“Our Warm Up is a Warm Up”
by Greg Everett of Catalyst Athletics
Somewhere along the line, warming up became remarkably complicated. And for some, the line between warming up and training has faded to the point that I find myself compelled to say things like the title of this post.
Whenever you start getting confused about what to do, a reliable course of action is to ask yourself a simple question: Why? What is the purpose of this? What am I trying to accomplish? If you can answer those questions, chances are you’ll be able to work it all out just fine. If you can’t answer those questions satisfactorily, don’t be afraid to seek out the advice of someone more experienced in that particular area.
When it comes to warming up, what are we trying to accomplish? The name itself is a bit of a hint, but increasing body temperature is just one element. It might be easier if we rename the warm-up to training preparation. Now if we ask what we’re trying to accomplish, it should be obvious: we’re preparing our bodies for the training to follow.
I’ve seen more times than I can even believe warm-ups that read exactly like workouts—and not easy ones. The first thing I think to myself when I see these warm-ups is that I would have to warm-up to do them. This is a pretty good tip-off that your warm-up may not be serving its purpose. Ring dips, box jumps, burpees and the like are not elements of a warm-up. There will be times when you insert non-warm-up exercises before the primary workout, but these come after an adequate warm-up; they’re not part of it. These are usually remedial exercises to address an athlete’s or client’s weaknesses or activation exercises to help correct inactive musculature in a manner that carries over into the subsequent training (an example would be glute medius activation drills).
The title of this post is a modification of a popular line that demonstrates a lack of understanding of the purpose of a warm-up (which would garner more sympathy from me if it weren’t demonstrative of such an elitist attitude), as well as suggests that some people are more concerned with creating the appearance of athletic ability than actually developing it.
Having recently hired two new trainers at Catalyst, I’m having to go over a lot of the fundamentals again to ensure that everyone’s on the same page. One of the things I find myself reiterating regularly is that the number one priority in this gym is not hurting people. As much as I feel like this should be so obvious it shouldn’t need to be even said out loud, it can be overlooked easily when overwhelmed by the excitement and novelty of certain aspects of training, and often a big part of a trainer’s job is protecting clients from themselves.
That being said, I recognize and accept that some injuries and pain are inevitable with any physical activity, particularly among groups of people who have the shared tendency to push themselves. However, I see this not as an excuse to ignore it, but as a reason to do everything we possibly can to minimize the occurrence and severity of injuries. Much of this is accomplished through programming choices and client entry protocols, but the warm-up plays a significant role.
So what should a warm-up actually look like? Here are some guidelines to help you develop what I would consider an effective training preparation protocol.
This is some repetitive activity like rowing, jogging or jumping rope. I don’t believe this to always be necessary. Its purpose is to get some initial body temperature increase and systemic loosening in unusually cold temperatures or for individuals who have been immobile for a long period of time prior to training. This should be low intensity and for about 2-5 minutes depending on need. We usually start our class warm-ups with one of these or some basic agility ladder drills since most of our clientele work sedentary office jobs. This is definitely important for our early morning classes—usually these clients have literally just rolled out of bed. Agility ladder work is a lot more interesting than jogging or rowing and our clients love it. Partner medicine ball drills are another way to get some more fun and variety into this part of the warm-up.
Possibly the most significant change to my basic warm-up routine has been the addition of pre-training foam rolling. When I was first introduced to the practice, I relegated it to the post-workout period along with stretching. This of course is helpful and certainly worth doing, but rolling before training can make a tremendous impact on movement by allowing muscle and fascia to glide more smoothly. Hitting problem spots a little more aggressively is fine, but generally I suggest pre-training foam rolling be fairly light, smooth and quick rather than slow and painful; the latter I find best saved for after training (this is somewhat analogous to using dynamic stretching pre-workout and static stretching post-workout). I like to hit the upper back to mobilize the thoracic spine, then smooth out the scapular musculature and lat/teres/etc. attachments under the arms. From there glutes, hamstrings/adductors; then VMO/adductors, quads from front to lateral aspects, ITB/TFL, and finally calves if needed. Generally about 10 passes on each area is adequate.
