The Perfect Warm-Up?

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When most people think of what a well-rounded, bullet proof program encompasses, many will undoubtedly think of optimal set/rep schemes, rest intervals, what exercises to include (and in what order), and, of course, how many days per week they should train given their goals.

Admittedly, all of the above components are important things to consider, and rightfully deserve their time under the program design microscope.  It’s interesting, though, that the last – and arguably the most important – thing to enter the discussion, is the first thing that most trainees tend to dismiss altogether:  the warm-up.

Yeah yeah yeah – I get it. You’re busy, and warming is up is about as exciting as watching NASCAR. Truth be told, we all know we should warm-up, but for most of us (namely, you), the warm-up is usually nothing more than an afterthought; or, something we half heartedly do because our 8th grade gym teacher told us we had to.

Even if you are one of the rare few who actually performs a warm-up, chances are it entails a few arm circles here, a couple of hamstring stretches there, a couple of minutes on the treadmill, maybe a fist pump, and you’re off to the bench press.  Sound familiar?

Yeah I Thought So

Much like you wouldn’t walk out to your car in the middle of winter and take it from 0-60 MPH on the highway and expect it to run optimally, the same can be said about your body.

Moreover, when’s the last time you actually felt good?  I mean reeeeally good?  Can you remember the last time your lower back didn’t feel stiff, or your knees didn’t ache every time you attempted a squat?

Better yet, when was the last time you consistently made appreciable progress in the gym?

The question, then, is what should a warm-up do, and more importantly, what should it look like?

While not an exhaustive list, a good warm-up will (or should) provide the following:

– Increased body temperature.

– Improve joint lubrication.

– Engage the nervous system to a greater degree.

– Improve extensibility/flexibility of muscles.

– Groove movement patterns.

– And, better prepare you for a back alley fight against a pack of ninjas.  You know, just in case.

More specifically, given that many of us spend an inordinate amount of time hunched over in front of a computer on a daily basis, the warm-up should target the areas of the body which tend to be most problematic:  namely, the glutes, hips, thoracic spine, shoulders, and core, to name a few.

Standing in one place, holding a stretch for 30 seconds does nothing in terms of preparing you for the more dynamic nature of what you’ll be doing in the weight room.

We need to take the warm up more seriously and view it not as a necessary evil, but something that will undoubtedly help you not only feel better, but lead to unparalleled performance in the gym.

Carry Your Ass Off

Giving full disclosure, I didn’t come up with this idea on my own. Dan John was the first to really bring carry variations into the limelight, and more to the point, utilizing them as part of an extended warm-up.

As far as bang-for-your-training-buck exercises are concerned, you’d be hard pressed to trump carries.

For those looking for proof, it’s in the pudding:

  • When performed unilaterally, they’re a fantastic way to train core stability – specifically anti-lateral flexion.  But even when performed bilaterally, they’re still an awesome “core” exercise.
  • They obviously help improve grip strength.  Taking it a step further, however, they do an amazing job of “activating” the rotator cuff through a process called irradiation.  In non-geek speak, all this means is that when you squeeze something with a death grip, the RC turns on, and as a result the shoulder “packs” itself.  In a sense, carry variations are a great exercise for those with chronic shoulder issues.
  • Farmer carries do an amazing job at challenging hip stability – especially when performed unilaterally (one arm at a time).
  • They condition the shit out of you. The next time someone asks you whether or not weight training has any cardiovascular benefit, have him or her do a few rounds of carries for 50-75 yds.
  • Without question, carries are also a great way to get a “yolked up” back.  For those dudes looking to build some traps, farmer carries can help.
  • And lets just state the obvious:  they do a superb job of increasing one’s overall sense of badassessey.

To that end, here’s the actual warm-up I’ve been following for the past few weeks.  After a thorough foam rolling session, I’ll head over to the turf and alternate between a carry variation paired with a specific dynamic drill.

A few things to note:

1. When performing ANY carry variation, it’s important to think to yourself, “spine tall, shoulders back.”  In addition, there should be as little deviation as possible in terms of leaning to one side or the other.  The objective is to stay in as much of a straight line as possible – if you compensate in any way, you’re using too heavy of a load.  Also, since this is part of a WARM-UP, you shouldn’t be too aggressive with the loading anyways.  Just focus on perfect technique.

