It used to be that I was pretty casual about warming up before exercise. If the weather was nice, I’d go for a 20-minute walk. If the weather was crappy, I’d spend 5 minutes on the treadmill or an exercise bike. I’d do just enough to get my heart rate a little bit elevated, and raise my body temperature a degree or two.
That worked okay for years, but at some point I started having injury problems. I’d hurt my feet when I ran. I’d hurt my wrists when I tried to do pushups. I’d hurt my shoulders when I tried to do pull-ups. Each new injury taught me to warm up that body part a little more carefully.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve found that it is very much worth the time and effort to do a long, slow warm-up.
I wrote a little while ago about taking some time to check-in with my body and with my exercise venue, but I didn’t talk much about specific warm-up activities. This post is an attempt to capture my current somewhat maximalist warm-up, primarily as a checklist to use myself. (Without one I tend to forget activities, and then only remember them later, when some body part twinges. “Oh, yeah, I forgot to do the shank rotations!”)
Just as a note: If I don’t mention some other rep count, I do most of these for 12 reps. If it’s a bilateral motion, I often do just 6–8 on each side.
Feet and ankles
I used to start with the neck and work my way down, but I’ve switched to do my feet and ankles up front (because it’s there that I’ve had the most persistent injuries), and then go back to the neck. Here’s what I do:
- Roll my feet on a ball. I’ve got a hard rubber ball, like kids used to bounce. I just roll each foot on it, back and forth across my foot, then up and down along the length of my foot, trying to find and linger on each of the numerous joints within the foot, to mobilize them.
- Walk on the edges of my feet. I walk the length of my house (not very far, about 15 or 20 steps) first on the outside edges of my feet, then the inside edges, then on my heels, and then on the balls of my feet.
- Toes and heels. I shift my weight forward toward my toes, and then back toward my heels. Once that’s comfortable, I go ahead and rise up onto the balls of my feet and then balance briefly on my heels.
- Calf raises. Finally, I head to the bottom step of our staircase and do some calf raises, pushing up as high as I can on the balls of my feet and then lowering my heels as far as I can for a good Achilles tendon stretch.
I don’t do any of those as strengthening exercises, I do them as range-of-motion exercises. At the end of the warm-up (or the end of the workout) I sometimes come back to the calf raises and do a few sets of one-footed calf raises, which can be intense enough to be a calf-strengthening exercise.
The thing I do not do for my neck is head circles. I tell my taiji students that you should never let your head loll around at the end of your neck. (Exception: If you are the heroine in a romance novel and have fainted into the arms of the bare-chested hero. Then your head can loll around at the end of your neck.)
What I do instead is this, an exercise I call “motivated looking”:
- Look down and then up. I look down, as if to see if there’s something on the floor near my feet, and then I look up, as if to see a bird in a tree or something on a high shelf.
- Tip my head to the side. I tip my head to the side, as if to look around the edge of a corner, or to read the spine of a book on a shelf. Then I tip my head to the other side.
- Look left and then right. Turning just my head, I look as far as I comfortably can to the left, and then to the right. After I do that a few times, I repeat it a few more times, except at the far end of the turn I look down, as if trying to peek into my shirt pocket, or look at the floor just outside first one foot and then the other.
I don’t do any of these as a stretch; I keep within my comfortable range of motion at all times. I also don’t close my eyes; the point here is to actually look in those directions, as if to see what’s there. That’s why I call it motivated looking.
I just do about 4 of these in each direction.
Since the pandemic started I’ve been largely focusing on upper-body strength, mostly exercises with gymnastic rings, which hit the shoulders pretty hard. I have found that spending several minutes just warming up my shoulders helps a lot.
- Candy wrapper. I hold my arms up at shoulder level, one palm up and one palm down, and then turn them to reverse which palm is up. After I do a dozen or so of these, I take it a step farther: I rotate the shoulder that’s turning palm-down all the way forward, while turning my head to look down the length of my other arm. I just do 3 or 4 of those on each side.
- Open and close the chest. This is one of my qi gong exercises. I’ve embedded a video of some of the us demonstrating it below.
- Shoulder circles. With my arms relaxed at my sides, I rotate each shoulder forward a few times and then back a few times. I do the shoulders one at a time (trying to keep the other shoulder completely relaxed), and then I do them together, both forward a few times and then both back a few times.
- W Stretch. I lift my hands to about head high and make a W shape with my arms (elbows in, hands out) with my thumbs pointed straight backward. Then I squeeze my shoulder blades together (which draws my hands backwards, in the direction my thumbs are pointed), and then spread my shoulder blades apart (which pushes my hands outward—I emphasize that by straightening my elbows and pushing my hands out). I’ve embedded a video of the Tapp brothers demonstrating this one below.
- Elbow drills. On my hands and knees, with my elbows slightly bent, I rotate my arms.
Back, hips, and legs
I like to go straight from elbow drills to rhomboid pushups to squat prep #1, because they all start from about the same position.