This is where we get into the kicks and twirlies. My goal with this portion of a warm-up is two basic things: make sure I address all the movements or joints necessary, and try to get in enough variation day to day that people stay engaged and perform it properly rather than turn into drooling robots who aren’t accomplishing what I expect them to.
I posted a video of many of the drills I use frequently on the site a couple years ago. This is a pretty extensive warm-up series and typically I wouldn’t actually use all of these in a single warm-up. I think of this stuff in sets of drills that each address a certain movement or area of the body and then I try to alternate exercises each warm-up while still having 1-3 from each set. This is how we get some variety without neglecting anything.
These drills can also be varied to prepare people specifically for the subsequent workout. That is, emphasis can be placed on movements and areas of the body that will be important for the training. An example would be doing more wrist, elbow, shoulder and upper back work for a workout that has a significant overhead component.
I conceptualize these sets or areas of the body somewhat nebulously, but if I had to write them down it would look something like this:
There is a range of specificity there both by necessity and for the sake of practicality. Following are some ideas of how I address each area. You’ll notice that many of the drills don’t fit neatly into one category and often address multiple areas—this is just the nature of athletic movement and is only a problem when trying to write something like this. In fact, it ends up being convenient because you’re often able to get more accomplished with fewer drills.
My default drill here is wrist circles with the hands clasped together. This is quick and simple and usually about as much as the typical person needs. If a client has particularly tight wrists and/or will be doing activity that demands a lot from the wrists, stretches can be done with the hands on the floor or against a wall for flexion and extension or with one hand used to stretch the other. Drills with PVC pipes and similar can also be thrown in occasionally. Also, if you’re doing some floor-based work later, e.g. inchworms, you’ll be getting some of this stretching along with that.
Elbows go overlooked much of the time until they start hurting, at which point it’s usually too late to fix them quickly. A few seconds of mobility work will help keep the elbows moving smoothly. Basic elbow circles are usually enough, although I have my clients rotate the hands as they do them to get a little more movement of the radius and ulna. Make sure you go both directions and extend the elbow completely each time.
You can get a bit more involved and throw in things like drill bits (demonstrated about halfway through this video), or rotations with a PVC pipe. For the latter, hold a PVC pipe horizontally in front of you with your left hand gripping the left end of the pipe with a supinated grip and your right hand grasping the middle of the pipe lightly (doesn’t really matter if it’s palm up or down, but up is easier). Keeping the right hand as an anchor in about the same place, let the pipe slide through it freely as needed while you pronate your left hand, still gripping the pipe, and extend your left elbow. Move back and forth between supination and pronation, fully extending your elbow each time.
Foam rolling the thoracic spine is the ideal way to start your shoulder warm-up. Many times people are so focused on shoulder mobility that they overlook the fact that their upper backs are hunched and tight, placing excessive demand on the shoulders to take up the slack. Mobilize the upper back, and suddenly your shoulders will feel a lot more flexible.
The basic arm circle forward and backward is the standard. Make sure you’re moving the shoulder blades in concert with the arms as you do these and keeping your upper back extended. People get remarkably lazy with these and end up looking like hunchbacks running a giant egg beater in front of themselves. Over and backs (swing the arms up over your shoulders and chop your upper back, then swing the arms back down behind you) and bear hug swings (swing your arms out to the sides, then back across your body like you’re hugging yourself) are also quick and easy.
If the following workout is shoulder intensive or the shoulders are a focal point, some more in-depth work can be added. Dislocates and presses behind the neck with a PVC pipe are quick and effective (make sure you’re retracting your shoulder blades with the presses). Pipe rolls are a good way to finish after some dislocates. With the same grip, swing one arm up and around your head and follow with the other arm; make sure you go in both directions.
