Come with me, if you will, to a land of make believe.
A place of fairy tale wonder, full of people who never have the need to warm-up their bodies before physical exercise. Playfully leaping around in lush valleys of barbells and chalk... giggling through treelimb pull-ups and snatching gigantic flower stems... climbing vines and swinging kettleberries. In this pleasantville of sparkle-eyed, chiseled bodies, not a soul lacks range of motion. Not a soul has tight muscles. And not one fitness nymph gets a "no rep." Ever.
Sound ridiculous? That's because this place doesn't exist. Remember? It's make believe.
For the world of reality that lays before us muscle mortals, warm-ups are useful and necessary-- even for those seemingly perfect professional exercisers. But maybe not in the way you think. So what is truly necessary for workout preparation?
Common sense tells more and more people to give their bodies 1) a generalized warm-up before physical activity, and 2) an exercise specific lead up to any workout or sport.
Just stretching a bit beforehand doesn't do the trick. In fact, stretching in general has received critique in recent years anyway. See a few viewpoints here: NBC via the CDC, HuffPost, Mobility WOD, Mark Sisson, T-Nation.
A muscular and connective tissue warm-up is often best when suited towards the individual. At the gym, we use a group warm-up as a one-size-fits-all preparation. It works, but is mostly beneficial to give members an idea of what movements to use if ever prompted to take time on their own for warm-ups. The more knowledge you gain about yourself, the better you can prep for a workout or competition.
General theory is the shorter the workout, the longer the warm-up. Meaning, higher intensity work requires a longer warm-up, whereas a shorter prep might be just fine for longer exertion. Also, extra mobility work should take place outside of the warm-up and is potentially best post-workout or at least when blood flow has increased. Past that, get to know your body so you can gear preparation correctly. And be adamant and committed to doing things right so a good warm-up ensures you are set up for success in the gym. Does a varied warm-up work? Or do you like the same, scripted preparation to feel ready to go each day?
But what's often missing is something else entirely. Sit back and listen close...
Once upon a time there was a misunderstood body system called the central nervous system. The CNS, for short. Around before you were born, the CNS is as complex as all the solar systems in all the galaxies in the universe. If we could go back in time, we'd see this system actually start to develop before your first heartbeat.
Potentially overlooked in the gym, the CNS controls a person's motor functions and all voluntary muscle action. Nothing "goes" unless the nerves send a signal. So we could think of a CNS warm-up as a start up to the body's computer-- the brain to muscle group connection needs booting up to be online.
Would you jump in a car that sat in the garage all day and pop it in drive, immediately slamming the gas pedal to the floor? No way. Well, at least not if it's your car and you want it to last. So why would you get under the barbell without preparation and expect maximum performance out of your body? It's a more complex machine than a car's engine. And you definitely want yourself to last.
In basic terms for physical movement, you can't expect to perform at your best when the nerve pathways that fire to make you move aren't greased.
If the workout facing you has heavy lifting, in the vein of a 1repmax, then you'll need to put some intensity ahead of the stress that will follow. A person can go in "cold" and still have success in a lift or a workout, but think of when you've had your PR lifts-- it's after a few quality ramp up sets, guaranteed. Otherwise you haven't maximized your potential. This is why we often use plyometrics or other explosive movements to ignite your CNS. Speed and power are critical-- more muscle fibers need to be recruited for the more weight you lift.
Once you have performed a general dynamic warm-up, a number of exercises can be used to light up your CNS before your heavy training. These exercises are not performed in a manner to fatigue the muscles, remember. They are meant to prime the pump... which is an amazingly accurate pun if I do say so myself. Before squatting, go through a few box jumps, split jumps, or kettlebell swings-- all excellent options. Prior to deadlifting or Oly lifting, clean or snatch from various positions at the hang to initiate lat/trap/shoulder involvement and improve hip mobility. (Reference from Chad Smith.)
A warm-up for a higher rep workout, something with gymnastic elements for instance, would still include dynamic activities that require quick and strong muscular contraction. Once the body's core temperature has been elevated, these movements would serve to fire up the CNS and prepare it for the upcoming volume. Particularly if fast movements will be required in a WOD. Think kipping pull-ups, air squats, push-ups, etc.
We'll often do running drills pre-workout, even if there isn't any running in the WOD. Calling on the CNS to rev up by messing with coordination a little creates those routes necessary from synapses in the brain and all along the spinal cord. Other simple items to include could be contract/relax exercises for mobility prep and core awakening exercises such as toes to bar, hollow rocks, and isometric squat holds. (Reference from Allen Besselink.)
For more details, check this excellent post by Darrell Morgan.
So there's the quick run-down to the warm-up. Think about what you are working towards, and what would be beneficial to include in your preparation to maximize your power output. Then see if the warm-up helped, and live happily ever after.
Better than a fairy tale ending, this is a smart and realistic approach to warming up for success in the gym.
- Scott, 8.25.2013