What Does a Good Warmup Entail?
CrossFit is a training methodology formulated to develop participants’ “General Physical Preparedness” (hereinafter, “GPP”). That is, the programming is written to strengthen and enhance participants’ work capacities across a wide range of functional skill sets that will help them meet the physical and mental demands of daily life. Because the CrossFit mandate is broad, the means employed by coaches to achieve that end are necessarily diverse. Training sessions may involve any number of weightlifting, powerlifting, or gymnastics movements; endurance work; or, a multitude of other random and unanticipated physical obstacles. Moreover, those individuals participating in CrossFit come from an assortment of backgrounds and degrees of experience. Under these circumstances, structuring a warmup that adequately prepares a potentially large and diverse group of athletes to participate in a workout that may include several different movements is no simple task.
Indeed, when it comes to programming warmups, no size fits all. Rather than being rigid instruments of training preparation, warmups are malleable tools that are capable of being adapted to the needs of individual athletes and the unique characteristics of the assigned work. Nonetheless, good warmups share some common foundational elements from which all athletes will profit, regardless of the training setting. In this discussion, I will address the general question: what does a good warmup entail?
There is, however, a more fundamental question that must be answered before we discuss what a good warmup entails: why do we warm up? Deciding which activities belong in a good warmup necessarily depends on the purposes for which warmups are employed. Those that follow are the three most relevant to our discussion. The first purpose of warming up is to wake the body up—to kick-start the heart and stimulate the nervous system. The second purpose is to activate the various muscle groups of the body and begin the processes of motor recruitment and coordination. Closely related to the first and second purposes of warming up, the third is to find the body’s current functional range of motion, while simultaneously preparing the body to operate within that range. To some degree, all three of these purposes will be reflected in the structure of a good warmup.
With respect to structure, a good warmup is comprised of two tiers, characterized as: 1) the “general” warmup; and 2) the “specific” warmup. There is another supplemental component of training sessions that can mistakenly be grouped within the purview of a warmup: mobility work (hereinafter, also referred to as “flexibility training”). The criterion by which mobility work is distinguished from the warmup is subtle but important. Accordingly, I will elaborate on the distinction after I discuss both tiers of a good warmup.
Chronologically, the general warmup precedes the specific warmup, and aside from recovery and properly fueling the body in the day(s) and hour(s) leading up to a training session, the general warmup is the first onsite stage of training preparation. Among several other functions, the first priority of the general warmup is to increase blood flow from the heart muscle to the other muscle groups, organs, and connective tissues of the body. The circulatory system is the railway on which the body’s energy is transported, and blood is the stream of microscopic railcars that delivers oxygen and nutrients to the other parts of the body. The efficient operation of this entire network is regulated by the heart and the rate at which its four chambers coordinate their contractions. Consequently, a general warmup should include movements that elevate the heartrate, such as jumping rope, running, rowing, etc., performed at low to moderate intensity. Having athletes gradually escalate their intensity throughout the general warmup can also be productive, and doing so creates the anticipatory sensation in athletes’ minds and bodies that they are gearing up for something significant.
Along with the heart, the other muscles of the body must also be prepared to move (and move aggressively) during the upcoming training session, and their tasks may include anything from lifting external loads to simply supporting the body’s own mass as it moves in and out of different athletic positions. Accordingly, another primary function of the general warmup is to activate some of the body’s bigger muscle groups by introducing them—through movement—to motor sequences that imitate the exercises or portions of the exercises that those muscle groups will be executing during the training session. Through bodyweight movements, such as air squats, ring rows, plyometric movements, etc., we begin the process of gradually exposing the joints and the surrounding tissues of the musculoskeletal system to the ranges of motion within which they must be primed to work. At this stage of training preparation, the body can tolerate light external loads, so performing movements like goblet squats is also useful during the general warmup. In fact, supporting some type of external load often helps participants with the early phases of muscle recruitment and weight distribution.
Closely related to generating efficient blood flow throughout the body, and a major factor in commanding the body how to operate, is a third function of the general warmup: to stimulate both components of the body’s nervous system—the central nervous system (hereinafter, “CNS”) and the peripheral nervous system (hereinafter, “PNS”). As much as we like to casually attribute the performance of basic functional movements like an air squat to “habit”, performing an air squat with proper (and efficient) technique is actually the product of intricate neurological communication that is controlled by the coordinated efforts of the CNS and PNS. In other words, the brain is responsible for cuing the various parts of the body to move in any which way, while the nervous system is the apparatus that makes relaying those messages possible.