Band pull-downs and chest expanders are good as well. For the pull downs, grip the ends of a light elastic band and hold it overhead like you would a bar for an overhead squat. Keeping the shoulder blades retracted tightly, pull the hands down to the sides until they’re below your shoulders. The band should slide lightly down your back—this isn’t a dislocate; the hands move straight down and back up. For chest expanders, use the same grip but start with the arms in front of you. Squeeze the shoulder blades back and pull the band apart as you bring your arms backward and let the band stretch across your chest.
Finally, a stretch we call the pat down: get near a wall and put the hands against it overhead like you’re getting searched by an arresting officer. Keeping the abs tight to prevent hyperextension of the back, push your chest down and back from the wall to open the shoulders. Instead of just pushing, thinking of pulling down away from the hands as well.
Standing trunk rotations are sufficient to loosen up spinal rotation and hit the hips a bit, and they’re quick and nearly impossible to screw up too bad. Allow your back foot to pivot as you rotate away from it. You can do some rotation on the floor with iron crosses, which can be a bit more of a stretch, but doesn’t have the same dynamic element. Lying on your back with your arms to the sides and legs straight, lift one straight leg up and then bring it across your body to try to touch it to your opposite hand. Bring it back to the midline and down and switch legs.
While I like the standing rotations a bit more than iron crosses, they can’t do what the scorpion can do for the hip flexors. Lying on your stomach with the arms out to the sides, bend one leg and bring the foot to the opposite hand. Activate the glutes as you do this to keep the lower back from hyperextending and to help relax the hip flexors and allow them to stretch.
Leg swings forward and backward are very basic but effective. The back swing will loosen up the quads and hip flexors if done properly: keep the knee close to the other leg and try to close the knee entirely while getting the knee behind the hip.
Lunge variations are excellent for opening up the hips and I like having some kind of lunge used daily not only for this reason but also because of the glute activation and hip stability elements. Basic walking lunges are the simplest, but to this I’ll usually add either a rotation of the trunk or lateral trunk flexion toward the lead leg at the bottom of the lunge to further stretch the hip flexors.
Hip circles can be thrown in as well. The glutes should be kept tight as the hips move forward to stretch the hip flexors.
The bow and bend is again the most basic here but also effective. Bend at the hips with the knees slightly unlocked and reach to the floor, then return to the top and use the glutes to push the hips forward as you lean back. The back can round as you reach down, but don’t let it complete the whole movement—make sure the hips are hinging so you’re stretching the hamstrings. This will hit the hip flexors quite well also as long as you get the hips through with tight glutes.
The spiderman lunge is one of my top choices for opening up the hips. Take a long lunge step and put the hands on the floor, then try to push your hips and chest toward the floor as far as possible. Stay low as you advance with the next leg. The lead shin should be about vertical—don’t get your body way ahead of your front foot. This should feel like someone is trying to rip your leg out of your hip, but in a non-violent and helpful way.
Groiners are like mountain climbers that reach the feet up to the hands and put you in the spiderman lunge position. The idea is to switch legs rhythmically, but to sink in deep each time to stretch out the hip capsule and adductors.
Leg cradles (knee to chest) are a good starting movement that doesn’t cause much strain. I like doing these walking and extending the ankle of the support leg as you squeeze the other knee to your chest. Make sure the support side glutes are active and your hips remain squared off—don’t let the lifted leg side drop.
Lunge variations will do some stretching of the lead leg hamstrings, adductors and glutes. The forward and backward leg swings mentioned above will hit the hamstrings on the forward swing. Lock in the pelvis as you swing—letting the hips rock back simply allows the lower back to flex rather than keeping the swing to the hip joint. Side leg swings will hit the adductors on the outward swing and some lateral hip, TFL and ITB on the inward swing. Lean forward slightly to lean against a wall or pole and swing one leg across yourself and then back out to the side. Let the toe point up at each side.
