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A great workout starts with a great warm up! But don't just warm up, RAMP up

Personal trainer Dean Merton shares some in-depth advice.

HAVING SPENT THE majority of my formative years in fitness working in a couple of large commercial gyms with a wildly varied membership base I’ve seen it all.

stretch Source: Shutterstock/ESB Professional

The good, the bad, and certainly the ugly. One thing I have very rarely seen is an on-point warm up from a member without them being scrutinised by a member of gym staff or a PT.

Why don’t we put an emphasis on warming up?

Well the reasons are probably both numerous and varied, and range from:

  • Warm ups are boring

  • They have limited time and just want to lift stuff

  • They don’t know what a good warm up consists of

In this article I’m going to attempt to address at least the latter two of those issues, and with a little bit of luck we can put a dent in the first one.

So before we begin explaining the how, let’s have a look at the why…

Why do I need to warm up?

You need to warm up because it will dramatically lessen your chances of injury, increase your functional range of motion, and help you to pack on more muscle, burn more fat, and generally ‘level-up’ how awesome you are.

By going into your workout ‘half-cocked’ (to turn a phrase), it’s very likely that your form will be compromised due to muscles inefficiently firing, your range of motion restricted, and as a result your likelihood of injury increased exponentially… as well as your aforementioned level of awesomeness being severely restricted.

I wish I was able to walk into a gym cold and put a heavy bar on my back to drop ass-to-grass, however at the ripe old age of 28 I find that I should probably do a little prep work if I want to do that and not incur a hernia or make it so that I can’t walk for a couple of days after.

I can almost guarantee that you could benefit from a structured warm up too, and today is your lucky day, cause I’m going to show you how…

shutterstock_222191515 (1) Source: Shutterstock/lzf

The RAMP Method – How to warm up correctly

So everything you need to know about warming up can be summed up in the acronym RAMP, which is quite handy as a good warm up will gradually increase your physical and mental readiness to train… like a… a ramp would… geddit?

Ahem, anyways, here’s what RAMP stands for:

  • R – Raise Core Temperature

  • A – Activate Muscles

  • M – Mobilise Joints

  • P – Potentiate Movement

Let’s look at each of these in a little detail and explain why they’re important, and more importantly let’s look at how you can do them in your own warm up.

  • Raise Core Temperature

Why is this important? A warm body is a ready body. How many times have you went to play football in the freezing cold and not felt up for it until you had started to move around a little? My point exactly.

Honestly however, this is usually the one part of a warm up that people do right. Again, having worked in a commercial gym for many years one trend I noticed was that members are more than willing to do (and overdo) this part of the warm up.

What do you need to do? This part of the warm up is uber simple; 3-5 minutes of steady state cardio at around 75% of max heart rate is more than enough. If you train in a commercial gym you have lots of options, but generally go for the machines that move the most joints — my top pick would be the concept 2 rower, followed by an assault bike (if available) or a cross trainer. If you’re training at home, a simple jog or skip will work just fine.

  • Activate Muscles

Why? The vast majority of exercises are made a lot easier to execute with flawless form when the muscles of your core, hips, and shoulders are properly engaged.

In general most people will walk around with their lower back, lats, hip flexors, and pecs switched on at the expense of their anterior core (abs), glutes and scapular stabilisers, so for our activations we’re going to focus on those muscles in order to reset the body to neutral before beginning to mobilise and train.

“Sounds good Dean, how do I activate these magic muscles that will make me more awesome?”

So glad you asked, it’s actually pretty simple. I’m going to give you one simple exercise for each, and you can start being a much more activated and awesome version of yourself from your very next workout… or right now, start right now, be more awesome RIGHT NOW!

Deadbug

One set of 16-20.

Source: LiveBetter/YouTube

SL Glute Bridge

One set of 10 per side.

Source: LiveBetter/YouTube

Plank Scap Squeeze

One set of 12.

Source: LiveBetter/YouTube

These are the tip of the iceberg, there’s definitely more you can add, but for the sake of brevity we’re going to move on to the super sexy topic of joint mobilisations.

  • Mobilise Joints

Why do we need to mobilise? A mobile joint has a lot more movement potential than an immobile joint, if a joint has more potential the move it has more potential to stress the muscles that act upon it (in a good way), it also lessens the likelihood that the joint or muscle will be injured as a result of running out of functional range of motion. All in all, an adequately mobile joint has a lot more potential to be awesome than a stiff and creaky joint which makes you move like the tin man from Wizard Of Oz.

In truth, this is the part of a good warm up that is totally overdone by those who think that they’re in the know or smarter than your average bear.

The truth is that the joints you need to mobilise are entirely personal to you and will depend upon your own movement deficiencies or your ability to access full range of motion at a given joint.

As a rule of thumb I like to coach my clients to only mobilise the joints that need addressing, rather than waste their precious gym time unlocking range of motion in an already free-moving joint.

Look at your workout and see what movements you have programmed for yourself; if you intend to squat your probably want to mobilise the complex joints of your ankles and your hips, if you intend to put your arms above your head you probably want to mobilise your shoulders.

