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Upper Body Warm-Up - 10 Minutes to Better Performance!
These days, just about everyone from strength coaches to exercise enthusiasts are familiar with the concept of a dynamic warm-up. That said, simply because you are aware of a concept doesn’t mean that you actually understand how to properly apply it.
Speaking around the country as a strength coach and educator, I’ve observed that most folks (even fitness professionals) still lack the ability to design and utilize a comprehensive dynamic warm-up that is effective in improving strength, functional range of motion, and overall performance.
This article will change that and will provide you with the necessary tools to maximize performance in both training and competition by using the Performance U approach to dynamic warm up.
Why Warm Up?
The importance of utilizing a dynamic warm-up is widely accepted among athletes and sports coaches. However, many bodybuilders and strength athletes seem resistant to the use of dynamic warm-up concepts. This is simply due to a lack of understanding of the importance of a dynamic warm-up and how it can actually help you push more weight and get bigger, stronger, and more explosive in both training and competition.
Simply put, a dynamic warm up is a transition stage from normal activity to more athletic activity. During this transition, we spend time activating all of the muscles that haven’t been used all day while at home or at work so that they can turn on as much power as possible while you train. This helps to improve motor unit recruitment, which in turn translates into gains in size and strength.
During this transition stage, we also perform movements that increase overall mobility. This will help you do things like squat deeper, deadlift with a straighter back, and perform lifts with more comfort and less restriction.
In addition to all that, we also ensure that all the smaller stabilizer muscles are ready to do their jobs and prevent you from hurting yourself while lifting.
10 Minutes to Better Performance!
This warm-up takes no more than ten minutes. If you aren’t willing to take ten minutes to do something that’s almost guaranteed to work, don’t call yourself a serious lifter. I can promise you that it works to improve your performance and break new PR’s because I see it happening every day with clients and athletes. If it didn’t work, I wouldn’t be in business!
Way Beyond Warming Up!
The phrase “warm up” is oversimplified and incomplete. A well-designed dynamic warm-up does much more than just increase body temperature. For instance, walking on a treadmill will raise your body temperature (warm you up) but it will do absolutely nothing to help you bench more weight, jump higher, or run faster during training or competition.
However, the Performance U Warm Up provided in this article will give you the exact tools needed to ensure maximal strength and muscle recruitment while improving your functional range of motion and helping to prevent injury.
Put simply, this article will have you ready for anything!
So, if you are serious about getting results, staying injury-free, and making the most out of every workout, keep reading!
What About the Upper Body?
It’s interesting to me that the folks who do use some sort of dynamic warm-up seem to neglect the upper body. I often see people doing skips, high knees, ankle mobility drills, and some glute activation before going on to do an upper body workout.
Don’t get me wrong…those drills are all great, but they are lower body dominant. In other words, they don’t do much to prepare the upper body for optimal performance during upper body pushing and pulling movements.
The warm-up provided below is intended to be performed on your upper body day, regardless of whether you do a pushing day, a pulling day, or a combined push and pull day.
4 Steps to Success!
This warm-up is broken down into four stages:
1. Self Myofascial Release (SMR)
2. Dynamic Mobility
3. Muscle Activation
4. CNS Activation
I will explain each stage as we progress through the article. I don’t think you‘ll die if you decide to change the order a bit, but I recommend keeping it the same as I’ve described above.
Now here’s how you warm up, Performance U style!
Stage 1- Self Myofascial Release (SMR)
Put simply, SMR is self-massage using objects like foam rollers, medicine balls, or even tennis and golf balls.
Performing some SMR prior to training will increase blood flow and oxygen to the muscle. Also, SMR will alleviate any minor soft tissue restrictions that could hinder your performance.
Check out this video on how to perform SMR for the upper body:
Self Myofascial Release for Shoulders, Pecs and Biceps
Before we move on, I want to mention that SMR is also a very effective tool to use in your post-workout routine or as a cool-down. Doing this helps to relieve muscle soreness and accelerate recovery time, among other things. I’m a firm believer in using SMR; I even put out a comprehensive DVD on the subject, which can be purchased here.
