A dynamic warmup for leg day reduces injury risk and improves the performance of your lower body strength training workout. As the case with any warmup and stretch regimen, the primary goal is to reduce the likelihood of injury. During this portion of the workout, you’ll address problematic areas on the lower body muscle group, prepare for the upcoming exercise demands, and increase sentral nervous system activation. Collectively, these three things reduce injury risk and increase performance for your leg workout.
However, mindlessly doing a few leg swings and treadmill walking won’t be enough to get your lower body prepared for a workout. Here, we’ll explain how and why you should include SMR, static stretching, dynamics stretching, and activation exercise programming. Then, we’ll give an example of a leg day warmup.
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Stretching Goal #1: Address Soft-Tissue Restrictions with Self Myofascial Release (SMR)
Stretching Method: Foam Rolling
Here, we’ll refer to any soft tissue work (l.E. Lacrosse ball, accu-mobility ball, and manual therapy) as foam rolling. Foam rolling does not:
- Break up scar tissue
- Have long-lasting effects as a standalone modality
- Is not the end-all-be-all for addressing pain and preventing soreness
However, foam rolling can be highly effective if used correctly with static stretching and dynamic stretching.
When we talk about “tightness” or “restriction,” we’re talking about two types: mechanical and neurological.
- Neurological “tightness” is regulated by the central nervous system (CNS), the brain.
- Mechanical “tightness” occurs most often due to prior injury and a buildup of connective tissue, which will change the integrity of the muscle and tissue.
The goal of foam rolling is to decrease neural signals that are being fed to specific motor units within a muscle. These neural signals restrict range of motion. Your CNS will restrict a particular range of motion due to muscle weakness and or prolonged shortened postures—think sitting at a desk all day.
Stretching The Tight Areas
Sixty-two percent of the population will experience short-term improvements in flexibility when using pre-rolling as a pre-exercise warmup.” (Wiewelhove et al. A Meta-Analysis of the Effects of Foam Rolling on Performance and Recovery, April 2019)
When determining your focus for foam rolling, the posterior-lateral hips, and vastus lateralis (not IT band) are problematic leg muscle areas that deserve extra attention.
Working on these neurologically dense areas with an oscillatory technique is highly effective. This is done by creating micro-movements of 1-2 inches over the targeted area. This style of foam rolling ensures that you’re targeting specific tissues and not mindlessly rolling and wasting valuable time.
Stretching Goal #2: Mobilize Specific Tissues with Bi-Phasic Stretching
Stretching Method: Bi-Phasic Stretching
A bi-phasic stretch is combination of dynamic stretching and static stretching. You’ll target the same tissues as you did with SMR. This type of flexibility training will increase range of motion and reduce tightness before your workout.
You’ll be putting a joint into its end range of motion and slightly rocking in and out of the end range position. This is followed bya short static stretch—but remember, don’t force anything here; everyone will be a little different.
Complete 30 seconds of the dynamic stretch followed by 15 to 30 seconds of a static stretch in the same area.
Stretching Goal #3: Correct Dysfunctional Movement
Correctives should improve a score on a movement screen. This way, you know what you’re doing is working or not and which direction to move toward. To do this, use a block-based practice. Instead of counting reps, you simply set a timer for 60 seconds and complete as many repetitions as possible. Correctives are all about the big 3 s’s:
The goal is to master all three in this simple effective block-based practice. Once we have completed our foam rolling, bi-phasic stretching, and corrective movement, we have essentially “tricked” our CNS into letting us move within a greater range of motion for a short time.
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Activation and Movement Prep
Now that the lower body has been stretched and prepped for more movement, it’s time to move into activation, movement prep, and CNS stimulation to finish your leg-day warmup.
The goal of activation work is to enhance proximal stability and motor control. We have addressed “tightness” and dysfunction; now it is time to activate weak or neglected muscles to improve movement quality for the leg workout. These “tight” and dysfunctional muscles tend to be weak and underactive. This helps produce maximal internal tension and force production for distal dynamic movement.
Common areas that need attention are the upper back, core, glutes, and hamstring muscle groups. The entire posterior chain along with the core.
We don’t want to destroy muscles here; we want to activate them. The focus should be on quality contractions and maximizing internal tension. This will have a big carry-over in your leg training session for the day. As such, limit this movement to just 1 to 2 sets of 8 to 10 mindful reps with 30-60 seconds of rest in-between sets.
