Do World Class Warm-Ups for World Class Performance

Tom MacCormick

Strength and Conditioning, Personal Training, Sports Science

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A good workout starts with a good warm-up. As Breaking Muscle podcast guest Dr. John Rusin says, a warm-up should accomplish two things:

 

  1. Prepare your body for performance
  2. Help prevent pain and injuries

 

 

Those are two compelling reasons to put some effort into constructing an effective warm-up routine for each of your workouts.

 

Yet I bet you struggle to muster any enthusiasm about planning a warm-up, let alone going through one. I get it; warm-ups are boring, but warming up properly for your session can reduce your risk of injury and improve the quality of your training.

 

Better training equals better results.

 

Focusing on this performance enhancement aspect is key to getting the most from your warm-ups. Let’s be fair; nobody is excited about warming up. It is often treated as an inconvenience, a waste of time, or even completely ignored.

 

As such, the warm-up often receives a half-assed effort and doesn’t elicit the benefits it should.

 

After a good warm-up, you should feel alert and primed to give your best performance. It would be best if you were revved up and raring to go.

 

Instead, I see most people looking sluggish, uninspired, and ill-prepared during and after their warm-up.

 

Specific Warm-Ups for Specific Workouts

Your warm-up should signpost what you are planning on doing in your training session.

 

If another coach looked over your warm-up without knowing what the session entailed, they should be able to make some general guesstimations about the session's goals. They could not predict what you will be doing exactly but, gathering a general sense of what muscle groups/movement patterns or what capacities are being trained should be possible.

 

If not, then your warm-up probably isn’t specific enough.

 

Your warm-up should be specific to your workout. Gone are the days of picking a bit of cardio equipment to waste 5-10 minutes on, doing some arm and leg swings, and then attacking your first exercise.

 

A good warm-up has specific goals and is specific to the workout that follows.

 

It should also be specific to you. What will prepare you for a good squat workout will be different to me. The principles behind the warm-ups will be the same, but the exact protocol should vary based on your needs. Here are some fundamental principles to consider when planning a warm-up routine.

 

RAMP Up Your Warm-Up

The RAMP acronym is a pretty good one to have in mind with your warmups.

 

 

Ticking off each element of the RAMP protocol is a good starting point. To further things a bit, you need to consider the demands of the session and your current capacity.

 

For example, if the goal is to bench press as heavy as possible, specific pre-requisites are needed to maximize performance. In this case, your warm-up should reflect and address these.

 

Lengthen, activate, and integrate is part of the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM) model and is also something I think works well in a warm-up and has a substantial crossover with the RAMP approach.

 

Some muscles might need more length to help you reach a given range of motion, while others may not be strong or stable enough to provide the stability required to hit the full range. By lengthening and activating those muscles that need it, you can often see rapid improvements in range.

 

That’s great, but increased range without control is an increased injury risk.

 

At this point, it is best to integrate them into a fundamental movement pattern to try and ingrain good techniques and reinforce the range you’ve just created. For example, after stretching your hip flexors and performing isometrics for your glutes, a goblet squat would be a good choice.

 

By assessing your limiting factors and focusing on the parts in an isolated fashion, you can, in theory, then piece them back together in an integrated manner.

 

For example, a lack of range of motion at the ankle joint may limit your squat depth.

 

You lack the required dorsiflexion for your shin to travel forward and your knees to pass beyond your toes without your heels lifting.

 

In this scenario, it is worth looking at both sides of the joint. What muscles might be tight and limiting your range, and which muscles might be too weak to stabilize the joint in extreme ranges? Often if you work on both sides, you get noticeable improvement quite quickly.

 

A possible solution to this example using the NASM model would be to:

 

 

 

If range and quality of movement improve, you know that your intervention has worked and that the ankle ROM was a limiting factor.

 

A detailed, joint-by-joint rundown of this method is beyond the scope of this article. Still, the critical point is the thought process behind piecing together an intervention that targets muscle length, and activation then integrates these into a multi-joint movement.

 

The multi-joint movement can then act as a feedback tool to the effectiveness of your strategy.

