How to get the most out of our workout and create longevity with our training.
I remember when I first began working out, I was a sponge for knowledge. I would spend hours online searching for the best way to build muscle, reading different bodybuilding articles, and finding new workout programs to try. I would also spend a lot of time observing other people in the gym in between my sets. I wanted to see what exercises they were doing, what weights they were using, and anything else that could help me figure out how they got to where they are. Through all this, it became apparent that many people had different ways of warming up. Some would go straight to the treadmill and spend 5 to 10 minutes on it. Others might spend time foam rolling and then stretching with a band or doing some arm circles and rotator cuff movements with small 2.5 lb plates. Then you had your straightforward people, just do the exercise at a light weight a few times to warm-up before loading on something heavier. With all these different ways people warm-up, what is the best way? How can we prepare our bodies to perform at its best while also keeping our joints healthy and moving well? That is what I want to talk about today, and specifically focus on the upper body in this article.
What Is the BEST Way to Warm-Up for Upper Body Workouts?
The answer any good trainer will tell you is, “it depends…”. I know you came here for a definitive answer, I KNOW. I wish I could say there were 3 movements that universally primed our shoulders and made them impervious to injury, that would be amazing (and what a great article title). While there may not be a universal set of exercises, there are common patterns of muscular tightness and weakness that many people develop, and if you can learn how to recognize some of these in yourself you can better understand what movements you need to improve your shoulder function before a workout to improve performance and reduce your injury risk.
Grandma Would Be So Upset…
We live in an internally rotated world. What I mean is that we live in a world where many of the tasks we do leave us in postures that would send grandma off her rocker. The slouched shoulders, rounded upper back, and head extending forward like a long neck goose, all put us in a position that can make it difficult for our shoulder blade stabilizers and external rotators to maintain stability while lifting heavier weights. I would like for you to fully understand what I am talking about when I say internal versus external rotation, so if you will please humor me stand up and relax your arms to your sides. Are you there yet? Great! (I tend to be optimistic). From this relaxed posture, turn the palm of your hands in until they face the wall behind you (figure 1). This is the internally rotated position of the shoulder that we tend to spend a lot of time in. You will notice by doing this your shoulders might round forward, and if you really exaggerate this, you can see how it is easy to end up in a hunched over position with the forward head goose neck posture. Now turn your palms the opposite way until they begin to face the wall in front of you and keep going until your feel your shoulders start to draw back (figure 2). This is an externally rotated position, and while it is not the exact position we want to get into when lifting weights, a shoulder that is externally rotated is generally one that is more stable when pressing or lifting overhead. Okay, thanks for playing along.
Poor Posture Makes It Harder to Create Stability
The question left to be answered is if we spend much of our time in these postures, how does that affect our performance in workouts? Simply put, our body adapts to positions we spend time in. Shortened muscles begin to adopt this new position as their resting position while lengthened muscles do the same. A muscle that is not starting in its normal resting length becomes an inefficient one because it cannot create as much force when it is starting off either shortened or lengthened. Following this logic, in our typical postures (figure 3) we have shortened internal rotators and lengthened external rotators. This makes it difficult for us to get into the neutral or externally rotated position because we are working against tight internal rotators. This also decreases the amount of force your external rotators can create, and it has been shown that less active external rotators in the shoulder lead to less stability (1).
Do I need to Fix My Posture Before Lifting?
Your body does not have to be moving perfectly before you start lifting. A well written workout program will develop your mobility and stability while also providing a great workout. The main thing to avoid is loading heavy weight onto an exercise that will cause you to compensate. There may be exercises you need to modify to your current ability, but poor postural alignment is no reason to postpone exercise.
It is worth mentioning that the topic of posture and how it relates to shoulder injuries is up for debate. There has not been a definitive link saying anyone with rounded shoulders, a hunched over back, or forward head will experience some type of shoulder injury (figure 3). Many people workout all the time with these so-called posture faults and experience no pain at all. That said, these postures do decrease the amount of space in parts of our shoulder that are necessary if we want to move our arms overhead without pinching part of our rotator cuff (2). While someone with this type of posture may not feel pain during exercise currently, the risk of impingement is higher. That is no scare tactic, do what you feel is right. At the very least I will say correcting this type of posture will put your muscles back in their optimal length, making your movement more efficient. Which means less effort wasted trying to get into better positions and more energy put towards lifting heavier weights to get results.
Okay My Posture Sucks. So How Do I Warm-up?
