A Guide To A Better Warm Up
The warm up is a crucial part of training and when done properly will allow you to perform at your maximum potential, but is your warm up helping you or hindering you?
The average person’s warm up usually consists of a series of static stretches and light cardio.
A more informed person’s warm up may consist of some dynamic stretching, activation exercises and some light cardio if body temperature isn’t high enough from the previous.
An even more informed person’s warm up may consist of soft tissue work, dynamic stretching & activation exercises specific to the movements being performed for the sport and static stretches with the purpose of weakening the antagonist contracting muscles specific to the movements being performed for the sport.
Whichever category you fall into it doesn’t matter as we’ll thoroughly address what you need to do to improve on what you’re already doing.
Why Warm up?
If you don’t warm up I’m going to happily say you’re an idiot and missing so many benefits that will improve performance and your health in general. Warming up will
- Improve muscle elasticity and contraction potential minimising potential for injury
- Increased range of motion in joints minimising potential for injury
- Increase efficiency of respiratory and cardiovascular systems
- Increase reaction speeds
- Improve one’s perception, concentration and coordination
Do’s and Don’ts
Starting off with the most common mistakes, the following habits have detrimental effects, are inefficient and time wasting.
Too much cardio.
Cardio is great for increasing body temperature, which achieves many of the benefits of a warm up as previously stated, but how much is too much. Once your body is at an ideal temperature it’s time to move on to the other components of the warm up or to begin training otherwise time is being wasted and you could fatigue yourself hindering performance during training. A good indicator is this: if you’re sweating your body temperature has definitely increased. An example would be jogging. Jogging for 5 to 10 minutes would sufficiently increase body temperature and anything exceeding this will be unproductive. Unfortunately cardio alone won’t groove the neurological pathways specific to the exercise following the warm up, nor will it specifically improve the range of motion in the joints leading to an unpredictable amount of mobility giving potential to injury. So what will?
Static stretching has its benefits and will certainly increase the range of motion in a joint but is best done after training when the muscles have worked extensively and aren’t needed for any movements. Pre-training static stretching has negative consequences on performance demonstrated by a number studies and resources(2)(3)(4). Static stretching reduces isometric and dynamic strength and force production. A loss of isometric strength leads to a loss of stability through complex movements. This essentially causes a loss of optimal performance as you’ll be slower and weaker. Not only this but balance and reaction times are negatively effected and it will make you calmer and more relaxed due to an inhibition of the gogli tendon.(3) It even has negative effects on local muscular endurance when performed with moderate volume.(5)
This is the exact opposite of what we’d like to achieve while warming up so why static stretch!?
For a brief scientific explanation of why this occurs…
- Prolonged stretching can make the muscle and tendon overly compliant reducing stiffness not allowing for maximal use of the elasticity stored in the muscle and tendon thus reducing force production
- Motor control and reflex sensitivity is inhibited not allowing for the central nervous system’s signal to be sent to the muscle not allowing all the fibres to fire
Taking all this into consideration and understanding the effect static stretching has on our body during a warm up, is there ever an instance when we would want to purposefully static stretch before exercise? The answer is yes. The hip flexors are the antagonist contractors of the glutes and are often extremely tight due to day to day life and prolonged sitting. This causes our glutes to require extra activation during warm up, due to firing poorly and being stretched. With the hip flexors lengthened the glutes have a greater potential to fire but this should only be considered pre warm-up if the hips are not required to be in complete flexion, for example in gymnastics.
Ballistic stretching rather than dynamic
Ballistic and dynamic stretching are often confused as being one and the same especially when externally observed, but a distinction must be made between the two. Dynamic stretching is the act of controlling a movement of a muscle through an active range of motion for each joint whereas ballistic stretching is extending that movement at the end of a joints range of motion for example repeating small bounces(6). Ballistic stretching initiates the stretch reflex causing the body to protect itself from injury to the sudden increase in muscle length by nuclear bag fibres to contract and shorten the muscle(7) defeating the object of the exercise (increase range of motion)
Don’t ballistic stretch!
Fatiguing rather than activating
During a warm up it’s important to active the muscles we’re going to use during training whatever they may be. All too often we can fatigue the muscles prior to training not allowing them to perform at their maximum level. This is often easy to detect because a warm up shouldn’t last for an overly long time, usually 10-15 minutes will suffice. A good example of this would be back squatting. Warming up to a working weight with 5 sets of 5 reps, the warm up weights should be incremented proportionally keeping the reps low, possibly around the the 3 rep range and perhaps 1 rep when close to the working weight. Performing 5 reps every warm up set would simply be detrimental and taxing on the central nervous system thus potentially not allowing you to lift the maximum possible weight for that day especially when the warm up weight is close to the working weight.
Myofascial Release and Soft Tissue Work
What the hell is that you ask? Glad you did! Simply explained our muscles are surrounded in fascia which is a fibrous tissue(8) and often muscle fibres are unable to uncontract due to numerous factors, hampering tissue quality and the ability to maximise force production. This may even cause pain and could lead to injury in certain cases(9). There is quite a simple way to work on undoing and lessening the likelihood of this happening and that’s with self myofascial release, easily done by foam rolling for example. Myofascial release is a way to manipulate the fascia to alleviate trigger points, areas of muscle with taut fibres which are painful to the touch and sometimes inflamed which if untreated can leave inelastic scar tissue diminishing performance by decreasing the elastic qualities of the tissue. With a simple 5 minutes of pre-warm up exercises performed with a foam roller, in my opinion an essential tool that everyone should have if they’re a budding athlete, or a tennis ball, tissue quality and range of motion will be improved. Similarly to stretching this is not an overnight process and for best results should be performed everyday for consistent gains.
Myofascial release should be included in every warm up you do but not only that, it should be performed at least once a day, preferably in the morning for best results.
As previously mentioned dynamic stretching will increase a joint’s range of motion safely(3) but with some planning you can kill two birds with one stone and escape the typical cardio warm up of jogging as a comprehensive dynamic stretching session should also increase body temperature provided the session begins with simple easy dynamic stretches and the intensity gradually increases of time. Some things to note are that for every single rep completed it’s important to focus on the quality of the movement rather than just finishing the set. By also using dynamic stretching exercises similar to the movements to be performed during training, you’re grooving neurological pathways teaching your body to move better and preparing it for the greater forces that may be exerted on it. The main causes of injuries tend to be poor biomechanics, mobility or muscle imbalances. Dynamic stretching will directly improve mobility and indirectly improve muscle imbalances when coupled with specific corrective exercises so why not dynamic stretch everyday right after myofascial release!
As stated previously to get the most from your training you need to prep your body to perform at its greatest potential. Unfortunately for us day to day life causes a lot of our muscles to be shut down and inhibited, and require a little extra attention before we can expect them to contract to their maximum. Good examples of this are the glutes and scapular retractors. For this reason specific exercises absolutely need to be included into your warm up, and can even by added to your daily routine as there are numerous benifits(10), after the dynamic stretching. Again these muscle activation exercises need to be specific to the movements you’ll be performing during training and a basic understanding of anatomy and physiology will greatly help you choose/concoct activation exercises best suited for your training session.
So in conclusion your warm up should include the following, should gradually increase in intensity and increase body temperature
- Soft tissue work
- Dynamic Stretching
- Activation Exercises
- Manning Up(optional)