Best Leg Day Warm-up
When I started training in the late 1980s, any sort of leg day warm-up was an afterthought. You’d walk in, throw your gym bag in a corner, slap a couple of 45-pound weight plates on the squat bar, and start squatting. Those first few progressively heavier sets were the entire warm-up.
Ahh, the advantages and stupidity of youth. As the years and mileage began to catch up with me in my thirties, I understood the value of preparation and began a bit of a search for the best leg day warm-up I could find.
At first, pre-workout stretches were part of my routine, but I soon found them to be counterproductive, creating a feeling of “looseness” that didn’t serve me well in trying to maintain tension for better stability during lifting. My thinking shifted to an emphasis on dynamic movements that would better prepare me to move my body in the coordinated fashion required for compound weight training exercises.
My goals were to increase core temperature, break a slight sweat, and mobilize the tissues I’d be training. For a leg day workout, this means paying particular attention to the hips, knees, ankles.
Working as a part-time Strength and Conditioning Coach at the University of Pennsylvania, fellow IRON COMPANY author, Jim Steel, showed me several warm-up sequences his staff developed for their athletes. I borrowed from their ideas to customize a leg day warm-up for myself and my training clients.
Because you can pick and choose from a list of twelve movements, this is one of the best leg day warm-ups I’ve seen for trainees with varying experience levels and mobility limitations. Let’s take a close look at all twelve movements.
Hip Circle Shuffles
Hip circle shuffles (sometimes referred to as monster walks) with a light resistance band around your ankles are the first movement in our dynamic warm-up. Do about 10 steps to the right and 10 steps back to the left. Try to point your toes straight ahead and sit down in an athletic stance.
Hip Circle Squats
For hip circle squats, slide the resistance band up just above your knees and squat, pushing out against the band tension as you descend and squeezing your glutes hard at the top. Try to squat deep and do about 10 reps.
Hip Circle Thruster
The third movement, and the last for which you’ll need the resistance band, is the hip circle thruster. Keep the band just above your knees and lie on your back with your knees bent. Your feet should be flat on the floor and about shoulder-width apart. Drive your hips as high as possible, pushing out against the band tension. Squeeze your glutes hard at the top and pause briefly. Do about 10 reps.
For the hip switch, sit on the floor with your shins at approximately right angles to each other. Switch back and forth as Christina demonstrates in the accompanying video. The goal is to be able to do this switching motion without touching a hand to the floor for balance, but you may have to work up to this and some people may never quite get there. As with any mobility drill, work within your own abilities. Do about 10 reps (5 per side).
Mountain climber With Rotation
The mountain climber with rotation is a little tricky to explain, so please watch the video several times. Assume a plank position. Moving your left foot first—I’m just being consistent with the video; it doesn't matter which foot you start with—step up as close to your left pinky finger as you can while maintaining a flat back. Now push out with your left elbow against the inside of your knee and look in the opposite direction. Pause briefly and then move into thoracic rotation, reaching high with your left arm and then bringing it back down and across your body as you reach through. Return to the original plank position and repeat the entire sequence on the right side. Do about 10 reps (5 per side, alternating).
Overhead Lunge With Knee Hug
Apart from the nuance of the knee hug and reaching up with the hands, the overhead lunge with knee hug should be familiar to many. A few coaching cues include staying "zipped up" through your midsection (working on bracing and maintaining a neutral spine) while also reaching tall with your hands. Your shins should also remain fairly vertical with minimal forward knee tracking as you take a large step forward. Alternate legs and do about 5 reps per side (10 total).
Lateral Lunge With Figure Four
The lateral lunge with figure four is our seventh movement. Pulling up on the ankle before each lunge is the "figure four" part, and it's just meant to open the hip a little more. Support the outside of the knee during the figure four and don't crank on the ankle. During the lunge, reach forward with the hands while sitting back into the hip/glute. Don't worry about squatting to depth but think more about pushing the hips back and feeling a stretch in the hamstring and glute similar to an RDL. Alternate legs and do about 5 reps per side (10 total).
The frog squat is one of my personal favorites to include in my leg day warm-up. If I'm short on time, I at least do mountain climbers and frog squats, both of which are great for opening the hips so you can get into a deep squat. Assume your squat stance while grasping your toes. If you're not able to fully extend your legs, don't worry about it. Your range of motion will improve over time. Sit down into a full squat, pushing out with your elbows on the inside of your knees in the bottom while maintaining a flat back. You should feel a stretch in your groin. About 5 reps should be sufficient.
Walkout With Push Ups
Not all of us can touch our hands to the floor with perfectly straight legs like Christina does when initiating a walkout, and that's fine. Bend your knees as needed. Once your hands are on the floor, simply do an inchworm out until you're fully extended in a push-up position. Perform a push-up, inch your way back in, and stand up. Repeat 5 times. For a little more upper body involvement, ladder your push-ups (1-2-3-4-5).
Step-out Squat / Squat Jump
The little combo of five step-out squats and five squat jumps will wake up your nervous system and get you firing on all cylinders. Remember to pop your hips into extension explosively as you jump.
Up Dog / Down Dog
Anyone with a yoga background will be familiar with up dog / down dog transitions between spinal extension and flexion. Ease into the range of motion gently, gradually increasing within your capabilities as you complete five reps in each direction (10 total).
You made it to the end! The twelfth and final movement in our leg day warm-up is the aptly named Dead Bug. This one will get those critical midsection muscles firing to facilitate proper bracing during spinal loading movements like squats and deadlifts. Lie on your back with hands and feet pointing toward the ceiling. Your abdominal muscles should be "activated" and your low back should be pressed into the floor. Lower one arm and the opposite leg, maintaining tension in your abdominal muscles so that your lower back never loses contact with the floor. Do about ten total reps, alternating. That's five lowering the right arm and left leg and five lowering the left arm and right leg.
The entire leg day warm-up, which takes only about ten minutes to complete once you’re used to the sequence, follows. If you’re short on time or just don’t feel like you need to do everything on the list to be ready to train, by all means, customize as you see fit. I have clients who do the odd-numbered movements one session and the even-numbered movements the next and tell me they feel ready to go. The proof is in how you move and feel.
- Hip Circle Shuffle (Monster Walk) x10 L/R
- Hip Circle Squat x5
- Hip Circle Thruster x5
- Hip Switch x5 per side
- Mountain Climber with Rotation x5 per side
- Overhead Lunge with Knee Hug x5 per leg
- Lateral Lunge with Figure Four x5 per leg
- Frog Squat x5
- Walkout with Push Up x5
- Step-out Squat / Squat Jump x5 each
- Up Dog / Down Dog x5 each
- Dead Bug x10
*Photo Credit: Keri Brice founder of KB Fitness Personal Training in Charlotte, NC
Chuck Miller has been immersed in the pursuit of strength and the art and science of physical transformation as a coach, athlete, and writer for over thirty years. He is the author of Inside the Mind of an Iron Icon: on strength training and bodybuilding and is a monthly columnist for HARDGAINER 2.0 Visit CORE Strength and Conditioning to learn more about his background or to book a consultation.