Now to tie all of this together (I promise it is all relevant). We have learned that our internal rotators tend to be shortened, especially if your posture mimics any of the above pictures, and our external rotators tend to be lengthened. Logically, the steps we need to take in our warm-ups are ones that help reverse this adaptation. So, we need to spend time stretching our internal rotators and muscles that pull our shoulders forward and contracting (even strengthening) our external rotators and muscles that pull our shoulders back. I have chosen 6 movements I believe to have the biggest impact in doing just that.
We start by stretching some of the muscles that contribute to the forward shoulder posture if they become tight. The pectoralis major and minor, and the latissimus dorsi, are both culprits that we want to address. Each of the stretches are good to hold for 30-60 seconds at a time, and if you sit a lot throughout the day, repeating these stretches 2-3 times daily is what I recommend. Set an alarm on your phone or schedule stretch breaks during the day so you give your body a chance to lengthen these muscles and keep them at their normal resting length. You may need to stretch more frequently at first to gain mobility, and once you have improved mobility you can perform these less often to maintain what you gained.
Pec major: Place your forearm on a wall or on the corner of a door frame with your elbow at shoulder height. Pull your shoulder blade back to avoid rounding your shoulder during this stretch, and then begin to turn your body away from your anchored arm. You shoulder feel a nice stretch in your chest. You may need to reposition if you begin to feel a pinch anywhere in your shoulder (figure 4). You can also turn your head, looking away from your anchored arm, for a bonus stretch in your neck.
Pec minor: The set-up for this is the same as the pec major stretch, however your arm will be straight and reaching out at a diagonal from your body. Follow the same steps to feel the stretch and make sure your shoulder does not round forward (figure 5).
Wall lat stretch: Place both of your palms on the wall at the height of your forehead or higher and about shoulder width apart. While keeping your elbows straight, as if trying to push the wall away from you, bend forward until you begin to feel a stretch under your armpits. The lats are a large muscle that attach from your arms to your hips, so avoid extending your back as your go into the stretch. If you round your back, you will feel a deeper stretch as you are stretching the muscle from both ends (figure 6)
Now that we have stretched the primary muscles that contribute to forward shoulder posture, it is important to use the muscles opposite to them. This helps increase blood flow, further facilitates a stretch of the muscles on the front of our body and our internal rotators and begins to strengthen the positions that we need to get into during a typical upper body workout.
Standing “T”: Starting in a bent position with your back flat and arms relaxed in front of you, bring your arms out to a t shape squeezing your shoulder blades together with your palms facing down to the ground. Make sure when doing this you keep your shoulders down away from the ears. Hold this squeezed position for 5 seconds and then return to the starting position. Start with 5 reps and repeat for 3 sets. You can progress by working up to 10 reps as the 5 begin to feel easy. You can also add small weights to each of these movements if you are more advanced to begin with (figure 7-8).
Standing “W”: Start in the same bent position as before, this time with your elbows bent and at your side with palms facing each other. While keeping your shoulders away from your ears, rotate your upper arm to bring your hands up to the side and turn your hands to face away from each other. The end position should be like shown below, with your hands higher up than your elbows to challenge your external rotators. If you do this right, you will feel a contraction in the muscles in the back of your shoulders. Follow the same set and reps as the standing “T” exercise (figure 9-10).
Wall Slides: Stand about a half step away from a wall with your hands karate chopping the wall. Making sure to keep your shoulders down away from your ears, start to slide your hands up and out on the wall to end up in a “Y” position with your arms. You may find this hard to do without elevating your shoulders toward your ears, if so, try the same motion but further away from the wall. The progression of this exercise is getting closer to the wall. Perform 2-3 sets of 10 reps as part of your warm-up. This exercise teaches and strengthens the proper muscle activation pattern for an overhead press as well as other overhead exercises. So, mastering this will be important to developing strong and resilient shoulders (figure 11-12).
As mentioned above, each of the stretches can be done daily and 2-3 times is a great goal to develop better mobility at first. The exercises shown can be done as part of your stretching routine but do them more sparingly to avoid over-working these smaller muscle groups. About 2-3 times per week is a good goal. I think the best way to integrate the exercises is as part of your upper body warm-up because that is when you need these muscles to be warmed up and ready to go!
It would be impossible to address every beneficial movement to create an effective warm-up, so this is not an extensive list. Although I do believe it is a great start for anyone looking to improve their movement. If you have any questions, please leave a comment or send us a message. If you found this article helpful, then check out our Instagram pages @Drshvetajones and @Coachcalebfitness because we are always posting information to help you improve your movement, workouts, and results.