Here’s a few examples of some of my ‘go-to’ mobilisations for my average client.

Kneeling Ankle Dorsiflexion

1 x 10/side

Source: LiveBetter/YouTube

Quadruped Rockback Hip Opener

1 x 12

Source: LiveBetter/YouTube

Quadruped Rockback T-Spine Reach

1 x 10/side

Source: LiveBetter/YouTube

Crawl To Squat

1 x 8

Source: LiveBetter/YouTube

Back To Wall Shoulder Flex

1 x 10

Source: LiveBetter/YouTube

Again every human body will vary in the amount of movement prep it needs, if you need to mobilise something not on this list (a wrist, an elbow, a knee) by all means shoot me a mail and I’d be willing to help you find the right mobilisation to get you out of tin-man territory and moving like smooth butter rolling down a piece of toast nailed to a wall.

  • Potentiate Your Movements

So this is the part that sounds really scary and technical, but really it’s pretty simple

Why do we need to do this? It pretty much ties together all the things you have done so far and focuses it upon achieving the best possible result with the exercises that you have chosen to make up the main body of your training session. This itself can be broken down into a two-three part method:

  1. Simplify the movement

  2. Build the load

  3. Fire up the body (optional)

To look at each of those in turn

Simplify

You take the movement you will be working on for that day and simplify it right down to the point that it becomes virtually impossible to mess up, remove all complex components and ensure your body knows exactly what way you require your joints to move and muscles to contract.

As an example are you doing 3 sets of 10 front squats at 70% of max?

Remove the complexities of the load, the postural demands, and the stability demands by simplifying this down to some simple paused goblet squats. This way you show your hips, knees, and ankles exactly how you want them to move, you show your upper back and core exactly how you want it to contract, and the sequence in which you want that done, but in a much less stressful environment.

Build The Load

Once you have reaped the rewards of flawless sequencing of muscular contractions via your simplified preparatory exercise you can look at working towards your working sets on your main exercises. You definitely won’t want to just jump straight in to work sets though, as this may cause a little too much muscular overload, throw your body into panic mode, and result in an injury… which isn’t cool or awesome.

shutterstock_296915534 Source: Shutterstock/Monkey Business Images

As a general rule I like to get trainees to start with an empty barbell on most exercises, and I’ll do the same myself. This allows you to address a movement almost exactly how it will be during working sets minus an awful lot of the load, it also offers a trainee a last chance to see how their muscles and joints feel before they start to add weight, if something feels funny, we can go back and re address activation or mobilisation.

No matter how strong you get the empty barbell should usually be the start of your warm up sets for the insight it offers you into your movement capacity on that day (which remember, is an entirely changing quality).

Once you move the empty barbell for a couple of reps you can start to add weight in jumps that will depend on where you want to end up, as a rule of thumb the heavier you intend to go that day the more warm up sets you will need to do to feel comfortable with your working weight. This is the great disadvantage of getting stronger; as you start to lift more weight you lose the ability to just walk into the gym and start hammering out your working weight; it would be most unwise to walk into a weight room with the intention to deadlift 150kg for sets of 5 and warm up with 5 reps of the bar, 5 reps of 50kg, following up with 5 reps of 100kg, and finally on to your work sets of 150kg. That’s an almost guaranteed recipe for poor form and potential injury. Not awesome.

On the flip side of that the less weight you intend to lift the less warm up sets you can get away with, it’s perfectly acceptable to warm up for 40kg squats by going empty bar, a set with 30kg, and then hitting your first work set at 40kg.

Fire Up The Body (optional)

Once the load has been built and you’re about ready to hit your first working set you have the option available to you to give your warmup one last shot in the arm by firing up your central nervous system with an explosive yet lightly loaded movement.

Why do this? You want to increase your rate of force development, or in simpler terms you want to tell your body that it is go time, NOW.

There are a few caveats to this principle; you don’t want to make yourself tired so it has to be lower reps, you also need to be as fast and as explosive as possible so ideally you must jump or throw something hard (preferably a med ball and not a dumbbell or fellow gym user).

The effects of this movement potentiation can last from 5 to 30 minutes so potentially one small set before your first working set of your main exercise is enough.

My go-to list to fire up the CNS is pretty small, but I quite like broad jumps, med ball throws, and explosive kettlebell swings… obviously depending on the main exercise in question you may look to do something like a clapping pushup or lateral heiden either.

Broad Jump

1 x 3-5

Source: Eric Cressey/YouTube

Med Ball OH Throw

1 x 3-5

Source: STACK/YouTube

Explosive KB swing

1 x 6-8

Source: strengthspeedagility/YouTube

And that’s that

I hope you learned something reading this, and next time you decide to train you employ the RAMP principle to make your workout a little more awesome.

Remember that a great workout starts with a great warm-up…. and failing to prepare is preparing to fail…. and that there is no show like a Joe show… and I love you all deeply.

Dean Merton is a Dublin-based strength coach and personal trainer. For more information you can follow him on Facebook and Instagram, or you can send him a direct message here.

You can also see some of his previous articles here. 

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