 

Next-Level Warm-Ups

The above example is a suitable protocol, but an even better one is a layer on a stability challenge. Stability is your ability to resist force. It takes the isolated activation/low-level strength work and makes it more functional.

 

For example, band lateral walks provide a challenge to strength and an activation drill for your glutes. Still, they don’t carry over that well to the proper function of the glutes (and other muscles) in stabilizing the hip during gross movement.

 

To target this function, you could add an exercise that challenges your ability to create stability (aka internal stability). A good choice in this example might be a single-leg RDL.

 

When picking a stability drill, the key is to pitch it at the right level, and it shouldn’t be so difficult you cannot do it.

 

  • Falling flat on your face attempting an advanced stability exercise isn’t going to do anything for you.
  • Likewise, something not challenging enough will lead to no progress.
  • Something on the edge of your current capability is the place to be.

 

It requires concentration, you can maintain textbook form, but you constantly have to micro-correct your position to complete the rep. That will improve your stability and be a worthwhile investment of time and effort.

 

The Warm-Up Should Optimize, Not Be the Workout

Don’t make these stability drills the workout. They are part of a warm-up designed to optimize your workout, not be the workout themselves. They should not create so much fatigue that your training performance suffers.

 

They should potentiate it. Done correctly, they will allow you to create more internal stability where you need it, allowing the target muscles to showcase more force output.

 

When adding stability work to your warm-ups, focus on quality, not quantity. A couple of sets done with great form is what you want. It would be best if you weren’t pushing to muscular failure or generating lots of fatigue. This focus on quality is not the time to try and test your 1-rep max single leg deadlift!

 

The stability drills you choose should progress over time.

 

 

Taking the single leg RDL example, you might progress as follows:

 

B-Stance KB RDL
Single-Leg RDL with Foam Roll support
Single-Leg RDL
Single Leg Contralateral KB RDL
Single-Leg Ipsilateral KB RDL

 

Your rate of progression The quality of your reps will determine your rate of progression through these variants at a predetermined rate. When one exercise feels good, and you are confident in your ability to perform it without it representing much of a challenge, then move on to the next and so on.

 

Integrate—Don't Separate

At the end of the NASM model, the integrated part is a key element that people so often seem to miss.

 

Stretching specific muscles, activating others, and mobilizing joints can be helpful, but only if they result in improved training or increased performance.

 

The way to achieve this is to address specific mobility and or isolated activation work and then incorporate them into a gross motor pattern like squatting, which integrates all the components you’ve just been using.

 

If the mobility and activation work were effective, you should see an improvement in movement quality on the main movement. This integration is an invaluable and instant feedback tool.

 

Jordan Shallow has taken the integrate component one step further:

 

  • He is a proponent of integrating the warm-up into the workout.
  • Not only does he integrate a multi-joint movement at the end of the warm-up sequence, but he integrates the main lift into the warm-up.
  • He places a set of the primary lift for that day at the end of the warm-up sequence.
  • You go through your warm-up routine then hit a light set of your main lift for the day.
  • Then, you go back through the warm-up sequence and perform a slightly heavier set of the main lift.
  • Each time you go through the main movement, it should feel better.
  • Each time you get instant feedback on the efficacy of your warm-up protocol.
  • The main lift, when done properly, feels crisper, and your working sets are nicely grooved.

 

Integrating the main lift into your warm-up like this is a great feedback tool. In my experience, it is far superior to the more common approach of separating your warm-up and workout into distinct elements.

 

 

You aim for optimal performance on your main lifts in a session, and your warm-up should be preparing you. After every warm-up sequence, a set of the main lift enables you to assess if your warm-up effectively addresses the limiting factors.

 

Piece Together the Warm-Up Puzzle

There is no one correct way to warm up. The key is to remember it should improve performance and manage injury risk.

 

To achieve those, it should help you mobilize and stabilize the key joints involved within the workout.

 

  • Achieving this by incorporating the RAMP and the NASM protocols with an added stability drill is my default setting.
  • Even within this framework, there is a large scope for variation, and the warm-ups should evolve based on your development.

 

To help illustrate this point, let’s take one of my clients as an example (this guy is pretty typical of my average in-person client).