Depending on time constraints, implement CARS as needed or move on to the next step. Simply put, CARs are active, rotational movements at the outer limits of articular motion. Programming of CARs regularly prior to training helps to maintain available active ranges of motion (mobility) and improve joint capsular health.
If you’re going to squat, deadlift, or lunge today, you should be able to display your joints' ability to actively move through its full range of motion without compensation, pain, or pinching.
Increasing forces through a joint that’s not functioning properly can lead to injury and pain.
Limit your CARs to 1 to 2 slow, controlled and mindful repetitions per side. CARs may not look like much, but when executed correctly, they’re very taxing. They should be practiced with body weight if you haven't used them before and can be progressed over time to use load.
Movement prep can be broken down into our foundational movement patterns; squat, hip hinge, lunge (single leg), upper body push/pull, and carry (locomotion). An intelligent strength training program will include a primary strength movement for that particular leg day. During this phase of your leg workout, emphasize the eccentric (lowering of the weight), pauses, and total control.
The goal is to maximize internal tension. If you’re able to make light weight/bodyweight feel extremely heavy with internal tension, then you’ll be better prepared for substantial external loading during the training session.
Perform 1 to 2 sets of 5 to 8 mindful reps with 30 to 60 seconds for rest.
Isometrics and Plyometrics
This last part shifts from parasympathetic to a sympathetic state. This is because you’re now using high velocity-based movements or high-tension isometrics.
Most of the general fitness population don’t do well with plyometric exercise, initially. Therefore, you need to do a lot of isometrics and progress over time into plyometrics. You need to create and control tension before you can produce explosively and dynamically. Doing this too soon is a recipe for disaster.
Isometrics will fire up maximal motor units and help stimulate the sympathetic nervous system safely and effectively for the general fitness population.
Start with 1 to 3 sets of 5 to 15 seconds with 30 to 60 seconds of rest. Progress over time by following up the isometric with an explosive movement (3 to 5 reps) corresponding with the iso-hold. For example, you would perform an isometric wall sit for 10 seconds and immediately follow up with 3-5 explosive jump squat movements.
Example Leg-Day warmup: 10-15 minutes
Put all of this into play with this 10 to 15 minute warmup for leg day. An optional extra step is to start with a 5 to 10 minute low-intensity walk/bike; this is ideal if you’re feeling extra tight or have had minimal movement that day.
- SMR: Foam roll glutes and quads: Perform for 3 to 4 minutes. Relax and focus on proper breathing mechanics.
- Biphasic Stretch: 90/90 stretch with 10 dynamic rotations: Perform for 2 minutes. Hinge your hips (push butt back) to feel for lines of tension through the hip. Maintain tension in your abs and a neutral spine.
- Corrective: Physioball dying bug–perform for 1-2 minutes to correct lumbopelvic dysfunction, controlling the position of your low back and pelvis as you move your limbs. Start here and progress to the opposite arm and leg simultaneously. This can be very hard when done correctly.
- CARS: Banded glute bridge–perform for 1 to 2 minutes. Keep abs braced, fully extend through the hips, drive knees out, push through mid foot, squeeze glutes hard at the top of every rep.
- Activation: Hip CARs–perform 1 to 2 extended and controlled reps for 1 minute to teach your body how to irradiate tension throughout and display your hips full active range of motion.
- Movement Prep: Banded Kettlebell Deadlift–perform for 1 to 2 minutes with 1 to 2 sets, each with 5 to 8 reps. Use a band with medium resistance for the starting position. Hinge back with neutral spine and tension through core, engage lats and don’t let the band pull the weight forward.
- CNS Activation: Banded wall sit, isometric–perform for 1 to 2 minutes. Get the bands just above the knees. Use a light dumbbell or kettlebell as another option. Create torque through the hips by “corkscrewing” feet into the floor, pull yourself down to your optimal squat position. Drive out on the band and push into the wall with the hips/quads. Build as much tension through the body as possible with 5 to 15 seconds of isometric holding, followed by 3 to 5 explosive jumps if appropriate.
Always Use A Specific Warmup For Leg Day
Training should improve and help you maintain joint health, quality of movement and the activities of daily living. A well-rounded training program will have an effective warmup to potentiate and enhance the desired training stimulus. Do this leg-day warmup, or something similar, if you want to optimize those leg gains, improve orthopedic heath, performance, and make day-to-day life just a little easier.
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