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More Training Info > Proper Lower Body Warm-up, Part 2
Proper Lower Body Warm-up
By C. W. Schurman, CSCS
Are you stretching before you climb? Do you include any warm-up sets before starting your lower body strengthening program? When you go backpacking do you simply step out of the car and start up the trail?
In part one of this series, Proper Upper Body Warm-up we featured an effective warm-up protocol for the upper body. The second in the series includes ideas on how to properly prepare the body for anything from a better soccer or breast stroke kick, to a leg strength workout, to a hard all-day multi-pitch climb. Herein we focus on a proper warm-up for leg conditioning, including the large muscles in and around the hips, namely the hamstrings, glutes, quadriceps, abductors and adductors. Part three will include ideas on how to warm up the muscles in the abdominals, the obliques, and the lower back for optimal functionality during your core workout.
If you recall from Proper Upper Body Warm-up we suggested that stretching done before any workout should incorporate several dynamic stretches geared toward simultaneously warming up the targeted muscle groups and gradually increasing range of motion. Statically held stretches are best done at the end of your workouts, as part of a cool-down, to help restore flexibility to tightened, shortened muscles. Yoga positions fall between the two categories of “dynamic” warm-up type movements and “static” held postures. Those postures that allow you to ease into greater range of motion as your core temperature increases (sun salutations or Warriors I and II are great examples) are appropriate to place at the beginning of your workout while those that encourage stillness or relaxation (i.e. corpse pose) should be reserved for the end.
Dynamic stretches start out with small movements and, as the muscles warm up and stretch, include ever-increasing range of motion about a joint. If you are preparing for a lower body strength routine or a full-day hike, consider a) any history of lower body injuries, particularly in the knees or hips; b) all the particular muscle groups you will be working during the session; and c) how you feel on any given day. In the middle of winter, you may want to add several extra warm-up sets or exercises, or even add some loose knee wraps to help trap some of the heat generated in your warm-ups to help maintain increased joint temperature.
If your routine includes deadlifts, particularly stiff-legged deadlifts, pay particular attention to how the hamstrings and lower back are feeling; for wide squat variations, thoroughly warm up the glutes, abductors and adductors. For a dynamic gym climbing session, include dynamic warm-ups for the calves, hip flexors, quadriceps, and hamstrings, particularly if you will be doing overhung routes that require heel hooks, high steps, and wide stemming movements or drops to the floor from height, such as you might experience while bouldering.
Sample Lower Body Warm-up Exercises
Start with 3-5 minutes of general cardiovascular warm-up or calisthenic-type exercises such as torso twists, reaching toe touches, forward and backward kicks, marching in place, or even the old stand-by for the entire body: jumping jacks. Once you have elevated your core temperature somewhat, you can safely shift into dynamic lower body movements to increase range of motion about each joint, drawing from exercises such as hip circles, leg swings, tiptoe walking lunges, overhead squats with a dowel, and firewalkers. Each of these dynamic warm-ups is described below.
HIP CIRCLES “swing kicks”
This move is taken from the practice of kickboxing, referred to in that circle as “swing kicks.” Start in a comfortable hip-width stance, and lean slightly over onto one leg to enable you to make a large circle with one leg. Think about having a chair or stability ball in front of you that you want to clear with your foot. Keep the knees bent as they come up, or straighten your legs in order to get an additional stretch through the hamstrings. (If you are particularly tight in hips and hamstrings, straight legs may limit your range of motion at first but with practice will help elongate the muscles and increase your active range.) As you warm up the legs, make the circles larger with each movement. Alternate legs and do whatever feels comfortable with the arms to help you balance (place on hips, hold “on guard” to protect your face, reach in counter position to the swinging leg, etc.). Complete 30 seconds of easy swing kicks pivoting from midline of the body outward (clockwise for Right leg, counterclockwise for Left leg), rather than outward to midline.
Hold onto something sturdy (such as the wall, a doorjamb, a vertical pole, dowel or squat rack) with your hip toward the object, and gently swing the leg that is away from the wall forward and back, keeping torso vertical, gradually increasing range of motion until you feel a good stretch in hip flexors and hamstrings; repeat each leg. Then, turn to face the wall and swing the leg sideways (crossing in front of the standing leg) to warm up abductors and adductors. As you continue the swinging movement per leg in each direction (total 4 x 30 seconds), try to go a little deeper with each movement but without compromising your upright torso positioning.
