Warming up correctly: Why correctly priming your body is essential to your training

Warming up correctly: Why correctly priming your body may be the single most important part of your gym session

I’ve never met someone who looks forward to taking their car in for a service. I think many of you would agree that it’s a burden; you have to schedule your day round a trip to a mechanic that will leave you vehicle-less and may well result in a hefty bill coming your way. But despite the annoyance of this process, I would never miss a service because I know that it is in the best interest of the short term performance and longevity of the car. Warming up before a gym session is much the same, when you're running short on time dedicating 10 min to priming the body can feel like a big ask especially if it detracts from your main body of work. Not only does it use your precious time but very rarely is a warm up engaging enough that you are excited to be doing it. More often than not it’s simply going through the motions. It’s because of these factors that casual athletes often disregard a warm up which signifies the belief that an additional few working sets’ are a more constructive use of their time.

The problem is that this presumption is blatantly incorrect.

In broad strokes, a warm-up routine is anything that draws blood to your muscles before engaging in physical activity. As blood flow increases to these soft tissues the temperature of the muscles increases allowing it to move through the range of motion more explosively, hence where the literal meaning of ‘warm up’ is derived. The benefits of warm-up before exercise can be categorized into performance improvement and injury prevention.

Irrespective of your skill level, if you're dedicating time to an exercise routine you should be concerned with how your output has trended overtime,as this will be your best indication if the training is having the desired physiological impact. A meta-analysis examining studies into the efficacy of warm ups (other than static stretching) before exercise found that 76% of participants across over 30 studies experience positive performance improvements when warming up compared to going straight into a sport specific exercise. While the magnitude of these improvements varied dramatically between sports, there were no observed cases of diminished performance because of a warm up. Suggesting that in the interest of performance improvements a warm-up is low risk and constructive even if the benefits are only on the margins.

Unfortunately engaging in physical pursuits at a high level of output are inherently risky as I’m sure many readers know too well because of their experience with sport induced injuries. Warming up is often heralded as a necessary practice to help mitigate this risk because of the aforementioned physiological changes that occur when priming the body at low level of output. Unfortunately, a meta-analysis’s attempt to legitimize these claims concluded that further research would be required to reach a conclusion because of the difficulty of conducting randomized control studies that examined the occurrence of injuries in large sample sizes. While there remain gaps in the literature, anecdotally many sports persons report that the psychological benefits from warming up due to heightened focus and confidence have compelled them to include a warm-up before every training session and game - how many times have you heard of a professional team that hasn’t warmed up?

Before introducing Spike Fitness protocols designed to make warm-up more engaging and productive I wanted to address a common misunderstanding about warming up - this is the myth of static stretching. Static stretching refers to holding a specific position that lengths a muscle to help increase the range of motion. This is often achieved by using your body weight to load a position that otherwise would have been difficult to achieve because of the limited flexion of your muscles. For a long time, it was assumed that this was the best way to prepare, working in this top-end range of motion was thought to allow someone to easily achieve this position when under load. However, as science has improved this practice has been disregarded as often the held position exceeds the range of movement natural to an individual's biomechanics and diminishes the elasticity of the muscles which is required for explosive force production. Static stretching does have its place in a fitness regiment but it certainly isn’t before a workout, instead, dynamic variations should be prioritized.

This leaves us with how exactly should we warm up to get the performance benefits and risk mitigation? To answer this I've compiled a series of protocols I like to follow with my clients to keep warm ups engaging and productive.

  • Gamification - Warm-ups are very rarely inspiring or enjoyable which is why so many people throw them in the bucket of ‘try again next time’. To counter this I like to use novel games such as sock wrestling, a game of tip or even Spike Ball to get people moving and increase their heart rate before starting a session.

  • Specificity - the human body is complex and a one size fits all approach to warming up isn’t going to be suitable especially when you are in a gym and different days will have different areas of focus. When designing a workout, be deliberate about your selection of movements based on what you know you are going to train. Rowing and jumping are going to suit your squat days far more than days your bench press.

  • Progressions - Using data to test and improve your warms can easily be integrated by measuring your range of motion or skills. By adding objectivity to your workout some of my clients feel more disciplined and determined to improve this aspect of their training.

  • Grease the groove - I am a firm believer in taking your time to execute a movement pattern for multiple reps under increasing load as you work up to a working set. This is something I do for all compound exercises as in addition to warming up it can draw my attention to a niggle I have before I expose it to a load that could further aggravate the issue.

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