Building the Perfect Warm-Up
Level 1: Amateur
Welcome Players! Warming up properly for your workout is not to be taken lightly. An effective warm-up reduces the risk of injury and allows you to achieve maximum benefit from your training session. It improves your ability to train at higher intensities sooner, increases the neuromuscular activation of muscles to be used and provides a grace period for you to get mentally prepared to give max effort. All vital things that if you plan to Train Like a Pro, you need to Warm-Up like one too!
Warm up, literally
Guidelines to Constructing YOUR warm-up
Subscribe now (for free!) to get new posts right after they’ve finished warming up!
What’s the Purpose?
As with all things Train Like a Pro, it’s imperative to clearly define the context. How you warm-up to run a mile is drastically different than how you would warm-up to compete in a powerlifting competition.
First and foremost, when planning your warm-up you’ve got to know what the end goal is. Then we can work backwards and dig the tunnel so that every minute of your warm-up brings you closer to the light: your training session (what you’re warming up for).
A warm-up could include stretching, foam-rolling, sometimes even manual therapy or bodywork. It could also include loaded movements or resistance exercises, mobility drills, or games. Some warm-ups are simply just regressed versions of the workout, such as is the case for olympic weightlifters. Their warm-up is often just variations of the movements they’ll be performing that day, along with some potential accessory drills to continue long-term progression.
The other key to a good warm-up is personalizing it not only for the task, but for the person. While you want to get ready to perform the work-out, you also want your body to be in the most capable environment of producing a high level of performance. Two people doing the same workout could warm-up slightly different depending on individual considerations.
To achieve a good warm-up, you will need to:
Raise core body temperature
Remove (or improve upon) restrictions that will inhibit performance of the task
Replicate movement patterns that will be performed
Prepare the neurological circuits/patterns that will be driving movement
Operate at an intensity that is at minimum equal to that of your activity
Psychologically prepare to undergo intense focus and effort
Do all these things and you’re going to have a great training session!
While the Titans may have crushed it at #6, unfortunately they left a lot of performance improvements out on the table with this one.
Warm Up - Literally
This is where the phrase “warm-up” comes from. Almost all aspects of muscle physiology operate better when at slightly raised temperatures.1
causes vasodilation = blood delivers oxygen to your muscles faster
reduces viscosity of fluid & tissues so there is less resistance between layers of skin & muscle = improved mobility
improves the conductivity of signals from nervous system to the muscle = faster activation of muscle fibers and greater force output 2
Studies show that as it relates to the three points above, passive warm-ups via heating modalities works just as well as active warm-ups. You can get in a hot-tub (or sauna) for 15 minutes and receive all the same benefits of vasodilation, reduced viscosity, and improved conductivity due to the nature of heat alone. Take that for what you will, but as you’ll see just because the mechanisms of heat work regardless of administration not all warm-ups are created equal.
We have to take the term “warm-up” a little less literal when talking about the effects of a preparatory period on our central nervous systems ability to coordinate movement and express athletic potential.
There are a few mechanisms by which including the movements to be used in the training session improves their effectiveness. Each one is a little different so I’ll list them here and then break it down.3 4
Stimulating the central nervous system induces a sympathetic response (fight/flight) that improves your overall readiness to perform physical activity. Sympathetic influence of the nervous system increases HR, improves oxygen transfer efficiency in the lungs, and activates availability of energy stores (glucose) in both the muscle and liver
Performing movements that will be used later on increases the effectiveness and efficiency of motor control, muscle firing patterns, and stabilization mechanisms of that movement, increasing the effectiveness of the working set
Utilizing load (weight) or resistance causes muscle potentiation (PAP = post-activation potentiation), which due to increase in muscle activation enhances the subsequent ability of that muscle in measures of peak force and rate of force development (strength & power). Utilizing this concept in a warm-up can greatly improve training sessions focused on strength & power 5
Primes the stretch-reflex response reducing the risk of injury due to an overstretched muscle by allowing the muscle greater manageable flexibility vs. a cold/non-warmed up muscle
Increases sensory perception which enhances cognitive processes during a training session (think reaction drills or decision-making drills)
There’s a lot of powerful information in the bullets above, so read them again if you must.