 

Here are some vital bits of info to consider:

 

  • Good athletic background as a kid/early adult
  • Worked a desk job for 10-15 years
  • He gained some weight and lost mobility and strength through his late twenties and early thirties.
  • Got back to training after about ten years out of the gym; During this time, he saw some excellent results (lost fat, gained some muscle) and some bad ones (nagging shoulder pain, lower back pain)
  • His goal is to get back in shape – he wants to shift the dadbod and see his abs for the first time in 15 years. Oh, and he wants to bench 225 lbs for five reps again (this is a performance goal that he gets genuinely excited by)
  • My primary goal is to help him reach his goals but give him some of what I think he needs.

 

What I think he and similar clients need:

 

 

By developing the thoracic extension and shoulder mobility and stability, they will better tolerate bench pressing. Your clients will also set themselves up to be in a better position to display their strength levels.

 

Thus, performance will improve. Finally, there is a pretty good chance their shoulder pain will clear up if we can improve mobility, stability, and strength around the shoulder.

 

With that bit of overview, it’s possible to begin painting some broad-brush strokes about their program, and therefore, what their warm-up will include.

 

Let’s also remember that this is a successful type-A achiever with a high-stress life who doesn’t want to spend too much time flopping around on a foam roller or doing mobility drills. I need to get them a result and show signs of progress quickly to get their buy-in.

 

This guy wants to get on the bench and start whacking plates on. He remembers how he looked, felt, and performed this as an 18-year old and wants to get back to that. Sadly, he’s in the mid-30s with banged-up shoulders.

 

Here is the protocol I used with this particular client in his Primer phase.

 

A1 Thoracic mobility over foam roll 3x30 sec
A2 Side-Lying Powell Raise (Upper back activation) 3x8
A3 Side-Lying DB External Rotation (strengthen external rotators) 3x8
A4 Bench press (bar only, then 60 kg, then 80 kg) 3x5

 

Repeat through for a total of three times.

 

After this, he performed a slightly heavier final warm-up set of bench and then followed his planned working sets.

 

This warm-up protocol addresses the key areas he needed to address and pretty quickly got him doing what he viewed as the main event– benching. If I had done A1-A3 three times through before he got to touch the barbell, I think his interest would have vanished.

 

Warm-Ups Should Be Progressive

As I mentioned earlier, this guy wasn’t interested in doing a super long warm-up.

 

He did, however, want to bench. The subjective feedback he got from each warm-up set of bench press feeling better was enough to get his buy-in and commitment to follow the routine for a few weeks.

 

Nobody wants to be a pro at warming up, though. Pretty quickly, the novelty factor wore off, and he was less enthused about this warm-up. The good news was that the work we did in his warm-ups paid off.

 

His workouts also capitalized on those warm-ups and reinforced the key attributes we were looking to address.

 

This feedback meant that the improvements in mobility, stability, and strength around the shoulder became more ingrained. Pretty soon, they were not such an issue. Consequently, they didn’t need so much attention in his warm-ups. We could progress and streamline his warm-ups to get what we needed without wasting any time.

 

 

As with anything in training, we progressed this incrementally, but after eight weeks, his warm-up sequence looked like this:

 

A1 Rope Face Pull with External Rotation
A2 Bench Press

 

Repeat for a total of three times using progressively heavier sets on the bench.

 

He had developed adequate thoracic extension, upper back strength and synchronization, and external rotation strength. At this stage, this could all be maintained with one exercise. He didn’t just maintain; it was developed, but we freed up more time to train these qualities in a progressively overloading fashion within the workout.

 

This progressive overload allowed his rate of progress to accelerate.

 

Warm-Up and Training Synergy

Your warm-up should prepare you for your workout by following the RAMP method. For many deskbound people, this will revolve around improving mobility.

 

Once you’ve improved mobility, it is important to retain it. This is done by working through a full-ROM and developing both stability and strength in the end ranges.

 

Your warm-up reflects what you want to do in your workout, but your workout should also mirror back the key elements that needed addressing in your warm-up.

 

Use that principle to assess whether your warm-up and training work synergistically. If they do, then very quickly, your need for extensive warm-ups will disappear completely, and you can allocate more time to doing the fun stuff–training.

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