Stage 2 - Dynamic Mobility
Dynamic mobility can be thought of as muscle flexibility and joint range-of-motion exercises performed at a dynamic rate. Because this is a warm-up, we need to prepare the body for the dynamic nature of sport and exercise by moving dynamically. Static stretching is great, but it down-regulates the muscles and the Central Nervous System (CNS).
Dynamic mobility exercises (like the ones shown below) up-regulate the CNS and help the body understand how to control your muscles and joints through a full range of motion under a small load provided by your bodyweight and momentum. This is exactly what’s needed to perform at high levels and avoid injury.
These drills will help develop and improve the joint and muscle function of your upper body.
Dynamic Mobility Exercise #1 - Jumping Jacks
We’ve all done these since we were kids in elementary school, so I don’t feel it’s required to give you an in-depth explanation of how to do jumping jacks. That being said, jumping jacks are a great exercise that everybody knows but nobody seems to use anymore. Watch the video below if you’d like a reminder on how to properly perform the jumping jack:
When performing jumping jacks, be sure to maintain a full range of motion in your shoulders by touching your hands at the top.
Perform 10-15 reps.
Dynamic Mobility Exercise #2 – Y Jacks
Here at Performance U, we love being creative and developing new concepts and techniques, especially when it involves just putting a new tweak on an old battle-tested standby like the jumping jack.
Check out this video on how to perform the Y–Jack:
Y Style Jumping Jacks
Y style jumping jacks are important because they drive your shoulders through a different angle (plane of motion) than the traditional version. This makes for a more thorough and comprehensive upper body warm-up.
Perform 10-15 reps.
Dynamic Mobility Exercise #3 - Crossover Jumping Jacks (a.k.a. X-Jacks)
As I already explained, performing dynamic shoulder movements in multiple planes of motion is the key to injury prevention, peak preparation, and maintaining optimal shoulder health. Think of the X-Jack as arm swings with a jump.
Cross Over Jumping Jacks
Perform 10-15 reps.
Dynamic Mobility Exercise #4 – Dowel Stretch
The dowel stretch can be performed with or without movement of the hips.
Hold each stretch for roughly 2-3 seconds and repeat for 8-15 reps on each side.
Dynamic Mobility Exercise #5 – Arm Crossover
The arm crossover is one of my “go to” upper body / torso / rotary mobility exercises. The arm crossover was developed as a more back-friendly method of improving rotary mobility.
As you can see in the video, Alli has an Airex Pad between her knees. For folks with less flexibility, use a thicker object between your legs, like a foam roller. For folks with higher levels of flexibility, simply put your knees together without using any object between your legs.
Take a look at how to safely and effectively perform the arm crossover stretch:
Arm Crossover Stretch
Perform 8-15 reps per side for 2-3 second holds.
Upper Body Warm-Up Stage 3 - Muscle Activation
Muscle activation is especially important for your warm-up because it helps to wake up the muscles that we may have slightly inhibited by sitting at our desks or slouching all day.
Put simply, the dynamic mobility exercises shown previous improve range of motion. Muscle activation assures that you have the correct muscle activity to control the new ranges you can now achieve from the dynamic mobility.
Muscle Activation Exercise #1 – Push-Up w/ Rotation (AKA – T-Roll Push Ups)
In my opinion, push-ups are one of the best exercises ever invented. They’re great because of their simplicity, versatility, and overall effectiveness.
I use some sort of push variation with just about everyone I train. That said, in the context of this article, you will see one way to effectively use the push-up to optimally prepare the upper body for the rigors of strength training.
The T-Roll push-up is a “big bang for your buck” exercise because it not only influences the chest and shoulders, it improves body awareness and rotary control of the torso…that is, if you do them correctly!
Watch the video below and discover both the right and wrong way to do the T-Roll push-up.
