Despite what your ninth grade gym teacher may have told you, standing for a couple of minutes in the squat rack hitting the old double pec stretch does not constitute a warm-up.
Does it feel good? Probably. That doesn’t mean it’s a warm-up.
I’ve been talking about the need for a proper warm-up for what feels like an obsessively long time. That’s because people continue to neglect it at all levels, from amateur to professional. I’ve been on the sidelines to watch games and seen some sad attempts at warming up the body from players who are at the very top of their sport. The excuse that it takes too long is even more ludicrous at this level. As pro athletes, you have nothing else to do but train and play the game. Even as a weekend warrior, the few extra minutes you have to spend each day is a small trade-off to avoid weeks or even months of rehab following an injury that may have been preventable.
In today’s post, we are going to talk about our five checkboxes for a championship level warm up and offer some insight into why they are so important. The tools you use to achieve these aspects are entirely up to you and will differ from coach to coach and athlete to athlete. The concepts are more important than the method.
Warm Up Check Boxes
A fancy word for rollout and a valuable tool in a championship warm-up routine! We’ve spent significant time on the podcast discussing soft tissue injuries, tightness, and ways to alleviate those restrictions. If we think about our muscles in a very simplistic manner as elastics, we require a certain amount of unrestricted stretch out of them. The amount of stretch varies from person to person and sport to sport, but the presence of adhesions or ‘trigger-points’ within the muscle can limit movement, cause pain, or create an artificial weakness. This means that a muscle that has been trained and is strong is unable to perform. These trigger-points present for a variety of reasons, a hard training session, a long car ride, an awkward sleeping angle, regardless of the cause their presence can inhibit our training session and our ability to improve our movement patterns. Spending a section of our warm-up with a lacrosse ball or foam roller attacking some of these specific areas can release the tension, create fluidity up and down the kinetic chain, and decrease the likelihood of injury.
The mobility section of our warm-up pairs perfectly with soft tissue release and can be completed multiple times a day in and out of the gym/training session. When we are born, our bodies possess the ability to move through the entire human range. As we grow, the world is continuously assaulting us and limiting our movement. Hours spent in the classroom, in vehicles, at a computer, or holding a phone will slowly degrade our movement ability until the idea of sitting comfortably in a deep squat seems impossible despite the countless children we see do it every day. To address these restrictions every warm-up should include a component of intentional mobility, aimed at improving individual areas of weakness as well as enhancing our workout. If the session will focus on overhead pressing, then it would be pertinent to time opening up for the thoracic spine and shoulder girdle to enhance pain-free movement. Our mobility component allows us to capitalize on the release of trigger points and helps to groove full ranges of motion heading into the workout.
Trunk Activation – Spinal Protection
Low back pain is a significant complaint in a large portion of the population; in fact, it is the number one complaint. The severity ranges from mild discomfort to debilitating pain, something we can empathize with after Sylvie spent nearly a month in bed with a near-surgical disc herniation. Fortunately, she used that pain as a motivator, and it forced us to develop a deeper understanding of the spine and the musculature that protects it. The spine is an area of general health, which is the goal of everyone that doesn’t play professional sports, which is unknowingly neglected, especially before strength training. Our spine is susceptible to injury when placed in positions of flexion and rotation without the proper muscular activation. These muscles don’t automatically turn on and do their job, and they often need a little additional coaxing. A concept that is doubly important if you have suffered a low back injury or deal with pain. The trunk is designed to rotate through our thoracic spine but remain stable through the lumbar spine. Detraining and reduced activation often cause us to reverse this pattern unintentionally. To help reinforce proper patterning, add in Side Planks, and Birddogs to your warm-ups. See Stuart Macgill’s work.
Core Temperature Increase
Raising core temperature is the aspect of warm-up that everyone understands, which does not mean that it’s any less critical, especially if you are heading out for a hard game. When we discuss raising core temperature, the number one rebuttal is a fear of fatiguing before the game or training session. We are not advocating for a 40-minute warm-up. The goal is enough movement to break a sweat and improve your oxygen uptake, resulting in improved performance when you start the session. Instead of struggling to start, your body will already be acclimated to the increased work rate and will not suffer from oxygen debt. It will also aid in accessing the elastic properties of our musculature and decrease the risk of strains or tears from cold and stiff muscles. Regardless of your athletic status, no one wants to spend time sidelined with torn muscles because of a lazy warm-up.
The last aspect of our warm-up checklist refers to the nervous system, not the musculature itself. The difference between great athletes and those that are just good lies within the nervous system, the ability to generate strength, change direction, and interpret a play comes from the mind first. Often – even at the highest level – warm-ups are slow and methodical, which is great up to a point. But, if we want to be truly ready for the demands of our training session, we need to dynamic and violent. Sprint, jump, throw are all examples of movements that ‘wake up’ our body and get it ready to perform. It prepares us for the speed of the game and the reactive nature of sport.