Oftentimes, during the meat of a training session, athletes will need to react suddenly to some stimulus. When this happens, the nervous system will compel the body to move quickly, even though the athletes do not have time to cognitively process what is happening or contemplate their movements. To increase the chances that their bodies will rely on proper mechanics in this training context, athletes must deliberately focus on each repetition during the general warmup. Additionally, without sufficient midline stability, their bodies will be incapable of assigning tension effectively, whether attempting to isolate muscle groups or compound their efforts. This is why core movements, like hollow rocks and planks, should also play a role in the general warmup. As a whole, an adequate general warmup that includes all of these different elements can be completed in ten to twenty minutes.
Naturally, the general warmup is followed by the specific warmup, which is tailored more precisely to the particular movements programmed for performance during the training session. Indeed, the priority of the specific warmup is to further refine the processes of muscle activation and motor sequencing initiated during the general warmup. Accomplishing this task begins with breaking down the movements programmed for the training session into their derivatives, and then performing sets of those derivative movements at light loads. This step need only last a few minutes, if time is limited. Take, for example, an assigned power snatch (from the ground). Instead of jumping right into performing barbell power snatches from the ground, perform several sets of hang power snatches from various positions, as well as some overhead squats. Breaking down the movement by performing derivative exercises allows athletes to target and coordinate the recruitment of muscle groups that may have been overlooked during the general warmup, but are no less essential to executing the programmed movements.
After gradually progressing from the derivative exercises to the assigned movement(s), all that remains of the specific warmup is to execute any preparatory sets of the assigned movement(s) that precede the “working” sets. Were deadlifts assigned at some fixed percentage of an athlete’s capacity, performing sets of deadlifts at lighter percentages would constitute the final part of the specific warmup. Although essential for optimal performance, the specific warmup is usually rushed or disregarded, and the reason most frequently given is fatigue. But that is no excuse to rush the body into a workout, just like anticipating muscle soreness is not an excuse to avoid engaging in physical exercise after years of neglect. The body will adapt to thorough warmups in the same way that it will adapt to periodized progressive overloading in strength training.
Stretching may also play a functional role in a good warmup, but I will reserve the specifics for a future discussion. Vaguely speaking, stretching should be done in conjunction with the general warmup, once blood flow to the muscles and protective tissues that support the joints has increased. Stretching while “cold” is a recipe for injury (consider trying to bend a frozen piece of plastic), and static stretching prior to training is of limited or detrimental value when done excessively. Not only does it drain the body of its explosiveness, but making the body too “loose” exposes the stretched joints and tissues to harmful forces they are unprepared to handle. This type of stretching is more appropriately reserved for mobility work/ flexibility training, which should take place either at the end of a training session or independently of it.
Above others, one particular criterion separates mobility work from the types of activities that should be included in a good warmup, and it has to do with the purpose of mobility work. Contrary to a good warmup, which should prepare athletes to perform within their functional ranges of motion, the goal of flexibility training is to alter and improve athletes’ functional ranges of motion by attempting to transcend the structural thresholds imposed by their bodies’ current functional ranges. The problem, therefore, with including this type of work prior to training is that the musculoskeletal system is not yet conditioned to operate at these extended ranges of motion. Joints and tissues stretched to the limits of their elasticity are more likely to strain or tear when exposed to external forces, just like a taut rubber band is more likely to snap than one that retains some give. Furthermore, mobility work takes a lot of energy and taxes the nervous system, which must be sharp and alert during the pinnacle of a training session. Nevertheless, mobility work is important, and it should be incorporated within the framework of everyone’s fitness routines, so long as proper recovery practices are observed. Participating in yoga every so often, as an alternative to attending a strength or endurance session, is an excellent way to include flexibility training in a fitness program.
The utility of any fitness program, however, cannot be capitalized on without an adequate warmup; that includes both tiers of a good warmup. The general warmup wakes the body up and gets it into the shower, but it is the specific warmup that gets the body dressed for the day’s activities and out of the house. Neither tier functions optimally without the other. (Either walk out of the house clean and naked, or clothed and stinky.) At any rate, a warmup that elevates the heartrate, stimulates the nervous system, and acquaints the body with its current functional range of motion keeps athletes safe while they train. What is more, the awakening of mind and body, as well as the facilitation of communication between the two, allows athletes to take full advantage of a training session. In order to maximize their potential, athletes of all levels must be deliberate with respect to muscle recruitment and mechanics, and that begins in the warmup. It may not always be glamorous or enjoyable, and the effort may even cause fatigue, but the long-term results will validate the extra effort.
Coach Brian Bieschke