I have seen several times in the gym that someone (generally a man) comes in, goes straight to the flat bench and does some chest press lifting a significant amount of kilos. Then he would do the same for other exercises, always upper body, of course, before going home without doing any stretching at the end.
Absolutely all athletes do a proper warm-up before the competition.
In a previous post you learned how to make your ideal gym routine depending on your goals. You also learned the concepts of volume, intensity, and how you should set them up according to what you are looking for.
But all of that essentially applies to the conditioning phase. Now, we will talk about the other phases that you must carry out in any physical training.
Phase 1: Warm-up
The warm-up in turn could be divided into three sub-phases: general, dynamic stretching and specific.
a. General: it is the first we should do. It involves low intensity cardiovascular activity. For example, cycling, rowing, skipping rope, jogging, etc. By this way, the heart rate rises little by little, the muscles receive more blood supply, they increase their temperature, which makes them more elastic and, therefore, they contract more efficiently. 4-8 minutes is enough.
b. Dynamic stretches: after the soft cardio, we need to do some exercises where we test the range of motion of our joints such as arm circles, leg swings, hip rotations, etc.
I want to highlight that we are not holding the final position of the movement (we’ll get there in phase 4). The movements should be constant or with a slight pause, that is why they are called dynamic. I leave you some videos so that you better understand the concept:
- Video 1: Full body dynamic stretches of just 3 minutes. They are quite good, I would just do them a bit slower to have more control (video)
- Video 2: More focused on hips and core (video)
- Video 3: 21 examples of dynamic stretching movements (video)
The choice of these exercises is made according to what is programmed in phase 2 (conditioning phase). For example, if it’s a day that you have to train your upper body, prioritize stretching for that area.
The idea is that this part shouldn’t take you more than 3-4 minutes. Create your own combination of dynamic stretches!
c. Specific: it is about doing a few sets of the specific exercise that you have programmed for the conditioning phase but with lower weights. For example, if you are going to do a Deadlift with 100 kg, start with approaching sets with an empty barbell, then 50% of the programmed load, 60%, 70%, 80% and finally the conditioning sets. As you increase the load, you reduce the number of reps.
For this Deadlift example it would look something like this:
1 x 6-8 with empty bar *
1 x 5-6 with 50 kg *
1 x 3-4 with 60 kg *
1 x 2-3 with 70 kg *
1 x 2 with 80 kg *
*30 seg to 1 minute rest
This specific warm-up not only increases the irrigation and temperature in the muscles you are going to train, but it also stimulates the connections of your nervous system with the muscles, so when you do the “real” sets in the conditioning phase, the technique will be optimized.
If the next exercise to be performed is also a lower body exercise, such as squats, it is not necessary to do all the approaching sets again. Doing just a few at let’s say 70 and 80% of the final load will be enough.
Phase 2: Conditioning
This is the main phase of our workout, where we train the fitness component we want to improve. For more details, check the previous post
Phase 3: Cool-down
It involves performing a sort of general warm-up again to gradually lower your heart rate to a close to rest frequency.
However, its effectiveness is discussed. Previously, it was believed that the cool down, using the lactic acid accumulated in the previous phase as fuel , would “clean” the blood from it, alleviating the pain after physical activity. But that theory is dismissed by some scientists (source).
Actually, a recent review concludes that the cool down does not significantly reduce muscle pain, nor does it improve the recovery of markers of muscle damage, muscle-tendon stiffness, range of motion or levels of hormones in the blood (source).
I don’t normally do a cool down, unless my training has been a HIIT (high intensity interval training) where, as I reached quite high heart rate values, I believe is coherent to reduce them little by little by means of a 3-4 minutes of soft cardio activity instead of suddenly stop.
Phase 4: Stretching/Mobility
Stretching is key to increase your flexibility, one of the fitness components that will help you have a functional body.
It will also help you to improve your technique in any exercise. For example, for Deadlifts or Squats, an improvement in the hip flexibility will greatly help you with the range of motion required for the exercise.
And even more important, good general mobility will make your movement patterns in your daily activities more natural and efficient, greatly reducing the risk of injuries.
There are two main methods of stretching:
- Static stretches: it is the classic method where you stretch a muscle and hold the position for 15 to 30 seconds and then relax. The stretch should be a bit uncomfortable but not painful.
- Stretches based on Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF): beyond the complexity of the name, it basically consists of doing a slight contraction from the position in which you are stretching. For the example in the photo, what you would do is to contract the hamstrings (gently pushing towards the ground with the heel as if you were trying to bend the knee) for 5-10 seconds and stretch back for 15-30 seconds. You should be able to go a little further now. The process is repeated 2-3 times.
When a muscle is stretched, it reaches a point where certain sensors (neuromuscular spindles) are activated, causing a smooth involuntary contraction. The aim of that is to prevent the muscle to overstretch and avoid a potential injury. This action is called myotatic reflex.
The idea of the PNF method is to ‘bypass’ the myotatic reflex. By voluntarily contracting from an stretched position, you are telling your nervous system, ‘this stretching is safe, we can go further’.
Although scientific evidence shows that the PNF method is safe and that great improvements in flexibility and stability can be obtained (source) (source) (source) I personally do not recommend it for two reasons
1. For some reason the myotatic reflex evolved as a way to prevent possible muscle injuries, I do not think it is a good idea to skip it.
2. It is inconvenient. Some movements require an assistant and it also takes more time. As I explained in the previous post, I am seeking efficiency when training. There are more important things life than being in the gym.
Furthermore, a recent 2018 review concludes that the PNF method is not superior to static in terms of range of motion gains (source).
Therefore, I’d used it for specific cases such as people with considerable mobility limitations or for injury rehabilitation. Otherwise, I’m sticking with classic static stretches.
A good gym training session should include the following phases:
1. Warm up for 10-15 minutes:
- 4-8 minutes of general warm-up
- 3-4 minutes of dynamic stretching
- 3-5 minutes of specific warm-up
2. Conditioning: 20-45 minutes, depending on the goal of your program and fitness component you are training.
3. Cool down: 3-4 minutes (optional)
4. Stretching: 3-5 minutes.
Total time: 40 to 70 minutes
Longer training time is also valid, but for the general population whose main objective is to improve their health and is not looking for competitive purposes, there is no need to train for more time.
Although this article is geared toward gym training, the concepts apply to almost any type of sports.
With this second article and the one about how to create your program you have all the basic information you need to plan your sessions in the best way and get the most out of them.
Later we will analyze specific exercises, their correct technique and variants for you to incorporate into your sessions.
Until next time!