Warming Up For The Squat: Stretches, Exercises, and More

published by: Debbie Luna
Last Updated:
July 18, 2022

Warming up is one of the most important aspects of athletic pre-habilitation and preparatory training, wherein the exerciser will perform certain actions conducive to blood flow, proper mobility and general physical ability in specific parts of the body.

In the case of the barbell back squat, warming up is particularly essential due to the risks of injury and the high levels of exertion needed in such an exercise.

As such, it is insufficient to simply begin performing the squat at full working weight immediately. 

The exerciser should be proactive in preparing for the squat by following a warm up routine prior to the squat itself, with inclusions in the routine such as stretching, muscle group activation exercises and general systemic warm up movements being of particular importance.

What is Warming Up in Resistance Exercise?

The term “warming up” in resistance exercise refers to a number of activities meant to prepare the body for the rigors and exertion of intense exercise.

This can take the form of stretches meant to improve the stable range of motion and circulatory function of certain parts of the body, exercises that prime the muscles and joints for physical stress by way of inducing greater blood flow and warmer internal temperatures or even lower intensity sets of the exercise that are meant to be performed after the warm up routine.

Is Warming Up for the Squat Important?

Warming up prior to performing a set of squats is just as important as the set itself, as not only will a proper warm up reduce the risk of the exerciser hurting themselves because of their body being unprepared for such mechanical resistance - it will also greatly improve their performance of the squat as well.

barbell full squat

The exact type of warm up and the extent to which the exerciser will warm up can depend on what sort of needs the exerciser has; with advanced level weightlifters requiring significantly more preparatory work due to the higher amounts of weight used, or exercisers with a history of mobility issues requiring more dynamic stretching exercises.

In general however, most exercisers will stick to the basic components of any decent warm up routine; a movement that raises core temperature and heart rate, and mobility work involving the main mechanics of the squat, such as knee flexion stretches and ankle rotation exercises.

General Systemic Warm Up for the Squat

When performing a general full-body warm up, the exerciser does not focus on a particular muscle group or biomechanic, but instead places minor stimulus on the various systems of the body such as the nervous system and circulatory system.

This is usually done with a treadmill, stair climber or similar aerobic exercise set to a low tempo and intensity so as to avoid prematurely fatiguing the musculature and organs of the exerciser.

When performing a general systemic warm up prior to a set of squats, the best method of doing so is one that does not necessarily stress the lower body to an excessive degree while still raising the core temperature and heart rate of the exerciser.

This will not only prepare the exerciser’s circulatory system by initiating vasodilation and improving oxygen efficiency, but also literally warm up the skeletal muscles, creating a more conducive environment to squat performance.

Warm Up Stretches for the Squat

1. Knee Mobility Stretches

As the knees are among one of the most common areas of injury during high volume or high resistance squat sets, the performance of mobility stretches meant to increase the knee’s effective range of motion and tissue flexibility cannot be underestimated.

quadriceps stretch

The most common and arguably one of the most effective methods of doing this is the quadriceps stretch, though one other notable mention in this category is the knee raise stretch wherein the exerciser sits on the floor and pulls their knee to their sternum without bending the hips or lower back.

2. Ankle Mobility Stretches

Ankle mobility exercises for the squat are somewhat less important and subsequently also less complex, simply requiring the exerciser to perform a basic toe point stretch alongside a wall calf stretch wherein the exerciser wedges the bottom of their foot against a wall so as to stretch the calves and rear portion of the ankles.

3. Hip Mobility Stretches

The squat is considered to be a hip-driven movement, despite popular belief. As such, hip mobility stretches in a squat warm up routine are one of the most important components, requiring the exerciser to focus especially on this particular area.

bodyweight wall squat

Proper hip mobility is best achieved through the inclusion of such stretches like the deep wall squat, cossack squat stretch and internal or external rotation dynamic stretch - all of which work in tandem to improve the effective range of motion and natural mechanics of the hips, resulting in greater and safer squat performance.

Progressive Loading Sets for the Squat

Another highly effective method of warming up for the squat is, surprisingly enough, simply performing lower intensity sets of much the same exercise - allowing the exerciser to not only activate all relevant muscle groups, but also prepare themselves mentally by running through a checklist of proper form cues and relevant exercise mechanics without risk of injury from a full working weight set.

This may be structured in a manner that “ramps up” the amount of weight used per warm up set, often expressed in percentages of the exerciser’s maximal one repetition load for the squat, of what is otherwise known as the 1 rep maximum.

In workout programming, this is often noted as “50% X (repetitions)” wherein the 50% represents a load approximately half of the exerciser’s 1 rep maximum, with succeeding sets possibly following suit as “75% X (repetitions)” or some other incremental percentage increase until the exerciser reaches their full working weight per set.

Alternatively, the exerciser may also structure their progressive loading sets in a manner that reduces the total volume per succeeding warm up set while maintaining the same load. This particular method is more commonly used by novice training programs or physical rehabilitation patients who will have trouble progressively increasing the weight of each warm up set.

Muscle Group Activation During Squat Warm Ups

One other major component of many warm up routines is the pre-activation of any muscle groups normally worked by the very exercise to be performed - in this case, the quadriceps, hamstrings, erector spinae, glutes, and various other core musculature that contribute to the performance of the squat exercise.

