Warming Up for Optimal Performance

 

The efficacy, value, and ideal method of warming up for exercise and athletic performance has long been a highly debated topic among professionals within the strength and conditioning industry.

 

Questions such as,

  • What should a warm-up consist of?
  • What’s better: static, dynamic, or ballistic stretching?
  • How long should a warm-up take from start to end?

and

  • How does one prepare the body without exhausting it?

 

have plagued, baffled, and caused a great deal of controversy among strength coaches and fitness enthusiasts alike, all of whom have been in search of the same end-goal: optimal performance.

 

While it would be extraordinarily convenient to prescribe one standard or correct warm-up that works for everyone, there’s simply no single “right” method that can or should be universally used by all trainees.

 

As I’ve said before and I’ll say again, each and every person has different goals, needs, limitations, and strengths which need to be addressed on an individual basis. It’s all too easy for professionals in this industry to hand out absolute recommendations, often stating there is one “right” way to do things and anything or anyone that says otherwise is “wrong.”

 

Needless to say, this shortsighted mindset is clearly not advantageous when trying to create safe, efficient, and effective training programs tailored to the individual’s specific needs.

 

In spite of all the controversy, one thing everybody can agree upon is that warming up the body prior to training has a positive effect on performance. Regardless of whether or not this may be considered common knowledge, I am still consistently surprised to see hoards of individuals completely neglecting any form of warm-up every time they enter the gym.

 

As a result of coming dangerously close to experiencing a brain aneurism each time I witness someone perform 5 arm circles as their “extensive” warm-up, I’ve decided to write this article in order to educate trainees on the importance of warming up for optimal performance.

 

In this article I outline what I consider to be the most important aspects of a well executed warm-up and what most people should aim to include, regardless of their goal. I’d note there are obviously instances in which I wouldn’t prescribe some of the concepts/movements outlined below; rather these are simply my recommendations which I have found to work for the large majority of people including myself and many of my clients.

 

If you have any questions/comments please feel free to add them in the comments section at the end.

 

 

The Essentials of Warming Up

 

1)      Increasing Core Temperature

 

As shocking as it may seem, the primary objective of a well executed warm-up is to warm yourself up.

 

Let’s take a deep breath as we soak in this startling piece of information….

 

Moving onward!

 

Sarcasm aside, while this oversimplification of the warm-up may make the whole process seem arbitrary or insignificant, heating up the bodies core temperature prior to training is absolutely essential when training for optimal performance.

 

As Mike Robertson articulated very well in this article, once the body has sufficiently warmed up, a host of other effects take place such as increased tissue temperature and extensibility, increased excitability of the nervous system, increased joint temperature, and decreased viscosity of synovial fluid.

 

Basically, all of these effects, caused by an increase in core temperature, may help prevent an injury and/or improve athletic performance.

 

My General Recommendation: Devote 5 minutes to increasing your heart rate (whether it’s through walking, biking, jumping jacks, certain mobility drills designed specifically for you, etc…) as part of your warm-up. Simply put, make sure you’ve got a light sweat going before you start training.

 

2)      Improving Tissue Quality

 

Throughout ones training career individuals inevitably tend to accumulate scar tissue and adhesions within their soft tissue.

 

If a trainee ignores this problem and neglects to do any form of self myofascial release (SMR) they will be more likely to create imbalances in regard to their mobility and flexibility, in addition to forming neurological inefficiencies which will all but guarantee subsequent injuries and sub-optimal training performance.

 

So what is SMR and how do you do it?

 

Basically, SMR is used to improve range of motion (ROM), muscle length, neuromuscular efficiency, mobility, flexibility, and reduce scar tissue, adhesions, and muscle soreness.

 

In other words, SMR is one of the most beneficial techniques nearly every trainee can (and should) incorporate within his/her repertoire.

 

While there are numerous ways to perform SMR, it seems the most common and convenient methods are through the use of foam rollers and tennis/lacrosse balls.

 

Instead of boring you with a laundry list of explicit instructions on how to use a foam roller, I’ve decided to link you to this video by Eric Cressey which details a fantastic foam rolling series to be performed as part of your warm-up or as recovery work to do on your “off” days.

 

Anecdotally, I’d like to add that the inclusion of foam rolling has been one of the best things I have ever done. Personally, I try to foam roll every day regardless of whether I am training or not, and have noticed an extraordinary improvement in recovery time which has no doubt carried over to improved athletic performance.

 

Yes, foam rolling hurts, but it just hurts so good!

 

My General Recommendation: Devote 5-8 minutes of your warm-up to an adequate foam rolling routine such as the one provided in the video above.

 

3)      Improving Mobility

 

At one time or another, the large majority of us have had to deal with some form of a nagging injury, an imprecise movement pattern, a lack of mobility, or some other issue of the sort which kept us from training in the safest and most efficient manner.

 

Maybe your lumbar spine kept tucking underneath your butt while squatting, or perhaps you couldn’t get an adequate arch while deadlifting, or possibly you had shoulder pain and as a result had to exclude all pressing movements from your training regimen.

 

Regardless of what the issue was, we’ve all had to deal with something and may have acquired some lasting injuries as result of failing to address these issues soon enough.

 

This is where specific and targeted mobility drills come into play.

 

Through consistently incorporating mobility drills which address your individual needs, you can iron out the kinks and confront any pre-existing imbalances before getting underneath a loaded bar. In doing so, you can be sure that you have taken all of the necessary steps and precautions in order to ensure your safety and longevity in sport, thus allowing you the opportunity to achieve your ultimate goal(s).

