side and try and bring it as close as you can to the horizontal position. With this exercise we're giving the adductors a stretch, which are an often overlooked group of muscles that are instrumental in keeping your knees apart in the squat. For these I will usually do 10 - 15 per leg as these require more effort and we're not looking for any fatigue from the warm up sequence. Repeat on the left leg, while holding the rack with your right hand.
Step 6 - Air Squats
After the previous steps I'm now usually ready to be able to air squat with good fluidity. Go through several reps relatively slowly - I use these as a gauge to how limber I am that day. If it's all feeling good then i won't do many reps, but if I'm still quite tight then i will do more.
Once you get a little more advanced you can hold the position down in the bottom with you hands together and elbows in the knees. This will really help stretch you out ready for a successful squat session.
Step 7 - Arm Front Raises
Now the bottom of my body is nice and flexible and ready it is time to focus on the top part. The first step is to stand tall with your arms at your side. Now bring your arms forward and upwards until they reach the vertical position, and then reverse the direction and bring them back to your side. With this step we're going to warming up the front delts, as well as the traps to some extent.
Step 8 - Chest Expanders
In order to warm up and stretch the chest start standing tall with your fists clenched, but with thumbs up. Both hands should be touching each other in the middle of your chest. Now move each hand directly outwards, while keeping your thumbs always up, so that your arms will be outstretched. Then bring them back in to the start position. Do this 20 times.
Step 9 - Shoulder Burners
The final step is to really warm the shoulders up. Standing tall put your arms outstretched with your fists clenched and thumbs upwards. While keeping the thumbs upwards make circles with your arms in the outstretched position. Very quickly this should start to burn... which is good!
Then rotate your wrists so your thumbs are pointing downwards - all the time keeping the arms outstretched. Now go through the rotation in the opposite direction you did before. When it starts burning again you're ready!
Warm ups Completed - Starting to squat
After you have gone through the steps you are ready to start squatting under the bar and you should be able to go through nice fluid motions regardless of how your day has been.
Do not be tempted to put any weight on the bar. I would strongly recommend you do 5 - 10 reps with just the bar regardless of what your working weight is.
These reps should be considered part of your warm up and are just to get the motor patterns firing correctly.
Once you have completed these reps now you can start adding weight until you get to your working set weights and enjoy the rest of your strength training workout.
Video of Full Warm Up Routine
Putting all these steps together here I go through and break down my complete warm up routine before squatting:
To learn more about stretching to prevent muscle damage and/or injury you can read the following reference material:
Garrett WE Jr. Muscle strain injuries: clinical and basic aspects. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 1990 Aug;22(4):436-43. PMID: 2205779. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/2205779/
Woods, K., Bishop, P. & Jones, E. Warm-Up and Stretching in the Prevention of Muscular Injury. Sports Med 37, 1089–1099 (2007). https://doi.org/10.2165/00007256-200737120-00006