Regardless of what type of training session you’ve got scheduled for the day, there is one component that should always be included: the warm-up. The goal of your warm-up should be to prepare you to perform your scheduled training optimally. Warming-up effectively for a training session is not that complicated assuming you understand some basic principles of warming-up. As an example: the content of your warm-up for an Weightlifting session should be different than the content of your warm-up for a 5k run. Both of these training sessions place different demands on the neuromuscular and metabolic systems and your warm-up should prepare you for those specific demands.
Warming-up, while often dismissed as unnecessary by unaware athletes (not warming-up is actually worn as a badge of honor by some younger athletes), actually shifts your body's physiology into a more favorable state for exercise. Depending on the structure and content of your warm-up there are a number of physiological changes that can occur. Regardless of whether you are aware or “feel” them happening these changes can lead directly to performance benefits. With a properly implemented warm-up you can expect to see improvement in the following physiological systems:
Cardiovascular & Respiratory system
- dilate blood vessels to redirect blood flow to working muscles
- overcome heart rate inertia
- increase cardiac output
- increase neural drive
- improve synchronization (coordinated muscle recruitment)
- reduce reciprocal inhibition
Energy production systems (anaerobic & aerobic systems)
- activate aerobic and anaerobic enzymes
- increase utilization of O2
- begin lactate shuttle
- decrease blood lactate accumulation
Prepare skeletal muscle system
- increase elasticity and extensibility (improved ROM & contractile force)
- increase muscle temperature (improved enzyme activity)
- increase synovial fluid in joint capsules (improved lubrication of joints)
Defining the Warm-up
For the purposes of this article we’re going to define the warm-up as any movement, mobility, energy-system, or skill components you perform prior to beginning the main portion of your training session. Your warm-up should be broken down into two phases: the General Warm-up and the Specific Warm-up. Your General Warm-up should address the central demands of your main training for the day. This means performing movements which activate your central body systems, the cardiorespiratory (heart/lungs/vascular system) and central nervous system (brain/spinal cord) in order to prepare your body globally for training. Your Specific Warm-up should address the peripheral demands of your main training for the day. This may mean performing movements which improve specific ranges of motion, ramp up local energy-production systems (anaerobic/aerobic), and sharpen any skill components included in your main training session. By following this basic structure: moving from general, central preparation into a specific, targeted warm-up phase, you can ensure that you’ve covered all your bases and are optimally prepared for your training session.
One of the things that we try to do at Training Think Tank is to draw on the experience of best practices in other sporting disciplines. If you look at the training session structure for elite athletes in many other well-developed endurance or strength/power sports they tend to look relatively similar. I believe that the training structure for mixed-modal athletes should mimic the training structure for these sports. They have had the benefit of years of trial and error to arrive at the ideal training structure for high-level athletes in their sport and it would be naive to believe that the conceptual training structure for a mixed-modal sport would differ greatly. The following table describes the typical training layout for elite athletes in both endurance as well as strength/power sports. There are some very clear similarities between in the structure (not the content) of the training-day template between the two different disciplines.
In the case of this blog you should pay particular attention to the warm-up phases of these training templates. Regardless of the goal of the training session, elite athletes are looking to first prime their central systems, and then address their peripheral limitations and hone skills. Constructing a warm-up to accomplish this is easiest if you divide your warm-up into two distinct phases: the General Warm-up and the Specific Warm-up
General Warm-up Phase
The General Warm-up should prepare your central systems for the demands of your training session.
For a cyclical or mixed-modal energy-system training session the Specific Warm-up can be as simple as rowing, running, or cycling for a moderate duration at low to moderate intensities. This should be sufficient to stimulate your cardiorespiratory system to increase cardiac output as well as redistribute blood flow away from the digestive tract toward working muscles and skin (essential for optimal performance). It is important to ensure that you closely regulate the intensity of this phase of the general warm-up. If you are too aggressive this can lead to an over-contribution of energy-production by the anaerobic system, as the cardiorespiratory system is in the process of adjusting blood flow and cardiac output and will not be delivering oxygen to working tissues efficiently.
For a neuromuscular targeted training session (i.e. strength/power training) your general warm-up should consist of global calisthenics or low-impact plyometric type movements. The intensity of these training modalities should be low to start and progressively increase to allow a ramping-up of the nervous system for your training session. The goal here is primarily to stimulate an increase in arousal of the nervous system. Some athletes may feel that they need to perform low-intensity cyclical work prior to engaging in these types of calisthenics movements. This should not cause any issues, however it is not required for optimal neuromuscular performance.
Specific Warm-up Phase
The Specific Warm-up should address the movements (ROM & skill), and energy-systems that are going to be utilized during your main training session.
For both energy-system and neuromuscular system training, your specific warm-up should first include dynamic range-of-motion (DROM) type movements. DROM movements are compound, multi-joint exercises, which use sport-specific movements to prepare the body for activity. For example, if your training session incorporates deadlifting, you could perform unloaded Walking Good Mornings to prepare the bending musculature for the training session. When implemented prior to training or competition DROM has been consistently shown in research to improve performance. Research also suggests that athletes should avoid static stretching prior to training if the focus is to develop maximal strength and power. However practical experience has demonstrated that some athletes who are chronically tight may need to engage in some form of static ROM work in order to attain optimal positioning for the development of power.
Once you’ve completed the DROM portion of your Specific Warm-up you should next address any skill-development components relevant to the main training session. Continuing the example of deadlifting as a part of your main training; you could spend 5-10min focusing on your setup and lockout positions at light to moderate loads while doing video-review between each skill-development set. The goal is to reinforce good positioning prior to engaging in heavy-loading so that you can maintain consistent technique throughout the training session.
If you are performing an energy-system training session then you would need to include one more step in your Specific Warm-up: energy-system preparation. It takes time for our anaerobic and aerobic systems to function optimally. The two energy-production systems are interconnected, essentially the aerobic system can use the byproducts of the anaerobic system as fuel (pyruvate/lactic acid/H+) and the aerobic system recycles components of the anaerobic system (creatine phosphate). By engaging in progressively higher intensity intervals, and ramping up the energy-systems you are able to produce energy more efficiently. For example, if your training session called for 5min intervals of rowing and deadlift @ 90% effort, your warm-up could include 90sec intervals of rowing and deadlift progressing from 60%-90% effort. This progressive increase in intensity will allow your energy-systems to balance anaerobic and aerobic contributions to the training session more appropriately resulting in an improvement in your performance.
Constructing a Warm-up
As discussed before, the overall structure of your warm-up should be relatively consistent across different types of training. The biggest difference will be in the content of your warm-up components. Below you will find a simplified warm-up template as well as example warm-ups for cyclical energy-system training, strength and power training, and mixed-modal energy-system training.
Example warm-up for a cyclical energy-system training session
*note: in this example the skill & energy-system prep are combined
Example warm-up for strength/power training session
Example warm-up for mixed-modal energy-system training session
My hope is that you will take what I outlined above and adapt it for your individual situation. I realize that not everyone has 20-40min to complete a perfect warm-up for every training session. Athletes at the CrossFit Games and Regional level will need to learn how to condense their warm-up into 10-20min due to the tight timelines of those events. Additionally athletes who are engaged in coaching a class prior to the start of their training session may have dramatically different warm-up needs than the elite level athlete who has made training their only priority or the 9-5 salesperson who sits in their car for 5+ hours every day. However if you implement even a condensed version of these warm-up elements on a consistent basis you will likely see a consistent improvement in your training results.