Push-Up w/ Rotation (AKA – T-Roll Push Ups)
This push-up is also very effective for use as a strength training exercise when performed with a higher intensity or load. However, in the context of a warm-up, I recommend performing 4-8 reps on each side using bodyweight or holding light dumbbells.
Muscle Activation Exercise #2 – Reverse Burpee
The reverse burpee is an exercise I developed to accommodate the needs of my MMA and grappling athletes. Since its development, I’ve found multiple uses for this exercise that stretch beyond the combat sports. One of those uses is as a great upper body warm-up exercise.
As I mentioned earlier while discussing the jumping jack variations, it’s important to warm up using multiple angles. This is where the reverse burpee delivers big and addresses a yet unfilled gap. In it’s simplest form, the push-up is a horizontal push movement. The reverse burpee is more of a diagonal/vertical pushing movement.
Using both movements makes for a more well-rounded and effective warm-up program.
Here’s how it’s done:
As you can see in the video above, the reverse burpee is an upper body dominant exercise. This is in opposition to the traditional gym class / military style burpee, which is primarily lower body dominant.
Perform the reverse burpee for 5-10 reps during your warm up.
Muscle Activation Exercise #3 – LYTP Shoulder Circuit
The LYTP shoulder exercise circuit is a tweak on the more widely known YTWL sequence.
The YTWL shoulder circuit is a great way to warm up and improve shoulder function. The only issue is that there are a few things that can go wrong while performing the traditional YTWL circuit. This is where the LYTP shoulder comes in.
I developed the LYTP shoulder circuit to improve upon the YTWL sequence. As you will see in the videos below, the new and improved LYTP shoulder exercise circuit eliminates all the bad stuff from the YTWL sequence and adds tweaks to improve the effectiveness of your shoulder training efforts.
The first video deals with proper body positioning while performing the prone LYTP shoulder exercise sequence.
LYTP shoulder exercise sequence - proper body positioning
How to Perform Ls:
YTWL Shoulder Exercise - How to do Ls
As you can see by the title of LYTP shoulder circuit, I recommend performing Ls first. The simple reason for this is that the Ls are the hardest movement using the weakest muscles involved in this entire shoulder circuit. It’s always a good idea to perform the weakest movement first to ensure that fatigue doesn’t play a factor in affecting your ability to optimally perform the entire circuit. In the traditional YTWL sequence, the Ls are performed last, thus making it less likely that you will perform them correctly by the time you get around to doing them.
How to perform Ys:
YTWL Shoulder Exercise - How to do Ys
How to perform Ts:
YTWL Shoulder Exercise - How to do Ts
How to Perform Ps:
To prevent confusion, the P stands for “pivot prone”. Unlike the other letters, it does not represent the shape your arms resemble while doing the exercise.
The pivot prone is an exercise that I learned from our in-house Physical Therapist, Morgan Johnson, owner of Evolution Sports Physiotherapy. Morgan is one of the smartest PTs I know and he treats all of my injured clients and athletes.
If you’ve never heard of this exercise or are wondering where the idea for the pivot prone comes from, the name originates from a neural developmental position we all learn before we start to crawl, while lying prone (on our belly) as infants.
“At approx 5 months of age the child develops an interesting skill that contributes to their pelvic and scapular mobility.”
“During the Pivot Prone posture or pattern, the upper extremities assume the high guard position with the scapulas adducted by the rhomboid muscles. The upper limbs are horizontally abducted at the shoulders and flexed at the elbows. This retraction of the shoulder girdle and posturing of the upper extremities enhances trunk extension. To assume the pivot prone posture, the anterior muscles must elongate.”
Pediatric Physical Therapy, By Jan Stephen Tecklin, pg.34, Publisher: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; Fourth Edition edition (October 1, 2007)
Now that you understand the origin of this movement pattern, you can better appreciate the important role that the pivot prone can play in regaining and maintaining a fundamental movement pattern that we all should posses.