2.  In case you’re wondering, yes, I’m wearing a t-shirt of a lumberjack punching a grizzly bear in the face in all of the carry videos.  I’m not going to go so far as to say that it’s the most awesome t-shirt in the history of the world. But, it pretty much is.

A1. Suitcase Carry (35-40 yds/per arm)

A2.  Wall Hip Flexor Mobilization (x8/leg)

B1. Racked Carry (35-40 yds/per arm)

B2. Half Kneeling Adductor Dips (x8/leg)

C1. Waiter Carry (35-40 yds/per arm)

Note:  be sure to maintain a neutral wrist position on this one, and to “set” the scapulae (you shouldn’t be shrugging the weight).

C2. Rocking SUMO Squat Mobilization (x10)

D1.  Crossbody Carry (35-40 yds/per side)

Note:  Hold the heavier KB (or DB) like a suitcase, and the lighter weight above your head.  Like the waiter walk above, be sure to maintain a neutral wrist position.

D2. Scapular Wall Slides (x10)

E1.  Goblet Carry (35-40 yds)

Note:  having the load anterior to the body really helps to activate the anterior core musculature which has both an anti-flexion, and anti-extension component.

Anti-extension in the sense that it’s really hard to OVER arch the lumbar spine with the anterior load.

E2.  Supine Bridge with Reach (x8/side)

Note:  be sure to maintain hip extension throughout, and yes, that’s Eric Cressey riding a foam roll horse across the screen.  HEE-HAW.

F1. Heartbeat Carry (35-40 yds)

F2. Yoga Push-Up Complex (x5/side)

And there you have it.  Is it really the perfect warm-up*?  Tough to say, but it’s a far step above what most people are doing. As I mentioned above, this is pretty much the exact warm-up I’ve been doing for the past couple of weeks and I’m loving it. Try it out yourself and let me know your thoughts!

* = yes**

** = because I said so.

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Plus, get a copy of Tony’s Pick Things Up, a quick-tip guide to everything deadlift-related. See his butt? Yeah. It’s good. You should probably listen to him if you have any hope of getting a butt that good.

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  • Perfect warm-up? Maybe. Best T-Shirt ever? Well, does a bear shit in the woods?

    • TonyGentilcore

      It was funny. I was with Lisa and a few of her friends at some open market (after we ate brunch) and walked past this display of t-shirts. I saw the shirt, did a double take, and immediately knew I needed it. It was love at first sight, really.

      • Man, that’s hitting the jack pot. I’m happy for you, but I’m also pretty jealous.

  • J.B.

    I’ve recently added KB snatch, waiters carry, switch hands, snatch… repeat.
    Really trying to hammer away at T-spine moblity/stability and cuff function. While getting some hip extension/hip hinge in the mix too.

    • TonyGentilcore

      I’m going to be doing a GPP day today with tons of carries. I think I’ll add some snatches into the mix too. Why not, right?

  • Pretty interesting idea of adding all of the carries into the warm-up.  Dan John has always been a very helpful and humble dude. 

    I guess what you’re trying to tell me is that I should do more deadlifts to strengthen my rotator cuff? I like it.

    • TonyGentilcore

      Dan John is the man for sure.

  • Mjbayer


  • Guest

    What a great idea to add in the carrying variations, sometimes i feel like my clients (especially new ones) wondering when they should start exercising and swetting while they are doing their warm-up and this is a really nice thing to add in the warm-up as a more dynamic thing which will trick my clients into thinking training rather than just warm up 🙂

    • TonyGentilcore

      Exactly. For a lot of people this “warm-up,” will BE a workout.

  • D-money

    In a group setting, I like the “RAMP” approach by Cosgrove and BJ Gaddour with their 50/10 warm-up. Everything you’ve included Tony, but timed; constant movement to enhance blood flow, mobility, stability, flexibility and badassery.

