How to save your back and hips by warming up before your next workout after sitting or standing all day.
Trust Me. I Used to Sit for a Living Too. It is common to read or hear about the negative impact of sitting all day, which from experience, I believe to be true. It is one thing to sit all day and then live a sedentary lifestyle, this may require medical intervention at some point. The scientific evidence is out there regarding inactivity with detrimental effects on blood pressure and cholesterol. On the other hand, there are those who sit for prolonged periods of time and then love nothing more than to hit a fitness class, the gym or just go for a nice long run, which is all fantastic. The motivation and discipline that I’ve witnessed among my young adult clients is a testament to how serious they are becoming about their health and well-being. One thing that I have had to introduce to them, that a lot of people are missing, is an adequate warm up. Up until I changed careers, I really cared less about warming up myself. I usually had an hour in my busy schedule and wanted to get as much done during that time as possible. This unfortunately is extremely common among young professionals because we feel young enough to do without a warm up but actually are doing more harm than good, which in the long run may add years to your body.
Defining the Warm Up.
The most straight forward way to define the warm up is, preparation. To be clear, walking on the tread mill for 5 minutes until you feel a couple beads of sweat is NOT preparation. A good warm up should encompass moving your body in various planes of motion (combinations of direction and movement) that allow your joints and muscles to move in the way you will be exercising, all while increasing your body temperature to promote sufficient blood flow. Strength coaches and fitness professionals refer to this way of warming up as a “dynamic warm up”. A good example is to perform forward lunges combined with overhead reaching to warm up the iliopsoas – the muscle that brings your knee forward while peddling during cycling. This muscle is one culprit of low back pain due to prolonged sitting because of how stiff it can get without any movement. Our muscles are surrounded by connective tissue called fascia that connects muscles to joints, skeleton and other muscles. Over time, with inadequate movement, fascia and muscular tissue becomes rigid, less pliable and less elastic. Have you ever seen what happens to an old elastic rubber band without use? Prolonged sitting or even standing without any movement may reduce blood flow to certain areas and can create oxygen deprived muscle tissue, thus resulting in stiffness, requiring them to regain their elasticity during your next exercise session. If ignored, exercising with stiff muscles may lead to injury due to their inability to effectively recoil during the transition phase from an eccentric to a concentric movement. This in-turn, may recruit other less-capable muscles and tissue to help perform the exercise. We can take a look at the recoil effect when performing a back squat. We lower ourselves to a certain depth where are quadriceps (thigh muscles), glutes (butt muscles) and hamstrings (muscles in the back of the legs) are stretched enough to help propel ourselves back to our standing position. Without the recoil effect the lower back may become compromised because it is over-recruited and instead of being used to just stabilize our core, it now extends while we drive upwards, thus resulting in pain over time. Not only does prolonged sitting effects the squat’s range of motion, it also effects other common exercises such as cycling, jumping, running and even walking. An extremely frequent complaint that I hear from those who are active, yet sit for over half of their working day is pain in the SI joint, and it may seem so. But chances are the culprit is too much sitting combined with an inadequate warm up which results in a stiff muscle pulling on the lumbar spine, causing the pain.
Below are 3 of my go to warm up exercises listed in order that you can incorporate into your next training day, regardless of what the session might entail. These exercises can also be used throughout the day to ensure that you’re your hips and back don’t tighten up due to a fixed seated or standing position at work 1) Cat-Camel (or Cat-Cow)
This is a common exercise, frequently seen in yoga. The difference however, is that you are not holding either of the main positions for anything more than one or two seconds. The purpose is to increase blood flow to your back, shoulders, neck and abdominals. This exercise especially targets areas that are compromised due to prolonged sitting: upper back/neck and low back.
Step 1) Start on all fours with your palms flat on the ground under your shoulders and knees under your hips while maintain a neutral (straight) spine.
Step 2) The Cat Stretch: Begin to reach to the ceiling with your upper back (rounding it) while keeping your head down and neck relaxed. Hold for 1-2 seconds
Step 3) The Camel Stretch: Drop your back from the cat position and begin to pull your belly towards the ground while opening your chest and lift your head to look up to the ceiling (arching the back). Hold for 1-2 seconds.
Perform 8-10 repetitions of both cat and camel.
2) Knee Hug + Reverse Lunge and Reach
This sequence is by far one of my favorite warm up drills as it targets the hamstrings, hips, iliopsoas, back and shoulders. It is fantastic exercise to use after a long day of sitting down and has the ability to target muscle groups that will be used in all forms of exercise. I recommend this warm up drill before weight training, running, cycling or even combative sports like boxing.
Step 1) Start in a standing position, tall with your chest open and back straight.
Step 2) While staying tall and keeping the stabilizing leg straight bring one knee towards your chest and hug it while you slightly push your hips forward while staying as tall as you can. Hold 1-2 seconds
Step 3) Release the knee from your arms and proceed to take a big step backwards (with the same leg that you hugged) into a reverse lunge position. Make sure the step back is big enough to perform the lunge without having the knee of your lead leg pass your toes and also be sure that you have your balance on the ball of your rear foot. SLOWLY drop the back knee down to the ground (it is best to use a mat or cushion under the knee) as you reach up to the ceiling with both hands (hand over hand). Make sure to reach until your arms are completely straight, like a nice big morning stretch! Hold 1-2 seconds.
Step 4) Bring the back knee off of the ground and then your feet back together so that you are back to the starting position.
Perform 5 – 8 repetitions per side.
3) Walking Foot Sweeps
Foot sweeps are a simple yet very effective exercise that engages your hamstrings, back, shoulders and ankle joints. Foot sweeping is a favorite among many of my clients and it doesn’t hurt to get in a few extra repetitions on top of the recommendation.
Step 2) Take a small step (about one to two feet) forward with one foot and place its heel on the ground with its toes pointed up as much as possible.
Step 3) Push your butt and hips back while keeping your back as straight as possible until you feel the back of your lead leg stretch to slight discomfort.
Step 4) In one motion, relax your arms and sweep the ground, once back and once forward.
Step 5) After the forward sweep return your arms above your head and bring your feet together back to starting position and proceed to sweep the other foot starting with step 2.
Perform 8-10 repetitions of 1-2 sweeps per side.
These are just a few of many good warm up exercises that you can perform before your next exercise session, regardless of what you may be doing. A 5 min treadmill walk or jog to increase the core temperature prior to warm up exercises is a good idea as it does help you move with a bit more comfort as opposed to doing the exercises with cold muscles. Warming up properly today may be the deciding factor on whether you’ll be able to play tag with your grand-kids in the future or if you’ll be sitting out because of hip or back issues. Take care and stay healthy!