- Rhomboid pushups. Still on my hands and knees, but now with my elbows straight, I turn my arms so that my elbow pits are as close to forward as I can get them, and then I lower my torso between my shoulders, going as low as I can while keeping my elbows straight. Then I push my torso up. The lowering move brings my shoulder blades together, the rising up move pushes them apart.
- Squat prep #1. I start my hip exercises from the end of my rhomboid pushups. If I’m not already on my toes (as well as hands and knees), I fix that. Then I push my hips straight back. This gets me into essentially the same position as a squat. I explore my comfortable range of motion here, paying attention to where my hips start to tuck if I push them back any further. Sometimes I start by getting into an anterior pelvic tilt at the start, and then push back until the tucking brings me into a neutral hip position.
- Perfect squat. Standing with my feet hip-width apart and pointed straight forward, I push my hips back and sink toward a squat while keeping my shins vertical. When I reach the point where I can’t get any lower without my knees coming forward, I stop and explore that position just a bit. I just do a couple of these—they’re an informational exercise, so I can perceive what my current physical state is, not an exercise to get better at something.
- Regular squat. I shift my feet to a slightly wider stance and turn them out just a little, and then sink down into a deep squat. With this one I let my knees come as far forward as my toes.
- Knee rolls. Lying face up with my knees bent and feet on the ground, I twist to one side, letting my knee on that side touch the ground, keeping my shoulder blades on the ground. Then I twist to the other side and touch that knee.
- Hip bridge. Still lying face up with my knees bent and feet on the ground, I lift my hips, trying to make a straight line from my knees to my shoulders.
- Prone Angels. Lying face down with my arms stretched past my head palm down, I left my lower legs and knees, and my head and chest. Then I bring my arms arms back and turn them palm up as they approach my hips, and then return them to the starting point. (I sometimes do this with water bottles in my hands as weights as a back-strengthening exercise, but for warm-ups I do it empty-handed.)
- Hip circles. I stand with my feet about shoulder width apart and move my hips forward, to one side, back, and then to the other side. After a few circles, I reverse the direction. Sometimes I’ll precede that with a more linear prep motion, starting by tucking and then un-tucking my pelvis, and then shifting it to one side and then back again.
- Shank rotations. I stand on one foot and left the other leg until my thigh is horizontal. Then I turn my shank to the left and right. This points the foot left and right, but if you focus on that it’s easy to imagine that you’re turning your shank when actually all you’re turning is your ankle. To check for that I usually put my hands on my upper shank, feeling for the front of my tibia just below the knee, so I can detect that I’m actually turning the whole shank and not just the ankle.
- Dynamic hamstring stretches. I sit on the ground with my legs spread as wide as comfortable, and then reach toward one foot and then the other. I don’t do this as a static stretch.
- Side sit reverses. I sit on the ground with my legs bent to one side, and then reverse which way my legs point. While I’m on each side, I turn to look over each shoulder as far as is comfortable. I do about 4 reps on each side. I’ve embedded a video with the reverses (but not the looking over each shoulder) below.
I usually do my wrist exercises in the middle of my shoulder exercises, typically right after my shoulder circles, but there’s a bunch of them, so I wanted to pull them out into their own section.
- Wrist circles. Sometimes I do these with my hands in front of me (ether crossed or not), but usually I plant my wrists over my hips and use the friction with my sides to provide some resistance as I rotate my hands one way and then the other.
- Aikido wrist exercises. There are three wrist stretches that I learned in a long-ago Aikido class. They’re kind of hard to describe. Basically, you use your other hand to twist your hand one way, then the other way, then into flexion. Repeat a few times on one side and then the other. As best I can recall, the Aikido exercises didn’t include a stretch into extension, but I throw that in anyway (to get ready for pushups).
Fitting it in
Let me take just a moment to acknowledge that this is insane. On days that I do a full workout (which was running 4–5 days a week over the summer), I do very nearly this entire set of warm-up exercises. (Up to now I’ve often forgotten several, since until now I haven’t had a list to follow.)
This can easily take me 40 minutes, which is a pretty large chunk of the day to dedicate just to warming up.
Even then I’m not done—I go ahead and do “straight-elbow” versions of push-ups, pull-ups, or inverted rows (to match the full version of any of those exercises that are in my plan for the workout).
I also do a subset of this warm-up even on days that I’m not going to exercise.
The reason I do all this is simply that I feel better when I do. It’s not just my workouts that go better when I’ve gotten in a proper warm-up. Everyday activities go better as well—bending over to pick something up off the floor, standing up from having sat down on the floor, getting something down off a high shelf, etc. Everything I do for the rest of the day is easier and more comfortable, once I’ve gotten properly warmed up.
So, there you go. Feel free to take any or all of these activities to include in your own warm-up routines. If there’s one that isn’t clear, let me know—I could tweak the text, take a photo or even make a video, if that would make it clearer.