Different warm up strategies have been adopted for a long time with some being more effective than others at getting the body prepared for physical activity. Remember, warm ups need to be specific and appropriate to the task ahead.
To consider effectiveness we need to look at a number of factors. 1) what is the task we are preparing for 2) the intensity of the task 3) the specific demands of the task.
One of the most common warm up strategies is the head to a cardiovascular piece of equipment and do the customary 10 minutes of low intensity exercise. While this might be effective if the training session itself is low intensity exercise, it does nothing to prepare the muscles, joints or nervous system for anything requiring a little more effort. You do get an increase in blood supply to the area which is great, however, you are only taking your muscles and joints through small ranges of movement. Take walking or jogging on a treadmill for example, you only get small movements through the ankle, knee and hip joints which mean you are only generating a small amount of muscle contraction to the muscles controlling those movements. Couple this with then starting a task requiring maximal muscle contraction and full range of movement through the joints and you end up risking injury. You haven’t prepared you body for the task ahead.
You can’t move in a gym now without bumping into someone rolling out their fascia or undoing some knots (neither of which can be achieved by foam rolling by the way). They’ve become a staple in almost every gym-goers training bag and while they can be extremely effective in certain circumstances, they have however been highly overrated when it comes to preparing for activity. A quick foam roll can be great for loosing some joints that have become restricted during the day. For example, I like to mobilise my thoracic spine before training as it tends to become stiff whether it be from computer work or my posture while treating patients. The problem with foam rolling is that you see people spending 20-30 minutes rolling out their muscles and mobilising their joints into new ranges only to jump into a high intensity session. If you have created a change in movement that your body isn’t used to then you are an injury waiting to happen. It takes time for your nervous system to adapt to a new position hence excessive mobilising before a session can lead to vulnerability in those new ranges and increased risk of injury.
Its generally well known now that static stretching before training is a waste of time but needless to say you still see people trying to contortion themselves into weird and wonderful positions before training. The main reason this is a bad idea is to do with power output. Once stretched a muscle looses a significant amount of power output compared to is pre-stretched state. This is down to the filaments of the muscle (actin and myosin) no longer lining up like a lock and key to perform optimum muscle contraction. Less than optimal if your looking to perform well in your session. A static stretch can also leave your muscles vulnerable to tears. This goes back to the foam rolling example of the body not having control of the new range of movement.
Now for some effective strategies
Reactive warm ups
A good reactive warm up helps to prime the central nervous system (CNS) for the workout as well as improving movement quality and working on weaknesses. A reactive warm up encompasses explosive strength, reactive ability, dynamic mobility and core activation. The warm up involves 3-4 training methods done in a circuit type fashion. The first movement involves plyometrics ( in this case, jumping). This technique heavily involves the stretch – shortening cycle forcing the muscles to create more force. You’re looking to perform 3-4 sets of 3-5 reps. Next up is a throw. A medicine ball slam is a good example of this is a medicine ball slam, this stimulates the fast twitch muscle fibres and helps build explosiveness. Again, low sets and reps for this one. Third on the list is a carry. A carry really helps to engage the supporting muscles and challenge your breathing. Last but not least is dynamic mobility, this includes exercises like bear crawls and lunge variations which help open out tight joints under controlled loading.
Mobility training is brilliant for addressing any short term tightness in joints or muscles as well as being a long term solution to those chronic aches and pains. While mobilising you are actively seeking new ranges of movement while controlling the movement yourself your body is continually adapting and progressing. The effectiveness of these becomes even more so when you’ve had a trained professional identify your areas of restriction and devise a plan for you. Their are a great number of tools that you can use to help mobilise such as foam rollers and lacrosse balls. As part of a warm up you are looking to mobilise a target area for around 15 repetitions with the movements feeling pain free and you feeling looser and more flexible afterwards.
Band training has so many great benefits including helping to build muscle and maintaining joint health. These exercises are great for a term called ‘activation’. Whilst i’m not a huge fan of the terminology as it implies that if you haven’t performed the activation exercises then the muscles aren’t working which isn’t true, it is important as a way to get the muscles prepared physically for the session ahead. These are even more suitable for joints with large ranges of motion like the hips and shoulders. So for example in a lower body workout a common activation drill is to use the resistance bands around the knees and perform walking movements and lateral movements to get the muscles ready for the task ahead. This method is particularly useful if you have been sedentary for most of the day. Another example would be to perform band pull aparts to ‘activate’ the mid back and shoulders before a upper body or shoulder session.
About the author
Michael is an Osteopath, trainee strength and conditioning coach and competitive powerlifter.