Watch the video and learn why I don’t recommend the W and how to properly perform the pivot prone:
YTWL Shoulder Exercise - Why I don’t recommend the W and how to do Ps
Additional program design tips for using the LYTP Shoulder Circuit
- Perform using either a Swiss ball as shown in the above video or standing in a bent over position similar to a Romanian deadlift
- Add load by holding light dumbbells after mastering this circuit using bodyweight
- This circuit is also great as an upper body cool-down following an upper body workout.
- Perform 8-12 reps of each letter
Upper Body Warm-Up Stage 4 - CNS Activation
In the fourth and final stage of the warm-up, we utilize exercises that require quick, coordinated, and fairly explosive movements. These qualities are all skill oriented and therefore stimulate the nervous system. Plus, quick explosive movements improve motor unit recruitment. This means that by doing the exercises shown below, you assure that you will utilize all your horsepower in each lift of your workout.
CNS Activation Exercise #1 – Medicine Ball Chest Pass
Grab a 3-5 kg medicine ball and stand roughly 2-3 arms lengths from a brick wall. Throw the ball at the wall at a height no higher than shoulder level. Throw the ball hard enough so that it bounces back to your arms without bouncing on the floor.
Repeat this for 8-15 throws.
CNS Activation Exercise #2 – Medicine Ball Slam
Using the same weight medicine ball as above, perform slams as shown in the video below. Be sure to move your head to avoid the ball rebounding back and smashing you in the face!
Medicine Ball Slam
You can also stand about 6 feet from a wall and have the ball bounce back to you after each slam.
Perform 4-8 slams with 80-90% intensity.
CNS Activation Alternatives
If you don’t have access to a medicine ball or a place to throw one as described above, you can utilize the alternatives described below.
CNS Activation Exercise #1b – Plyo Push-Up
Most folks know what this exercise is, so no need to describe it in detail. Perform 4-8 explosive push-ups before moving on to CNS activation exercise #2.
CNS Activation Exercise #2b – Explosive Inverted Row or TRX Row
Perform 5-8 explosive reps.
Upper Body Warm-Up Overview
For training purposes, here’s an overview of how this warm-up should look on paper. Feel free to print this out and take it to the gym with you.
Pre - warm up
- Self Myofascial Release (SMR) for the upper body – 5 min
- Jumping Jacks x8-15
- Y Jumping Jacks x8-15
- Crossover Jumping Jacks x8-15
- Dowel stretch x8-15
- Arm Crossover x8-12
- T-Roll Push-Up x4-8 (each side)
- Reverse Burpee x6-12
- LYTP Shoulder Circuit x8-12 (each letter)
- Med Ball Chest Pass x8-12 or Plyo Push-Up x5-8
- Med Ball Slam x 5-8 or Inverted Row x8-10
General vs. Specific Warm Ups
Before I finish this article, I want to make a point about general vs. specific warm-ups. The correct answer to the general vs. specific debate is…do both!
Even though the above warm-up is very comprehensive, it’s still general. This warm-up is designed to prepare your upper body for any and all activities you throw at it.
Once you complete your general warm-up, you still must perform a few light sets of whatever lift it is you are starting with. This will serve as your specific warm-up.
In my next article, I’ll discuss lower body warm-up and preparation concepts. As this article has done, the lower body warm-up article will provide you with the tools needed to get the most out of each lower body workout and develop strength and muscle faster than ever before.
Written by Nick Tumminello
About Nick Tumminello
Nick Tumminello, the director of Performance University, is a nationally recognized coach and educator who works with a select group of athletes, physique competitors, and exercise enthusiasts in Baltimore, Maryland.
Nick is rapidly establishing himself as a leader in the field for his innovative techniques and “smarter” approach to training. As a coach, Nick works in the trenches testing, developing and refining his innovative techniques with clients and athletes of all ages and levels.
Go to his website NickTumminello.com to get your free “Smarter & Stronger” video course.
Discuss, comment or ask a question
If you have a comment, question or would like to discuss anything raised in this article, please do so in the following discussion thread on the Wannabebig Forums - Improve Performance with an Effective Upper Body Warm-Up discussion thread.