THE Most Important Aspect of Training: The Warm-up
Updated: May 5, 2022
it's not chilly in here anymore
What is the warm-up? And why do we need to do it?
My favorite way to view the warm-up - the workout before the workout. The warm-up process primes the mind and body for the session to follow, and if designed appropriately, sets the tone and tempo for the workout or practice to come.
When designed in accordance with individual, sport, and workout-specific needs, the warm-up boosts performance. A simple way to demonstrate this is to perform a vertical jump in a completely cold state (as soon as you walk in the gym doors) and then perform another jump after spending as little as 5 minutes warming up the body with any aerobic activity. You will jump higher the second time around. This is physiology.
Warm-ups set the tone and tempo for the session to come.
The physiological responses to a well-designed warm-up get broken into two categories: temperature-related and non-temperature-related. The temperature-related distinction gives the warm-up its name because the warm-up raises the temperature of the muscles and the core temperature of the body. The warming of the body also enhances neural function and metabolic reactions, disrupts transient connective tissue bonds, and improves oxygen delivery via the Bohr effect – higher temperatures facilitate oxygen release from hemoglobin and myoglobin.
The non-temperature-related effects of the warm-up include: focusing of attention, neural regulation, an increase in oxygen consumption, increased blood flow to working muscles, joint lubrication (joint loading releases synovial fluid to nourish joints and reduce friction for more fluidity of movement), and post-activation potentiation (the motor unit becomes more responsive and better able to produce force and produce it at a higher rate after previous activation).
The combined effects of a well-designed warm-up boost performance and reduce the risk of injury.
We need to warm up to prepare our minds and bodies, boost our performance, fitness, and athleticism, and prevent injuries.
How should we warm up?
Actively and dynamically, and in a manner related to the session to follow. Our warm-ups should be active rather than passive and dynamic rather than static. This means that warm-ups should consist of active movements that take the body through ranges of motion involved in training and sport and exclude static stretching exercises that hold a body position for a set period.
It is important to understand the difference between static stretching and dynamic stretching when designing warm-ups. Static stretching has its place – as part of a cool-down session or as a separate session. Static stretching is integral for improving overall health and athleticism as its long-term effects improve flexibility and range of motion around a joint; however, static stretching differs considerably from dynamic stretching when evaluated for its performance-boosting effects.
Dynamically loading a joint releases its synovial fluid, reducing friction and enabling fluid movements; this is akin to oiling a squeaky wheel.
Dynamic stretching improves performance through activating muscles, but static stretching has been shown to decrease performance when conducted before a session. Static stretching has an inhibitory effect on motor units – stretching muscles places them in a disadvantageous position for producing force. Static stretching also temporarily increases musculotendinous and joint laxity – the opposite of the stiffness required for maximal force output. A good rule of thumb for incorporating stretches into the warm-up is to actively move them through a range of motion and limit any stationary holds to less than 5 seconds (note we are not talking about isometric contractions).
Photo by Gabin Vallet on Unsplash
The warm-up should include a general element to increase heart rate, blood flow, muscle temperature, and respiration rate. The warm-up should progress in intensity, including more specific movements related to individual, sport, and training needs. A well-designed warm-up should take about 10-30 minutes and should fit seamlessly with the workout to come.
At KRMA Fitness, we design warm-ups around a core structure following the Raise, Activate and Mobilize, and Potentiate (RAMP) protocol. The RAMP protocol provides a simple framework to build specific and effective warm-ups.
Where does the warm-up end and the workout begin?
I like to think of my warm-up as a workout, one that dovetails with the following workout. If you can’t tell where the warm-up ends and the workout begins, then I’m doing my job. We are here to work out and to get better.
How does the warm-up prepare the mind?
Mindset matters. The warm-up is the perfect place to set an intention for the session. This can be as simple as focusing your attention on the session's objective. Personally, I incorporate a few minutes of diaphragmatic breathing into every warm-up. This helps to calm and clear the mind, regulate the nervous system, focus attention inward, initiate a shift in mind and body awareness, and provide a dose of mindfulness - setting the stage for everything to come.
I’m checked in and ready to go – dropping everything else at the door of the gym. I set my intention, and I’m here to get better.
The warm-up is non-negotiable for my athletes and me. We don’t cut corners; we take our time to get prepared for optimal performance.
There is no one perfect warm-up – warm-ups come in a variety pack – they are specific to the individual, the sport, and the training session itself. We can slice them in several ways, but we must include them. Long-term health, fitness, and athletic performance depend upon quality warm-ups.
If you would like to test out one of our KRMAfit warm-ups, sign-up for the free workout below – this is a HIIT conditioning workout that includes (of course) a warm-up specific to the session that follows. You can do this workout from the comfort of your own home as it is a follow-along series of videos that requires minimal equipment. Try it out, and let us know what you think!
This article is an overview of the benefits of the warm-up. It is not considered exhaustive or comprehensive in its explanation. Nor should it be considered as a guide to warm-ups. If you want a deeper dive into warm-up design, I suggest reading The NSCA’s Guide to Program Design and The Essentials of Strength and Conditioning.
1) NSCA’s Guide to Program Design, National Strength and Conditioning Association, 2012.
2) The Essentials of Strength and Conditioning, Fourth Edition, National Strength and Conditioning Association, 2016.