There can be multiple purposes of why you’d include a neural prep period in your warm-up, which highlights the importance of understanding why you’re including it. For resistance training purposes, the optimization of motor neuron firing patterns for prime muscle movers and stabilization mechanisms allows you to train closer to target intensity from Set 1 - Rep 1.
For example: utilizing a set of slow & controlled push-ups with a band followed by a set of dynamic clap-push-ups before a bench press workout will allow you to start your working sets at or near target intensity, reducing (not eliminating!) the need for build-up sets. This also takes advantage of the PAP principle, augmenting the activation of the pecs as well as improving the motor recruitment of muscles surrounding the shoulder increasing stabilization
For more sophisticated training sessions targeted at the competitive athlete where the training session includes more than just physical components, the increases to sensory perception and stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system will improve responses to training of reaction time, decision making (think a football QB needing to throw to open receiver), and kinesthetic awareness (think gymnast or dancer).
These are all optimizations that a traditional warm-up focusing solely on muscle temperature does not achieve.
Selecting Your Movements
You need to include the agonist muscle because those are the muscle fibers you’re trying to increase motor recruitment too. These are the muscles you would utilize PAP principles if training with resistance or for power.
You also should be including antagonist muscles because they can become limiting factors in terms of mobility and are important contributors to increasing joint stability. The balance of muscle tension of all muscles that cross a joint contributes to the total stability of the joint.
For example, this means if doing a chest/upper body push day, you should be including a few pull movements as well as activation exercises for the rotator cuffs
You might be surprised by how activation of antagonist muscles improves the expression of strength in the agonist muscles, mostly through improved stabilization of the joint leading to more efficient firing patterns.
In terms of movement progression, always start with larger muscle groups and progress to movements that challenge smaller muscle groups. There are a few reasons for this, most importantly being that there is a much larger margin of error for if things go wrong during the movement and being resilient to injury at a larger muscle group than a smaller one.
There will also be a crossover effect of utilizing larger muscle group warm-ups that carry over into the smaller muscle groups. Just as you wouldn’t exercise accessory muscles before primary muscles, neither should you during the warm-up.
This should be self-explanatory, but for beginners out there it’s important to properly progress the intensity and effort of your warm-up as you go through it. Your first movements will be low intensity, in the range of 30-50% effort. It can be even less depending on goals of the training session. The intensity can scale linearly or non-linear until target intensity of your training session is reached, although usually a loose form of linear progression is preferred (30-50%, 40-60%, 50-70%, etc).
This means if your training session includes 100% effort exercises or drills, your warm-up should end with at least 1 repetition at 100% effort! The only difference between the warm-up repetition and the working set repetition is whether or not the task is completed. The warm-up focuses on intensity and technique, the working rep focuses on purpose of the drill (task).
For example: If your training session is a linear max speed training day with a focus on maintaining head & neck stability (purpose = improve top end sprint speed) then your warm-up should end with at least one sprint that includes max velocity running. This could be a flying 20m where you progress to max speed over the course of 40m and maintain max speed for 20m until slowing down. The warm-up repetition of the flying 20m drill is simply focused on the intensity. Then your working set/rep flying 20m drill is not only focused on intensity, but the rep is being performed specifically with an aim of improvement in head & neck stability, and can be coached as such without needing to coach intensity.
A proper warm-up with progressive intensity not only reduces the risk of injury from potentially too big a jump in intensity, but also allows the athlete to focus on coaching cues and aim of improvement for the session instead of intensity. At the highest level, you should never have to question if the athlete is giving the proper effort, it is assumed (but not always realized).
