The Warm Up.
It’s the least “sexy” part of training. It lacks the competition and the intensity of the rest of the workout. Because of this, it is often overlooked by coaches and or avoided by athletes. The warm up, though, is one of the most important components of any training program.
Beyond simply preparing athletes for more intense work, a proper warm up simultaneously offers us a chance to work on movement technique, prevent injury in the gym and on the field, and become a better overall athlete (mobility/ROM/proprioception/etc). (1, 2, 3)
How should you approach the warm up in order to achieve all of these significant benefits?
Let’s take a quick look at the structure of a well-executed warm up.
Important to note here, is the order in which everything is executed. Though we have laid out a specific sequence of events, a warm up does not always need to follow such to the letter. Often, these stages will overlap, and sometimes it makes more sense to perform a technique brief before mobility or perform your activation in place of dynamic movement. Bottom line: so long as you are using a structured warm up with purposeful intent, you’re doing it right!
Step 1: Get Moving! (Elevate Heart Rate)
1A: Light Cardio
Before we do anything else, we must prime the engine.
To do this, we elevate the heart rate, incite blood flow to the entire body, and begin moving our muscles and joints in a low intensity environment. The goal, here, is to elevate body temperature and increase tissue elasticity. (4)
The simplest way to accomplish this is to hop into some light “cardio” work. You have a whole host of different options:
- Jumping Rope
- Jumping Jacks
Beyond the traditional cardio options, you could easily opt for something more entertaining to a group of young athletes. A casual game of knockout, tag, musical chairs (the med ball version is quite entertaining!), etc. are great options so long as it is casual and relaxed. All we are looking for is continuous movement at a very moderate pace.
Perform for somewhere between 2 and 5 minutes depending on time constraints.
1B: Dynamic Movement
Once the heart rate is up and blood has begun to flow, we like to transition directly into another kind of continuous movement (you could also start the process here).
Unlike our monostructural cardio, though, we are working through fuller ranges of motion about different joints. The goal is to expand our initial warm up into more athletic, movement-relevant motion.
Example: The Alternating Spiderman & Reach
- PVC Pass throughs
- Bodyweight Good Mornings
- Inchworm to a Push Up
- Continuous Line Drills
In each of these examples, the goal is slow, purposeful movement. These are not static stretches, but neither are they fast-paced. We want to reinforce great biomechanics (focusing on the maintenance of the lumbar curve during a bodyweight good morning, for example), and begin to warm up the muscles and connective tissues through a complete range of motion that will be used during the workout ahead.
Step 2: Mobility
After the body has been warmed up a bit, we sometimes like to slow things down a little with some targeted mobility work.
Passive mobility holds (aka static stretching), or tissue mashing, can help prime our body for optimal movement and positioning in our upcoming training. When done consistently, it can also improve our overall flexibility, stability, and range of motion over time. (5)
For example, if we are getting below parallel in the day’s workout, we may prescribe some banded hip and ankle mobility holds.
Banded Squat Mobility:
Not only does this grease the groove for our squatting, it reinforces proper hip/knee/ankle alignment to prevent unintentional internal rotation of the hip (specifically the valgus knee collapse so often associated with ACL injuries) and also improves ankle dorsiflexion. Both are key to avoiding injury and improving performance when running, jumping, etc.
Now, there is a LOT of debate on the place and the efficacy of static stretching and tissue mashing (foam rolling, etc) as it pertains to a training warm up. For years, many people trashed the concept as a detriment to subsequent muscular strength and power output, removing it from warm up protocols altogether.
In fact, research has shown that static stretching, when done in durations of greater than 30, but less than 60 seconds has been proven to improve range of motion while not impacting peak power or strength. (8, 9, 10)
Further, when it is combined with dynamic movement, static stretching at all has absolutely no negative impact on muscular strength or power. (11)
If there are no recognizable negatives, then, in our minds, passive mobility can set up the athlete for short term and long term success.
Step 3: Movement Prep
Once we’ve gotten the blood flowing and our range of motion enhanced, we want to take some dynamic activity and make it specific to the training demands of the day.
Our goal is to begin to “activate” the particular muscle groups and kinetic chains that are of primary focus later on. In conjunction with your mobility work, proper activation can lead to a significant improvement of overall movement quality. (12)
What does this look like?
Frankly it can take on many forms, all depending on your approach and goal for the day. One day you may choose to shore up the midline in preparation for heavy deadlifts by working some hip extensions or simple supermen. Another day it may be concentrated shoulder pre-hab before barbell pressing work. It may be specific glute activation before squatting to help prevent valgus knee collapse in inexperienced lifters. It may even be simple gymnastics of push ups and air squats, or barbell complexes to dial in lightweight movement patterns that will be used later on.
For example, this series of DB Carries is a great way to activate the shoulders and lockdown the midline all at once.
The beauty is in the flexibility – you can get a lot of things done while also preparing for your more intense work to come.
Arguably the most important component of movement prep. No athlete is at a level of movement competency that would eliminate the need to drill technique and form every single day. We are great believers in mastering the basics…then mastering them again!
We first like to grab a PVC or empty barbell and drill the movement in question, and all of its constituent parts. If it’s a heavy squat clean day, for example, we will likely run through our 3 position clean drill first. Then, we drill the exact movement for a number of light, perfect reps.
Then we gradually increase the loading and resistance until we’ve reached our desired level of intensity.
3 Position Clean Drill:
This process really serves two purposes. First, it allows time for technique work. Too often, coaches and athletes opt not to continually work movement technique to their detriment. It also prepares us, neuromuscularly, for the intensity to come within that exact movement pattern.
All of the above is a surefire way to prime the body for your training session. You’ll be less susceptible to injury, you’ll gain total body control and ROM over time, you’ll cement great movement patterns, and you’ll see the best gains – you’ll PR more.
So next time you train, incorporate a great warm up then get to work!