Inchworms are another good early drill because they’re slow and controlled. Place the hands on the floor in front of the feet with straight knees and walk them out slowly. When you reach a push-up position, drop the hips to the floor, engage the glutes, and lift your chest to stretch your hip flexors. Then walk the feet (keeping the legs straight) back up to your hands.
The Kossack is one of those exercises that I love but seem to forget too much of the time. Get into a squat and throw one leg straight out to the side with the heel on the floor and your toes pointed up. Keeping your feet on the floor, shift into a squat on the straight leg side and straighten the formerly bent leg. Keep your hands on the floor in front of you and support yourself as much as you need to make it from side to side without tearing your groin. Eventually you should be able to do this with no arm support and keeping your hips low as you transition from side to side.
Finally, there’s the Russian Baby Maker. I doubt I’m the first one to ever do this stretch, but I am the one who gave it that name. And no, I’m not going to explain why—it’s an inside joke that dates back to my college years; you’ll just have to trust me that it’s funny. Put your feet a little wider than your normal squat stance and toes a little more forward than you would normally squat with. With your hands holding the tops of your feet, wedge your elbows between your thighs—get them back as deep into your groin as you can manage. While pushing the elbows out into your thighs, slowly drop your hips toward a squat position. Don’t worry about keeping your back arched. This is not the same as pushing the knees out in a squat position—here we’re trying to spread the proximal ends of the femurs apart rather than the distal ends. In other words, spread the hips, not the knees. You can hold this bottom position for a while, or you can periodically move the hips up slightly and re-settle.
The knees should get pretty warm with the above drills, but focus work can be done if desired. Simple squats are a good place to start. To these, you can add some knee rotations in the bottom position, which will also help the hips and ankles. In the bottom of the squat, put the hands on the knees and move the hips up and down slightly as you push the knees in small circles each direction.
You can also do knee rotations in a number of ways from a standing position. The basic one is with the feet close together and straight forward, place the hands on slightly bent knees and move both knees together in a circle. You can also move the feet out and move the knees in the same direction, or in opposite directions.
The above knee circles in the bottom of the squat is a good ankle warm-up and a number of different movements can be performed from this bottom position, such as shifting side to side. A more aggressive stretch can be performed by leaning both forearms on one knee to push the ankle closed.
Ankle circles in the standing position with the toe on the floor are quick and simple, and you can also add some heel-toe walking to other warm-up drills to sneak in some ankle work.
Putting it Together
This isn’t an exhaustive list—there are other exercises that can be used to address each of these areas. However, this is more than enough to keep you busy and getting enough variety to not drive yourself or your clients nuts. A single warm-up won’t use all of these drills by any means. We get a group warm-up done here in 12-15 minutes at a steady but not rushing pace. An example series might look like:
1. Wrist circles – 10 each direction
2. Elbow circles – 10 each direction
3. Arm circles – 10 each direction
4. Bow & bend – 10
5. 1-legged RDL + leg swings – 10 each leg
6. Spiderman lunge – 10 each leg
7. Scorpion – 10 each side
8. Russian Baby Makers – 30 sec hold
9. PVC dislocates – 10
10. PVC overhead squats – 10
Select static stretching can be placed here to address specific problem areas that need aggressive stretching.
This would now be the time to perform any remedial work you want to place before the workout. The individual is warm and the muscles and joints prepared to perform exercises safely and effectively. Examples would be glute activation drills like bridges, clamshells and X-band walks or shoulder prep/pre-hab work like band external and internal rotations, abduction, etc., or stability exercises like Turkish get-ups. These are drills that will either help the athlete or client perform safely or properly in training, or are elements deemed important enough to warrant the focus and energy only available at the beginning of the training session.
I know a few people who never warm-up, and a few of them will even tell you that warming up is unnecessary. Interestingly enough, all of these folks have chronic pain and histories of injury. Don’t make up silly excuses and analogies because you don’t feel like spending a few more minutes getting reading. You’re not a wild animal being chased without warning in the jungle—you’re an athlete getting ready to train in the gym.