Warming up always seems to be viewed as a chore, it’s just the boring part that’s not even part of the workout and eats in to the best bits of the training session.
The thing is, warming up properly for a session is vital, and not only prepares you for the workout that’s about to come, but also serves as a means to restore movement to problem joints, reduce pain, and improve overall function.
Things to Consider When Designing Your Warm-Up
1. Do exercises in different planes of movement
A lot of the work we do in the gym is done in the sagittal plane (i.e. moving forwards and backwards), which only covers a small amount of the overall spectrum of the movements our body is capable of. Furthermore, only training in the sagittal plane is great if you want to suffer from overuse injuries later in life. Therefore, including movements where your body has to work in the transverse (rotation), and frontal (side-to-side) plane are good additions.
2. Address movement deficiencies
If you suffer from shoulder pain, yet all you do in the warm-up before bench press is push ups and some lighter sets of bench press then your shoulder pain isn’t going to disappear anytime soon.
Your warm-up should include exercises that address the weaknesses of a given joint and its movement capabilities. For example, if you have general achy shoulders and your shoulder blades aren’t moving how they should, include some scapula setting exercises and serratus anterior activation movements.
3. Strengthen smaller muscle groups
For example, the glutes consist of gluteus maximus, medius, and minimus. Glute medius is not only used in hip abduction and external rotation, but is also very important for stabilising the hip. When performing bilateral movements such as squats and deadlifts, the gluteus maximus is being heavily used, however the reliance on glute medius becomes less. Which is why incorporating stability work and/or direct strengthening work of the glute medius is important to maximise performance, and prevent injury.
Preparing for a Lifting Session
Personally, I like to structure my warm-ups following the template below. However, these are subject to chop and change depending on the needs of a certain individual.
1. Self-Myofascial Release (SMR) – (AKA Foam Rolling)
This is optional. If an athlete walks in to train, feels super fresh and has no hotspots anywhere that need loosening off, there is no need to spend time on foam rolling.
However, this step should be used if there is an immobility issue at a given joint. For example, plenty of athletes suffer from what’s known as ‘Janda’s Upper-Lower Crossed Syndrome.’ This syndrome basically shows the relationship between shortened and lengthened muscles causing postural abnormalities in people. This relationship shows the lower body of an athlete will present with a large anterior pelvic tilt, due to shortened hip flexors and erector spinae muscles, and lengthened/weak glutes, and abdominals. Therefore, a lot of my athletes will begin a session loosening out their hamstrings, lower back, hip flexors, and adductors at the very least.
Most of the mobility work done here is to move through the new-found range of motion due to the relaxation of the muscles around a given joint thanks to the foam rolling done in step one. The aim is to mobilise problem joints that lack range of motion, and open up areas that may be shut off due to activities from everyday living – think the ankles, hips, thoracic spine, and shoulders.
Ideally, the mobility work done at this point will be dynamic, however if a joint is rather limited it may be wise just to work statically.
Athletes who are hypermobile will skip this step completely.
Getting back to Janda’s Upper-Lower Crossed Syndrome, once we have loosened off tense muscles surrounding a joint, and then mobilised that joint, we need to upregulate the muscles that have been downregulated by the nervous system. The muscles we need to upregulate include the gluteals, abdominals, lower trapezius, and muscles of the middle back.
Picture Credit: jandaapproach.com
4. Injury Reduction/Stability Work
Those with previous injury history or hypermobile joints will perform some stability work and injury reduction work to help address weakness or particular issues that may cause pain. For example, if you’re an athlete who has previously dislocated a shoulder it may be wise to incorporate some shoulder stability exercises such as the bottoms up kettlebell press, or band perturbations.
Preparing for a Conditioning Session
When preparing for a conditioning session, say a running session for example, we tend to use a similar set-up to above with the SMR and mobility sections. Upregulating dormant muscle groups is still important, but we don’t want to dramatically change the running technique through large amounts of up-regulatory exercise because large movement pattern changes can be a recipe for injury.
The next area I’d add is the addition of form running drills. Form running drills are a great way to reinforce running technique, address movement deficiencies, screen for technique flaws, improve mobility, and prepare the body for the work that’s about to come.
Basic form running drills include A-skips, B-skips, high knees, bounding, carioca, backwards running, lateral hops, side shuffles, skipping for height and/or length + a million more!
Cooling Down Post Session
When a hard session comes to an end, a great practice is to jump on to the ground, place the legs up on a bench/box, and perform some deep breathing to bring the nervous system back to rest, and kick-start recovery.
The reason we do this is because during a training session, the body is in a sympathetic state, also known as the fight or flight response. This response is driven by the nervous system and changes many of the bodily processes through the release of adrenaline. However, when we are at rest, we need to be in a parasympathetic, or ‘rest and digest,’ state to properly recover for the next training session.
To perform parasympathetic breathing, once the session is done lie on the ground with feet up, inhale as deep as possible in to the stomach, and then exhale as much air as possible. In terms of time taken to complete each breath, aim for 2 seconds in and 2 seconds out at the beginning, then across 3-4 minutes’ aim to stretch it out to 4 seconds in, 1 second pause, 8 seconds out, 1 second pause. The total time you should look to breathe for is at least 5 minutes, but you shouldn’t need more than 10.
Overall, the warm-up should be treated as an important part of a performance program, and not simply a 10-minute ride on the bike to get started. A warm-up should contain exercises to move through different planes of movement, reduce movement deficiencies, and strengthen neglected/downregulated muscle groups. If you can set aside time for a quality warm-up, you’ll better for it in the long run.
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