TIPTOE WALKING LUNGES
To perform a tiptoe walking lunge (see Lunge Variations for more detail), start as if you will perform the dumbbell lunge but hold light dumbbells down by your sides or with straight arms directly overhead. Stride forward with one leg, landing on your toes, and then step to standing and repeat with the other leg. Heels will not make contact with the floor. The walking lunge links together 6 to 12 strides, keeping the torso vertical and continuing along a straight line such as a hallway or driveway. The tiptoe lunge offers a good balance challenge and increases recruitment of the calf muscles. Climbers and backpackers can even add the tiptoe walking lunge going uphill as a good sport-specific warm-up.
OVERHEAD SQUATS WITH DOWEL
Stand with feet a little wider than shoulder width. Turn your toes out slightly so that your knees track directly over the middle toe of each foot. Lightly grasp a clothing dowel or broomstick in both hands and extend arms straight up overhead. Keep your back flat and chest upright, abs tight to support the lower back, arms locked overhead to help you counter-balance as you squat. Lower your hips as far down as you can, starting shallow and gradually increasing depth as the muscles lengthen and loosen up. Exhale as you stand upright. Try to keep your heels flat on the floor. If you have a difficult time keeping your heels down, include stretches for your calves before you continue. If you feel tight in the shoulders, arm swings or dowel shoulder circles can help. If you pitch forward in the torso, chest stretches and additional hip stretches can help. Complete 10-12 repetitions as a full range-of-motion warm-up exercise and progress to light weight if your workout includes weighted overhead squats.
FIREWALKERS (Band Abduction Side Step)
Stand with both feet inside a small, tightly looped band or hold onto handles if you have an unlooped band. Cross the band so it forms an X and hold on tightly to each end. Step to the side for 4 to 8 steps, keeping the toes and knee caps straight forward and pausing slightly with the leg abducted (lifted out to the side) before taking your next step to the side. Keep your torso vertical and still throughout the set to avoid lateral rocking. Begin with less tension for the first pass or two, then increase resistance by tightening your grip on the band to further warm up the hips. Shoot for a minute of movement back and forth, making sure each side gets equal treatment.
Proper Gradual Overload
Following your general warm-up and several minutes of dynamic stretching, you are ready to start your workout. But the warm-up is not done yet! If you think you are fully prepared now to jump into a higher intensity squat or deadlift legs workout that calls for 5 sets of 6 repetitions, or harder still, 8 sets of 3 repetitions, think again!
With that sort of high intensity loading, we recommend you choose a weight for at least the first 1 or 2 exercises that is roughly 50% of your target work load and do a set with that weight for anywhere from 3-5 repetitions. Rest briefly and then do another warm-up set for 2-3 repetitions with 75% of your targeted first work set. Finally, you’re ready for your first heavy work set.
Such a gradual overload will do wonders for getting every contributing muscle group ready, as well as help you feel whether something is “temporarily off” and you should back off the intensity, choose another exercise for the day, or wait to lift the following day.
Sample Warm-up Protocol
If your first exercise in a strength program will be squats or deadlifts for 4 sets of 4-6 repetitions, and you plan to do 200 pounds as your first work set for legs, then your warm-up might resemble the following:
2 minutes high-step stair climber or Jacob’s Ladder
Hip Circles (30 sec. per leg)
Leg Swings (30 sec. per leg, 2 directions = 2 minutes)
Tiptoe walking lunges (twice around the room, once with arms overhead but no weight, once with 8-12# in each hand)
Firewalkers (light band resistance, 4 sets of 8 steps in each direction with no rest)
Overhead Dowel Squats (1 unweighted set of 12 reps getting lower with each repetition; 1 set light load to help deepen squat and get upper body limber)
Back Barbell Squats warm-up sets: Bar (45#) 5 reps; 95# 5 reps; 135# 3 reps; 175# 3 reps and you should be ready to go for your first set of 4-6 with 200#.
Total Targeted Warm-up Time – approximately 12 minutes
FIRST TARGET SET per workout – start timing your actual leg strength workout from your first heavy set (after all warm-ups are completed) to the last. Such a warm-up protocol will have your joints, your muscles, and your mind far more prepared for your strength workout, at roughly the same time commitment, as the old 10-15 minute treadmill warm-up ever did. Happy training!