My Favorite Upper Body Warm-Up
"Thanks for showing those stretches to me," said one of my teammates. "My shoulders have never felt better."
"No problem," I responded, and with that, my article-writing wheels started turning.
I'd been enjoying my upper body warm-up routine for a while, and with positive feedback from friends and teammates starting to roll in, I wondered if T Nation readers would be interested in learning about it, too?
If the answer is yes, you're in luck. Here's my favorite upper body warm-up.
This routine is intended to prepare your upper body, namely your shoulder girdle, to perform optimally during resistance training. Considering bench pressing and overhead pressing typically requires the most warm up, it focuses on those movements, although it can be used before any upper-body exercise (or total body movement requiring good shoulder flexibility, like overhead squats).
This will not replace a specific warm-up for the exact exercise you're doing. If your first work set on the bench is 315 for five, don't just perform what you're about to read and then immediately slap 315 pounds onto the bench. Progress into that set – 135, 185, 225, etc.
This can, however, replace the walk/jog on the treadmill for five minutes that you probably think you should do but likely skip anyway.
1. T-Spine extension
If you've been reading T Nation for a while you likely know this drill. The goal is to open up the thoracic spine, which loves to get rounded (kyphotic) if your favorite past times include bench pressing, biceps curling, driving, and sitting in front of your computer watching porn.
To perform this, lie on a foam roller with the roller perpendicular to your body – the roller should start around the top of your shoulder blades but not on your neck. Perform an anti-crunch, meaning focus on the extension and the stretch of your vertebral column.
Complete about 10 reps and roll up (so the foam roller moves down toward your butt) a few inches and repeat. Do three sets of 10 total – one set of 10 in each spot works well, but feel free to modify. If you're already rounded (or have been told you have upper-cross syndrome) you might want to do more work on this one.
This drill is low intensity so feel free to repeat as often as desired, but I like to start the day with it. See the video below.
If you've ever performed a pullover, you likely thought "this gives me a good stretch at the end of the ROM" and left it at that. Now let's use that exercise as a pre-workout stretch.
Grab a light bar – start with something 10 pounds or less, particularly if you're tight. Body bars, shorter bars in aerobics studios, even broomsticks and PVC pipes can all work.
Lie down on the floor face up and hold the bar with an open (suicide) grip, as though you'd just finished a shoulder-width bench press. Lock your elbows and cock your wrists slightly forward (flex them).
Now perform a pullover, keeping your elbows locked and wrists straight throughout. Ideally you can hit the floor but if not, reach the end of your ROM for a gentle stretch and then come back up.
Perform 10-12 reps and let the last one sit on the ground for an extra stretch. Keeping your triceps engaged can help maintain a straight arm, and don't let the wrist bend backwards to meet the floor – in fact, it's better if your forearm hits the floor before your wrist does.
3. Military press
Again, the purpose here is a stretch. Without getting up from the pullover position, perform a military press, meaning the bar (and forearms) will slide along the floor. Try to get full extension of your elbows at the end of each rep. 10-12 reps seems to work well with a pause on the last rep.
This is more challenging than the pullover. If you have shoulders that have a lot of issues or dislocate easily, be sure to exercise caution with this stretch, particularly if you progress it. Still, the ground should give you adequate stability and mitigate any potential problems.
You can progress or regress the previous two stretches. If you can't touch the floor – especially after a few reps – then, a) you're tight, and that should be a bit of a wake-up call, and b) you can regress the drills to get more out of them.
Raising the hips makes the exercise easier. You can simply "bridge" yourself, but a foam roller works well for someone quite tight, while an Airex pad does the job for someone just a little tight. Place your object of choice under your hips.
To progress these stretches you want to raise the upper body, thereby allowing the arms to travel further back to reach the floor. In this case using an Airex pad adds a little bit extra stretch, while a foam roller adds more (a foam roller in line with your vertebral column adds a moderate stretch; a foam roller perpendicular to your body adds a big stretch).