  • Alicia

    It’s so true, warm-ups can get stale and the older and more boring they feel the less I bother with all x number of warm-up reps.  A cold Alicia = poor squat #’s = a cranky Alicia.  Very much appreciate you sharing your new warm-up.  Freakin’ LOVE the idea of carries in a warm-up; my shoulders thank you. 

  • Katieisrunningcrazy

    Hey Tony, long time reader, first time commenter! Can you suggest some more warm up drills that are less hand/wrist straining? I am recovering from nerve/tendon damage in my hands and I am just starting getting back into lifting after a 6 month hiatus.

    • TonyGentilcore

      Hey Katie –

      Thanks for the long-standing support (and for finally commenting!).

      I may still be able to perform some of those carries – especially the suitcase carry. No need to go too heavy to start.

      But, as far as other things you can do, you can check out Mike Robertson and Eric Cressey’s Magnificent Mobility DVD, or some of Jim “Smitty” Smith’s stuff.

  • Dan Iaciofano

    Great post Tony, I started using carries for rehab after an anterior shoulder dislocation. I now use them in my warm up and my shoulders feel 10x better.

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  • Drew

    Tried this today before my Overhead Press/DB Bench workout and it was awesome! It really got my heart pumping, my core temperature up, and my shoulders feeling nice and lubricated before throwing some weight over head. I geared it a little bit more towards upper body with the things in between though. I went:
    1) Unilateral Suitcase Carry with a 65 lb KB for 20-30 seconds for each side
    2) 8-12 Lat Pulldowns really focusing on stretching out the lats at the top (Pulldowns get crap, and while I agree they are inferior to pullups for strength training, they kick ass in getting the lats loose and shoulders warmed up)
    3) What I call “Front Squat Carries” like your racked carry but getting the humerus all the way up to parallel with the ground…it just makes more sense to me and I really feel my lower/mid traps firing) with 25 lb KBs in each hand for 20-30 seconds
    4) 10-15 Pushups with two or three plusses per pushup
    5) Crossbody Carry with a 55 lb KB down by my side and a 25 over head, 20-30 seconds each side
    6) 10 Bottoms Up Military Press with 15 lb KBs 

    Feel free to follow suit on an upper body day, everyone! Thanks so much for this post Tony! We all need the reminder that just because you’re warming up doesn’t mean you can’t be improving on things like scapular stability and anti-lateral flexion! Ah i love it! I was getting so bored with my typical dynamic warm up.

    • TonyGentilcore

      Now THAT’S a warm-up! Well done Drew. I like front squat carries, too, but I’m just too lazy to walk over to the squat rack and grab the bar. HA!

  • Tony, great post. I haven’t done carries in a while…. but will def try them again. I was intrigued when you mentioned that carries aid rotator cuff stability. I’ve never heard that before… can you give me more info please? Thanks!

    • Drew

      To keep your shoulders from slouching (or in the case of a weight overhead, just keeping the weight up), you’ll find you have to “pack” your shoulder hard. This sensation is your rotator cuff muscles have to fire to keep the humerus in place. Of course, a similar thing will happen in the muscles around your scapula as well (arguably most importantly the lower and middle traps). Basically, Tony’s point was loaded carries help your shoulder become more badass, and less likely to give you pain.

    • TonyGentilcore

      Think of it this way. When you grab something – like a barbell or dumbbell – and squeeze it like your life depended on it, your rotator cuff will automatically “fire” and help to pack the shoulder.

      Try it right now. Hold your arm out in front of you and notice how it feels.

      Now, squeeze your hand and make a fist. What do you notice?

      • Raine


  • Tony,

    On the wall hip flexor mobility drill, if someone (say me) doesnt have enough hip flexibility to keep the back leg flexed while rocking, would it be ok to use a single leg squat stand to put the back leg in a similar position? Thanks

    • TonyGentilcore

      Sure. Or you could just do the rocking without grabbing the ankle. Just focus on getting the movement from the hip capsule itself (and NOT the lower back).

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  • Mo

    So a couple of quick questions:
    1) When you say “shoulders back” do you then actually mean moving the shoulders back or rotating them back? Either the scapulas move towards each other (and a bit out) or they go down and into the body?
    2) How long does this warmup take you to do? It would be nice to have a goal of how long it should take when being very efficient.

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