An inactive or otherwise unprimed muscle group during the performance of a full working weight squat can easily lead to a breakdown in form adherence and mechanics, requiring that the exerciser ensure that all the required muscle groups have been warmed up appropriately so as to avoid such issues from occurring.

Posterior Chain Activation Exercises

The posterior chain muscle groups are the most important skeletal muscle structures used during the conventional back squat, and as such will also require the most complex activation exercises during a squat warm up routine.

Fortunately, the two most common types of posterior chain activation exercises are in line with natural biomechanics and as such should be quite easy to perform for exercisers of any training level.

Glute Bridges

A low impact exercise meant to target the hip flexors, glutes and lower back; the glute bridge is an essential part of any posterior chain warm up routine, with the added bonus of requiring nothing more than a comfortable spot on the floor to lie upon.

glute bridge

Though it will depend on many factors, it is advised that the exerciser perform one or two sets of approximately 8 to 10 repetitions of the glute bridge so as to activate the majority of the posterior chain muscle groups.

Squat Holds

Not solely a posterior chain muscle group warm up but also an excellent method of preparing the body for proper squat mechanics, the squat hold is simply an exercise that involves performing a bodyweight squat and pausing at the bottom of the repetition’s depth, holding this position for several moments and thereby activating every muscle group involved in the conventional back squat.

bodyweight squat

As this is a static hold exercise, it is not counted in terms of repetitions but instead in terms of time under tension - with the exact length of time to achieve a proper warm up stimulus varying between exercisers.

For the most part, the exerciser need simply hold the squat depth position until they begin to feel minor fatigue, taking care not to hold it for too long a length as this may cause premature fatigue prior to actually starting the workout.

Quadriceps Activation Exercises

The quadriceps femoris is a muscle group running along the front and sides of the femur, with its primary purpose being extension and flexion of the knee joint. 

As one may guess from this, the quadriceps femoris or “quads” are essential to the proper performance of the back squat, and as such will also require certain activation exercises be used in order to warm them up.

Bodyweight Lunge

The bodyweight lunge is a basic exercise that not only activates the quadriceps to a sufficient extent, but also does the same to the hip flexors and glutes, creating a synergistic warm up effect when paired with other posterior chain muscle group warm up exercises.

bodyweight lunge

When used as a quads activation warm up, it is best for the exerciser to instead hold the lunge position for several seconds instead of performing multiple repetitions of the exercise within a set - thereby reducing accrued muscular fatigue while still maintaining the same warm up benefits.

Just like squat holds, this means that the length of time the bodyweight lunge must be used as a warm up will be highly variable between individuals, and is generally not tracked in the standard “repetitions X sets” manner.

Empty Barbell Zercher Squat / Empty Barbell Front Squat

Performing certain barbell squat variations meant to place greater emphasis on the quads is one other way of activating said muscle group without inducing excessive fatigue - so long as sufficiently low enough resistance and volume are used.

zercher squat

As both the zercher squat and front squat place the angle of resistance at a more vertical path in comparison to the knees and femur, performing them with an empty bar or other light weight lifting equipment should aid in warming up the quads, as well as certain parts of the core musculature and the lower back as well.

This is usually programmed in 5 to 8 repetitions for 2 to 3 sets, or until the exerciser feels as if their quadriceps and other nearby muscle groups are sufficiently warmed up enough for a full working weight back squat set.

In Summary, How Do You Warm Up for the Squat?

To conclude this article, we will go over the essential components of a proper squat warm up; that being adequate general warm up exercise such as with low impact steady state cardio (LISS), mobility and flexibility work so as to avoid tissue injury and improve circulation, and muscle group activation immediately prior to performing the squat.

Several of these warm up methods may be replaced with progressive loading sets of the back squat, so long as the exerciser is sufficiently experienced enough and understands the reasoning behind these particular warm up routine components.

When in doubt, performing further warm up methods is always preferable to starting a heavy squat set with cold muscles and joints, as this will not only cause injury and reduce performance, but also be far more unpleasant than doing so with a properly warmed up body.

References

1. Andrade DC, Henriquez-Olguín C, Beltrán AR, Ramírez MA, Labarca C, Cornejo M, Álvarez C, Ramírez-Campillo R. Effects of general, specific and combined warm-up on explosive muscular performance. Biol Sport. 2015 Jun;32(2):123-8. doi: 10.5604/20831862.1140426. Epub 2015 Feb 16. PMID: 26060335; PMCID: PMC4447757.

2. Park HK, Jung MK, Park E, Lee CY, Jee YS, Eun D, Cha JY, Yoo J. The effect of warm-ups with stretching on the isokinetic moments of collegiate men. J Exerc Rehabil. 2018 Feb 26;14(1):78-82. doi: 10.12965/jer.1835210.605. PMID: 29511656; PMCID: PMC5833972.

3. Ribeiro B, Pereira A, Neves PP, Sousa AC, Ferraz R, Marques MC, Marinho DA, Neiva HP. The Role of Specific Warm-up during Bench Press and Squat Exercises: A Novel Approach. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2020 Sep 22;17(18):6882. doi: 10.3390/ijerph17186882. PMID: 32971729; PMCID: PMC7558980.

Debbie (Deb) started powerlifting and Olympic lifting in High School as part of her track team's programming; She continues to train in order to remain athletic. Inspire US allows Deb to share information related to training, lifting, biomechanics, and more.
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