Ahh, the warm-up. That thing most people really don’t want to do (and if they can get away with it, they don’t). You’re not most people though. A classic example is that of a football warm-up. Let’s say you’re about to play 5-a-side with your friends, what usually happens? You get on the pitch, take your balls out (n.h), and start banging them at the ‘keeper as hard as you possibly can.. yeah, I know, we all do it, it’s the ‘English’ warm-up as one coach so eloquently put it… more like the eediots’ warm-up.
Another example can be seen every single day in public gyms without fail – a guy walks in for leg day ready to bang out some squats, and with zero warm-up whatsoever, he walks straight up to the bar, loading it with 25 kg each side. Predictably, the end result is a squat that looks like hot-garbage, just like the preparation.
I’ve always been a little more conscious when it comes to warming up, but one day I too made the above mistakes and ended up paying the price. We were playing football, and I started my warm-up.. unfortunately, it was the aforementioned ‘English’ warm-up. I ran on to the pitch, started kicking the ball about full pelt, and 5 minutes in to the game, BAM – I pulled my hamstring.
Now thank God I didn’t tear anything, and this was not a nasty injury by any stretch of the imagination, but the fact is, it was preventable. As a result, I couldn’t sprint properly for about 4 weeks, and had to take time off from playing football.. I felt like a junkie going cold turkey, just brutal.
Why warm up?
I’m not going to bore you too much with technical information, rather giving you a brief overview of how the warm-up benefits your body. The warm-up is vital to improving your athletic performance and works via a number of different mechanisms.
- Muscle tissue pliability improves via an increase in muscle temperature – lessening your risk of pulls and tears, and allowing them to contract more quickly and forcefully… essentially, more POWER!
- Joints are more lubricated and feel better.
- Gets your heart working and blood pumping.
- Prepares you psychologically and mentally – having a pre-match/session routine will help get you in the zone.
- ‘Grooves’ the neuromuscular pathways and movement patterns you’ll be using during your session – rehearsing your tekkers.
- Improved coordination and reaction times.
You wouldn’t give a presentation to a hall full of important people without planning and rehearsing beforehand would you? Exercise and sport is no different. You need to prime your body and mind for the work ahead of you.
So how should we warm up?
Continuing with the squat scenario, let’s say your goal that day was a max effort set of 105kg for 5 reps.
The first thing we need to do is get the blood pumping and begin raising our core temperature. Therefore you can start with a general full body warm-up such as star jumps (or jumping jacks for yanks). I personally like to jump rope which is a fantastic exercise in itself, but is also great for quickly raising the temperature and getting you amped for your workout. 2-3 minutes will suffice here.
Next, you should begin to prepare the muscle groups and joints you will actually be training that day. You can and should include some form of mobility work such as foam rolling (or rolling on the lacrosse ball). This is key to softening up your muscle tissue and relieving tightness. Dr Kelly Starrett’s book ‘Becoming A Supple Leopard’ has tonnes of mobility exercises for you to pick from (see my review here).
So for the squat, we would focus on the lower back, hips, groin, knees, and pretty much all the musculature in the lower body (glutes and hammies in particular).
As an example, here’s my routine usually when warming up for a lower body day.
- High kicks
- Striders (to help open up the groin)
- Fire hydrants & fire hydrant circles (FANTASTIC for the hip flexors, usually very painful at first)
- Dynamic groin stretches
- Lunges (leaning back slightly and squeezing the glute of the back leg, hold for a few seconds)
- Cossack squats (superb for groin and hip flexors – great athletic movement in general)
- Body weight squats
This routine should be done dynamically – however, don’t tire yourself out. Err on the side of caution, it’s better to do too little than too much, you don’t want to interfere with your workout. This part should last about 6-7 minutes. Aim for about 5 reps of each movement (for each leg if applicable).
I usually do this in a ‘flow’, a great concept I learned from Jim Smith and Joe de Franco, where you move from one movement to another in a very smooth fashion – making the warm-up athletic, efficient, and even *shock horror*.. fun.
The next part of the warm-up is activation – time to wake up your muscles and get your nervous system firing. Keep the volume very low here, and do 1-2 sets of 3-5 reps at most. On lower body days, box jumps are brilliant for activation… any type of jump for that matter, i.e. tuck jumps, broad jumps (standing long jumps basically), etc.
Kettlebell swings are great too, they will really wake up that posterior chain. Remember, keep the volume very low here.
The warm-up should be done at light to moderate intensity – it’s there to aid your workout.. it’s not the workout. Overall, your warm-up should last about 10-12 minutes. Experiment and find what works for you, some people might need less, some people might need more, everybody’s different. You can even add filler warm-up movements in between sets of your actual work out if you’re still feeling tight.
Now on to the workout itself – warming up within the movement.
So if your aim is 105 kg x 5, you’re going to warm-up by actually squatting, progressively increasing the weight until you get to your top set, (or working weight if you’re doing more than one set).
Start with the bar, and hit 5 reps or so, making sure to explode on the way up. If you want, you can pause briefly at the bottom to help stretch out your hip flexors (a couple of seconds is enough, don’t get crazy here). Add weight progressively and do low rep sets of 2-3, reducing the reps to singles as you approach your top weight.
This is not set in stone by any means – it depends on how fresh you feel, how strong you are, and what your muscular endurance is like. Personally, I like sets of 2 as I ramp up the weight, because I like to be 100% fresh for my max effort set.
So for a top set of 105 kg x 5:
- 20kg x 5
- 30kg x 3
- 45kg x 2
- 60kg x 2
- 70kg x 2
- 82.5kg x 2
- 90kg x 1
- 97.5kg x 1
- 105kg x 5
Again – don’t take this as gospel. Experiment and find out what works for you.
Static vs dynamic stretches
‘Sport scientists’ report that excessive static stretching may reduce power output and impair muscle performance. However, a LITTLE bit of static stretching for really tight areas will not affect you negatively, just keep it to about 5 seconds at most. This way it’s still pretty dynamic, but you can actually hold the stretch a bit. Legendary S&C coach Joe de Franco addressed this, and he has worked with hundreds of athletes, NFL ones at that. Hips in particular respond well to longer stretches, and I personally do hold them for longer periods of time.
However, it really grinds my gears when I see people doing 15 second static stretches before football games, when really they should be doing dynamic work to wake up their muscles. If you want to do some static stretches, feel free to do so in your warm-down (but do include some light dynamic work too).
Why should we care ultimately?
If you want to fulfil your athletic potential, you absolutely must do a proper warm-up. Your performance and health will inevitably suffer if you don’t take the time to prepare properly before ANY sporting activity. It goes without saying that the more supple and flexible you are, the stronger you are. You’ll jump, lift, and sprint better.. so get to work.