I get paid to make workouts as effective and efficient as possible. Time is money to me and my clients, and wasting either is a cardinal sin as far as I’m concerned. So the second my clients walk through the door—whether they’re athletes, CEOs or aspiring trainers—the first order of business is always the warm-up.
An Inch Every Day = A Mile Down the Road
Advanced training programs are not about individual, caffeine-inspired, “hardcore” workouts. They’re about inches over time through systematic progression and small but consistent performance gains. Getting that daily “extra” out of the workout starts well before the yelling or grunting. It comes in the form of optimal work, which requires optimal preparation.
Effective warm-ups lead to small improvements in power, strength, agility and endurance, small improvements that come to light over the course of a proper training program and that can be measured accordingly (Herman and Smith, 2008).
Below I elaborate on the specific mechanisms behind the benefits of a proper warm-up. You’re probably thinking, “I’ve heard all of this before.” There’s a good reason for that.
Enhanced Movement Patterns
Each time we perform a rep we refine the given skillset (motor recruitment pattern). Our initial set of Squats, for example, might seem something like, “Feet go here. Knees track there. Butt goes this way. God, my back is tight. Hit parallel. Drive up forcefully. Damn, I’m weak.” That stiffness is muscle tissue activating (inefficiently) to protect joint range of motion and maintain balance.
The fourth set we perform might seem more like, “I own this.” At this point, our brain coordinates more efficiently with the muscles we need and those we don’t need. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is Motor Learning 101.
More effective and efficient motor programming, to the point where the skillset becomes automatic, leads to a higher level performance.
Enhanced Physiological Environment
On set one (after an ineffective warm-up), our sympathetic nervous system goes into “Oh crap!” mode. We go from sitting all day to trying to Deadlift, so something must be wrong (which it is, because you didn’t warm-up properly). Following the nervous system’s response, hormones flood our blood, causing a huge waste of energy (jacked heart rate, terrible breathing patterns and depleted ATP in the periphery from overactive antagonist and unnecessary, muscle groups), which leads to our ending the set short of what could have been a stellar performance. So we rest and try it again, but with less available ATP–because we didn’t warm up properly.
Hormonal environment, pH regulation (Brunner et al. 2011), and even ATP availability are enhanced during the warm-up. Your body quite literally prepares for optimal work.
Enhanced Biomechanical Measurements
The second we deadlift after an ineffective warm-up, our back tightens up. If not our back, then our hamstrings. Maybe we even strain a glute in the process. All because our muscles are simply moving the same way they have been all day—through a very short range of motion with minimal force production. If we move from sitting all day to forcefully contracting through a broader range of motion, something wrong will indeed happen—unless we warm-up.
Both muscular flexibility and muscle power have been shown to improve during dynamic warm-ups (Aguilar et al. 2012). This translates into more strength through a broader range of motion. The results add up to larger movement patterns such as compound lifts, throws, gait and swinging motions.
Enhanced Dynamic Response
This aspect is a combination of the ones discussed above. Every time we change direction, accelerate or stop, we dynamically respond to our environment. By moving through warm-up drills, such as dynamic stretching and mobility work, we improve the rate and efficiency of each responsive movement while gaining a heightened sense of proprioception. This leads to more “fluid movement,” less unnecessary energy depletion, and heightened ability for greater power in dynamic scenarios—all through full range of motion. For dynamic athletes, and anyone else who wants to move in planes other than forward and backward, this alone is worth the time and effort it takes to warm up.
Warming up isn’t just about safety. It’s about priming your body to do work more precisely, at a higher rate of force, for more repetitions, and to the best of your overall ability.
Herman SL & Smith DT. (2008). “Four-week dynamic stretching warm-up intervention elicits longer-term performance benefits.” J Strength Cond Res, 22(4):1286-97. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e318173da50.
Brunner-Ziegler S, Strasser B, & Haber P. (2011). “Comparison of metabolic and biomechanic responses to active vs. passive warm-up procedures before physical exercise.” J Strength Cond Res, 25(4):909-14. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181d640da.
Aguilar AJ, DiStefano LJ, Brown CN, Herman DC, Guskiewicz KM, & Padua DA. (2012). “A dynamic warm-up model increases quadriceps strength and hamstring flexibility.” J Strength Cond Res, 26(4):1130-41. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e31822e58b6.