 

As there is absolutely no way for me to address each individual’s potential weaknesses in this lone article, I am instead going to link you to several videos, courtesy of Eric Cressey, detailing several mobility exercises which target and address very specific problems experienced by a large majority of people.

 

1)      High Knee Walk to Spiderman with Hip Lift and Overhead Reach

 

2)      Side Lying Windmill

 

3)      Thoracic Extensions on Foam Roller

 

4)      Squat to Stand with Reach

 

My General Recommendation: Devote 5 minutes of your warm-up to specific and targeted mobility drills to help raise core body temperature, acquire an adequate ROM, and prime your central nervous system (CNS) for optimal performance.

 

 

4) Improving Motor Control via Activation Exercises

 

For a variety of reasons many trainees experience a significant amount of trouble learning how to fire the appropriate muscle groups while training.

 

Needless to say, not being able to effectively fire (i.e. use) certain muscle groups while handling heavy loads could eventually lead to sub-optimal performance and potentially serious injuries.

 

For example, a majority of people tend to spend a large portion of their day sitting down and hunched over their desk. Inevitably, this leads to shortened and tight hip flexors which may contribute to a host of other problems including insufficient glute activation.

 

To illustrate why this may pose as a serious problem, let’s use the deadlift as an example:

 

As I described in this article, the deadlift is one of the best movements for training the entire posterior chain (i.e. hamstrings, glutes, and back). Programmed correctly, deadlifts can help improve strength, speed, power, overall athletic performance, and aid in fat loss and mass gain.

 

Simply put, deadlifts are awesome.

 

As the glutes are meant to be a prime mover during the deadlift, not being able to effectively use them clearly poses a serious risk to your health and performance. Essentially, if a person is unable to fire their glutes while deadlifting then other muscle groups will be forced to compensate which may eventually lead to injury, consequently having a negative impact on athletic performance.

 

So which muscles do you need to activate and how do you activate them?

 

Generally speaking, I’ve found the most troublesome muscle groups tend to be the glutes, mid/upper back, and the area surrounding the rotator cuff. As a result, I have provided the pictures below detailing several of my favorite activation exercises for each of these muscle groups.

 

Standard Glute Bridge:

     

 

  • Drive through your heels
  • Squeeze your butt (like there’s penny’s inside and you can’t let them fall out)
  • Perform 1-3 sets of 10-20 repetitions

 

Glute Bridge with Increased ROM:

    

 

 

 

  •  Drive through your heels
  • Squeeze your butt (like there’s penny’s inside and you can’t let them fall out)
  • “Pull” your heels towards your butt to activate your hamstrings
  • Perform 1-3 sets of 10-20 repetitions

 

X Band Walk:

    

 

  • Take an athletic stance with knees slightly bent, chest tall, and hips pushed backwards
  • Laterally walk from side to side
  • Perform 1-3 sets of 10-12 repetitions per side

 

Standard Band Pull Apart:

    

 

 

  • Stand with your arms extended, chest tall, and shoulders down/back and away from your ears
  • Retract your shoulder blades together
  • Return to starting position
  • Perform 1-3 sets of 15-20 repetitions

 

Butterfly Pull Apart:

    

 

 

  • Keep your arms bent to 90 degrees, elbows by your side, shoulders down/away from your ears, and upper back tight
  • Retract your shoulder blades together
  • Return back to starting position
  • Perform 1-3 sets of 15-20 repetitions

 

My General Recommendation: Perform 2-3 sets of 10-30 repetitions of specific activation exercises prior to/in between sets of compound movements such as squats, bench press, deadlift, dips, etc… If you know you have trouble firing a specific muscle group don’t be afraid to do activation exercises on a daily basis in order to teach your CNS to use these muscles effectively.

 

5)      Specific Warmup

 

Once you have completed tasks 1-4 outlined above, I highly encourage individuals to specifically warm-up for the first movement of the day.

 

For example, if you’re squatting for your first exercise I would recommend performing a couple of “practice” sets in order to remind your CNS what proper form and technique is supposed to feel like for that specific move.

 

Not only is this a good option for reinforcing correct technique, but it allows you to work through the required ROM for that specific movement while heating up the appropriate joints, tissues, and muscles, thus priming your body for optimal performance.

 

My General Recommendation: Prior to handling heavy weight, perform 2-3 “light” sets of the exact movement you are about to complete. Be sure to keep form as strict as possible!

 

Wrapping Up

 

To be honest, I understand that warm-ups can be tedious and boring.

 

I know that we all have places to be, things to do, and people to see. We’re all busy and are generally looking to get in and out of the gym as quickly as possible.

 

Trust me, I understand.

 

That being said, I can’t possibly emphasize enough the importance of warming up for your health, longevity, and overall athletic performance.

 

Think about it in these terms: Do you really think I would waste my time writing nearly 2000 words on a topic if I didn’t think it was important? Do you really think I want to feed you useless information and make you read these long and obnoxious articles if I didn’t know you would benefit from putting the information into practice? Do you really think I’d take the time to run back and forth, setting the timer on my camera and assuming awkward positions on my apartment floor just for the hell of it?

 

Absolutely not.

 

Sure, warm-ups can be monotonous, repetitive, and seemingly ineffective. But I guarantee you, when you injure yourself, can’t lift anything heavier than a spoon, and are incapable of training to reach your ultimate goal, you’ll wish you sucked it up and spent those extra 15 minutes preparing your mind and body appropriately.

 

No one ever said every aspect of training was fun, but if you want to be the best you’ll do what others won’t simply because you have the drive, motivation, and commitment to excellence.

 

Never Minimal. Never Maximal. Always Optimal.

 

-J