Warming up and down

You don’t just walk up to the biggest weight you’ve ever seen in your life and try to pick it up. Your body must be prepared for the stress. Mostly, this will come down to the body being warm, and muscles forewarned a little. Preparation on the day is also intrinsically tied to your body’s flexibility; are you actually even supple enough to perform the lift you want to?

Muscles can stretch and contract according to how they’re used. If your exercises do not provide a full range of motion i.e. extending and contracting to the full, then you run the risk of contracting (shortening) your muscles. A good example of not contracting enough during a lift is when the barbell does not touch the chest when benchpressing. An example of not extending enough is if you do not fully straighten the arm when performing bicep curls. Left unchecked, over time you will find your flexibility disappears and every day tasks such as touching your toes, getting up from the floor, or stretching for an item on a high shelf, become an ordeal.

The way to increase flexibility is by stretching, but there are many ways to stretch your body and some of them are dangerous so tread carefully. If you lift with a full range of motion, and warmup properly with a short one or two sets (2-5 reps) of light (50% of your first training set), you do not need to stretch at all. That’s correct, no stretching is required neither prior to working out or after it.

This is true of lifters who are flexible enough to perform the exercises they need to already. Many people may find they are not flexible enough to complete, say, a squat with good form. If this sounds like you, here are some key pieces of advice:

  • learn the difference between dynamic stretches and static stretches. Dynamic stretches are flowing movements e.g. rotating your arms in a circle; bringing your knee up to touch the opposite elbow. Static stretches hold a muscle at its limit and slowly, gently push against the tension e.g. standing on the edge of a step, lower the heel toward the step below and you feel the tension in the calf muscle.
  • dynamic stretches are for warming up the range of motion. You can use these before beginning exercise to let the body prepare for similar movements under stress. Forewarn your body by mimicking the movement of your lift without any weight.
  • static stretches are for lengthening the muscle. They should never be performed on a cold muscle so ensure you’re warmed up before a static stretch. They should be performed separately to exercise, for instance on a rest day, or immediately after exercise, but not before it.

One of the best ways to keep good overall flexibility and range of motion is to perform yoga. There are many different types, some of which are gentle and relaxing, some of which are a workout in their own right. Given the purpose is to help you be flexible enough to perform strength training, I recommend looking at a gentle and relaxing variant, namely, yin yoga.

Your local yoga centre will have guided yoga sessions for beginners, and yin yoga will often be in a room which is heated to help make the body more supple. Unlike other types of yoga like vinyasa or kundalini, yin yoga is slow and will concentrate on holding a pose you relax into over multiple minutes. You may find practicing at home more in front of an instructive video more convenient but I recommend trying a communal session if you haven’t before ― there’s definitely something restorative about devoting an hour to an activity and ability that’s routinely overlooked.

There are a lot of tidbits above so to quickly summarise… If you’re happy with your flexibility, you don’t need to do anything too much before or after lifting: make sure your body is warm and let the body know what you’re about to do with some gentle dynamic stretches and warmup sets. Nothing that raises the heartrate too much. Once you’ve got one core exercise completed e.g. sets of deadlifts, you don’t need to perform warmup sets for your subsequent exercises, the body is ready. If you’re concerned about your flexibility or you want to be more supple, introduce static stretching as part of your warm down once you’ve completed all your sets. And give yin yoga a try if you haven’t before.