If you can hit the ground with the foam roller perpendicular to your body and your hips on the ground, you likely have enough upper body flexibility for the vast majority of resistance training exercises. Olympic lifters and other specific athletes might need more.
See the video below for a demo of the pullover and military progressions outlined here.
4. Band-assisted stretches
I like to use bands to stretch the upper body. Wrap the band around something secure and loop the other end around your wrist. Hold the stretch for 15-30 seconds, or more if you like.
I stretch the muscles in a specific order as it seems to flow well, although you're welcome to experiment or add in stretches based on your needs.
- Switch to other side and repeat
- Double over-stretch
In the double over-stretch, stand facing away from the rack, holding the band in both hands with a pronated grip. Lock the arms out straight overhead, tuck in the pelvis and engage the core, and slowly walk out.
Your body should be in a completely vertical line – or if you're flexible, your shoulders will actually be flexed up and behind your body. I try to visualize that I'm at the bottom of an ab wheel rollout performed on the toes – although this stretch is vastly easier than that feat.
As you walk out you'll feel some tension in your core, which is normal – brace the abs and try to feel the shoulder girdle open up.
The video below demos all the above stretches:
5. Military Press coupled with overhead shrug
I wrote about this warm-up in this article and continue to endorse it. You simply perform a barbell military press and follow it with an overhead shrug, for a total of 15 reps. Keep the arms locked and focus on raising your shoulder girdle up and then down.
You might be surprised at how much you suck at this exercise. I've seen guys that can comfortably shrug 400 pounds and can retract well on cable rows that can't overhead shrug 100 pounds with good form.
To cue the movement, I often suggest a person first perform three reps of regular shrugs just to get the form and to "prime" the movement, and then immediately go into the press and shrug version.
Here we're trying to "wake up" the shoulder girdle. Most males should start with the empty barbell (45 lbs). I've regressed some back to 25 pounds if necessary. If you're rocking it out with good form and good range of motion (initiated from the traps), then go up.
I started with 45 pounds for 15 reps (one military press plus one overhead shrug is one rep) and went up 5-10 pounds a month. Recently I switched to two sets of eight as the weight got a tiny bit heavier. See the video below.
Here's a quick summary of the warm-up drills outlined in this article listed in the order that I do them:
- T-Spine extension
- Pullover stretch
- Military press stretch
- Upper body band stretching (pecs, triceps, lats, double over)
- Military press + overhead shrug
This warm-up usually takes 10-15 minutes to perform, and hopefully once you're done you feel loose and ready to go. You're now ready to begin the specific warm-up for your first exercise.
Things Not to Do
Too much rotator cuff work. If you want to do 1 set of 10 or something with a light weight so be it, but don't constantly blast the rotators with five sets of 20 reps before you train. This area is very easy to over-train.
Too much foam rolling. A little bit of soft tissue work is great if you have a specific restriction, and it might free up your pec minor or subclavius or biceps tendons. But I've seen guys taking lacrosse balls and just grinding into those areas for minutes on end. I think they're doing just as much harm as good.
Getting a tough deep tissue massage right before a workout isn't advised as the massage itself acts like a workout. Going at your soft tissue with the ball – particularly the upper body muscles, since they tend to be smaller and thinner – is likely not helping your training.
A small amount before the workout is okay – just enough to get things loose – and then after the workout or on off days, when you can hit it a bit harder if necessary.
Get Moving Already!
The body will perform better if it's moving the way nature designed it to. Wakening up and loosening up the shoulder girdle, including all the surrounding muscles, tissue, and fascia, should improve performance while mitigating the risk of injury.
You can't ask for much more from less than 15 minutes a day a few times a week.
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Tim Henriques is the Director of the National Personal Training Institute of VA. He's competed in strongman, arm wrestling, and powerlifting, where he holds the state record for the deadlift of 700 pounds at 198.