Similarly, if you’re training for an endurance event where the training session calls for a 25 minute work effort at 70% intensity, your warm-up needs to be taken up until at least that intensity. In situations like these I personally prefer to program a warm-up that passes the intensity of the workout just slightly, say to 75-80% intensity in this example. This is more psychological than physiological, as I want to set the tone for the session that even at lower intensities you cannot mentally check out of the session just because you are physically capable of performing the task. Intention is everything in training.
Last, but certainly not least, is the mental preparation that occurs before a training session. If you go into a workout absent-minded and not concentrated on the task in front of you, you’ve already failed. If you’re reading this you’re here to Train Like a Pro, and at the highest level every training session counts. Which means you’ve got to approach every training session like it’s the most important training session yet. And it is!
Having the mindset to attack a training session with intention and purpose is vital to achieving positive adaptations both physically and mentally. When you achieve success of a task and have put forth maximum effort, the reward you feel psychologically will far exceed that of achieving success with minimum effort.
It is not the objective completion of a task that we respond to, it’s the completion of a task that we tried really hard at! It shouldn’t matter if your training session target is to hit a new PR (personal record), or simply a de-load week (training session designed to provide rest from stimulation while consolidating gains), you should be intentional and focused at achieving the goal for the training session.
In my experience, this is what separates Hall Of Famers and players that are just Good. The greatest athletes I’ve worked with approach every training session with maximum focus and concentration, even if the tasks of the session are well within their range of capabilities. The focus of a training session does not always need to be to get bigger/faster/stronger, sometimes it can be to clean up technique, or learn a new skill, or simply to practice and refine a skill that has not been mastered.
The athletes that are just Good, or even Great, will lose their concentration on the task believing that they are good enough already and should be working on something else. They check out, or give less than maximum effort. They may still be great players, but it’s this approach to training that will be a main factor in preventing them from achieving true greatness, one that leaves a legacy.
Two of the greatest basketball players to ever play shared this trait in common: relentless effort in practice.
Guidelines to Constructing Your Warm-Up
There is no magic template for you to follow, but by applying this information and knowledge you can use these principles to construct an optimal warm-up structure fit for YOUR goals.
With that in mind, let’s set a framework of how you would structure a great warm-up:
Know ahead of time what your target goals for the training session are, as well as target intensity
Identify which, if any, limitations in mobility that should be improved prior to training
Include warm-up movements for both agonist and antagonist muscle groups as well as any necessary stabilization demands
Use an activity (or series of movements) that will not inhibit the target movements in order to raise core body temperature
Utilize lower-intensity movements or variations of the movement you will be training in session
Determine if utilizing a neural-prep portion in the warm-up will benefit the training session
Work in a progressive fashion increasing intensity until you hit your target intensity
Approach the warm-up with focus and concentration, using that time to mentally prepare for maximum effort during the training session
Doing each of the above things will allow you to construct a warm-up that maximizes the preparation of your body for performance during your training session. I saved the most important point for last, so much so that it deserves it’s own line:
HAVE A PLAN.
If you show up to your training session and do not already know what your warm-up consists of, you’ve failed in terms of optimization. Your warm-up should be programmed with the same attention to detail as your training session, because it is part of the training session. Do not treat them as separate things.
You’ve now got all the tools you need to optimize your routine for the perfect warm-up. You’ll get the most out of your training session and limit your risk of injury.
You may be wondering, where does stretching fall within the warm-up? I’m glad you asked! First, you need to read:
With that information you’ll be able to utilize stretching effectively as a modality to improve ROM and mobility if necessary for your training session. Be sure to pay attention to the timing of when to and when not to stretch before a work out, and always follow up any form of stretching with a proper warm-up.
Have questions about your warm-up or building a warm-up for you specific situation? Leave us a note in the comments, and be sure to include background info such as your training goals!
Does your training partner always skip their warm-up? Share this article with them and help them out!
Disclaimer: This is not medical advice. The content is purely educational in nature and should be filtered through ones own lens of common sense and applicability.
or cooled, but that’s a discussion for another day
Given adequate rest time. Research shows that PAP is optimized between 6-18 minutes depending on the training experience of the individual