A Dynamic Leg-Day Warm Up

By Lawrence Lee on September, 28 2020

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Lawrence Lee

Larry owns and operates Lee Physical Therapy & Wellness along with his wife in upstate NY. His goal is bridge the gap between Physical Therapy and Strength Training. Larry is a ISSA Master Trainer, Pain-free Performance Specialist, and holds a Bachelor's degree in Exercise Science.

What does a proper leg-day warm up entail? The number one goal is to reduce the likelihood of injury. To do this, there are several key components you should address during your warm up including problematic tissues/areas, preparing the body for an anticipated training stimulus, facilitating motor learning, and preparation of the Central Nervous System (CNS).  

However, mindlessly doing a few toe touches and walking on the treadmill won’t be enough to get your lower body prepared for a good workout. If you want to get strong without the injuries, rethink your leg day warm up and save the sequence at the end for the next time you’re heading to the gym.   

Keep Reading: Benefits of Bodyweight Training: You Can Grow Muscle

Stretching Goal #1: Address Soft-Tissue Restrictions with Self Myofascial Release (SMR)

Stretching Method: Foam Rolling

Depending on who you talk to and get your information from, foam rolling is either a waste of time or a game changer. I believe the answer lies somewhere in-between the two. For the purpose of this article I’m going to refer to any soft tissue work (l.E. Lacrosse ball, accu-mobility ball, and manual therapy) as foam rolling.

The question is: what is foam rolling and what is it not? More importantly? What are we trying to accomplish with foam rolling?

Foam rolling does not break up scar tissue, foam rolling has no long-lasting effects as a standalone modality, and foam rolling is not the end-all be-all for addressing pain and “tightness” in the body. However, foam rolling can be extremely effective if used correctly in combination with an intelligently designed warm up sequence.  

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 neurological muscle tone. High neurological tone means there are increased neural signals that are being fed to specific motor units within a muscle to 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. This causes the stretch-reflex sensitivity to increase. 

 

Stretching The Tight Areas

Your lower body needs to stretch to maintain flexibility. In fact, “the largest average effect of pre-rolling was related to flexibility.  Sixty-two percent of the population will experience short-term improvements in flexibility when using pre-rolling as a pre-exercise warm up.” (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 hip, and vastus lateralis (not IT band) are highly problematic areas and thus 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

We’re tapping into the nervous system here, just like foam rolling. The same tissues and region we worked in our SMR will be targeted here as well, allowing you to really increase flexibility and reduce tightness before your workout.   

Bi-phasic stretching is a combination of dynamic oscillatory and static positional stretching and can simply be defined as putting a joint into its end range of motion and slightly rocking in and out of the end range position. This is followed by a short static stretch—but remember, don’t force anything here, everyone will be a little different.   

Complete 30 seconds of oscillatory movement followed by a 15- to 30-second static stretch to get the most benefit.  

 

Stretching Goal #3: Correct Dysfunctional Movement 

Correctives are what they sound like. They’re supposed to correct a dysfunction or incorrect movement pattern based on a screen or assessment. I base (most) client corrective exercises on FMS screens and CARS.  

Correctives should improve a score on a movement screen, or whatever system you use to assess your client. This way you know what you’re doing is working or not, and which direction to move toward. This means that the corrective exercise that can change function would be considered the most appropriate exercise for that client.  

To facilitate this part of the warm up, use a block-based practice. Instead of counting reps you simply set a timer for 60 seconds and complete as many good repetitions as possible. This way you are focused on the task at hand and not distracted by mindlessly counting your reps.  Correctives are all about the big 3 s’s: 

  • Sequencing
  • Stability
  • Smoothness.  

The goal is to master all three in this simple, yet highly 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 period of time.

Keep Reading: Why Should You Be Physically Active?

 

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 warm up. 

 

Activation Work, Movement Prep and CARs 

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 that will improve movement quality for that training session.  These “tight” and dysfunctional muscles tend to be weak and underactive. This helps to produce maximal internal tension and force production for distal dynamic movement.

Some common areas that need attention are the upper back, core, glutes, and hamstrings.  Basically, the entire posterior chain along with the core.

  

Activation Work

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 is going to 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.

 

CARs 

I’m also a big fan of using Controlled Articular Rotation (CARS) in this phase after some direct activation work. Depending on time constraints, implement as needed or move on to the next phase. I highly recommend getting good at these, however, if possible.  

Simply put, CARs are active, rotational movements at the outer limits of articular motion.  Programming of CARs on a regular basis 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 it’s 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 overtime to use load. 

 

Movement Prep

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 day. During this phase of your leg-day warm up, emphasize the eccentric (lowering of 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

Here comes the last phase and it comes with a shift 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 plyometrics, initially. Therefore, you need to do a lot of isometrics and progress overtime into plyometrics. You need to create and control tension before we 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 in a safe and effective manner for the general fitness population.  

Start with 1 to 3 sets of 5 to 15 seconds with 30 to 60 seconds of rest. Progress overtime by following up the isometric with an explosive movement (3 to 5 reps) that corresponds with the iso-hold. For example, you would perform an isometric wall sit for 10 seconds and immediately follow that up with 3-5 explosive jump squats.  

 

Example Leg-Day warm up: 10-15 minutes

Put all of this into play with this 10 to 15 minute leg-day warm up. 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.

  1. SMR: Foam roll glutes and quads

Perform for 3 to 4 minutes. Relax and focus on proper breathing mechanics.  

 

  1. 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. 

 

  1. 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. 

 

  1. 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.  

 

  1. 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.  

 

  1. Movement Prep: Banded Kettlebell Deadlift

Perform for 1 to 2 minutes with 1 to 2 sets, each with 5 to 8 reps. This is a mouthful of fancy words, but is simple to execute and highly effective. Set up a band with medium resistance. Hinge back with neutral spine and tension through core, engage lats and don’t let the band pull the weight forward.  

The band is what helps the neuromuscular system fire up the lats, as most novice and even advanced lifters have a hard time keeping tension through the lats during the deadlift. Remember to keep the arms straight.

 

  1. 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.  

 

 

Don’t Forget Your Leg-Day warm up

Training should improve and help you maintain joint health, quality of movement and the activities of daily living. If your training is leaving you broken down and questioning the reason for exercise, you need to re-evaluate the way you’re training. If this sounds familiar, you are probably “working out” instead of training.  

Working out can be described as a structured bout of exercise. The primary goal is to expend energy, and this tends to come at the expense of joint health (think: burpees).  

Training should be designed to achieve a SPECIFIC goal, not just mindlessly exerting yourself to burn calories. There is a time and place to focus on burning calories, your training session should not be one of them. Training variables and exercise selection should be prioritized to facilitate a specific physiological and/or neurological adaptation.  

A well-rounded training program will have an effective warm up to potentiate and enhance the desired training stimulus. Do this leg-day warm up, 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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Lawrence Lee

Larry owns and operates Lee Physical Therapy & Wellness along with his wife in upstate NY. His goal is bridge the gap between Physical Therapy and Strength Training. Larry is a ISSA Master Trainer, Pain-free Performance Specialist, and holds a Bachelor's degree in Exercise Science.

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