Warm Up: The Science and Practice

by Josh Bryant and Joe Giandonato

Jack Dempsey shadow boxing to warm up.

As coaches, we have witnessed top-tiered high school programs literally demand players squat over 400 pounds with no warm up. 

Yet, others in the fitness industry advocate warm ups that take longer than workouts.

In a nutshell, as the late, great Charles Poliquin said, “If your warm up takes longer than your workout, you are a twatwaffle.”  Conversely, if dynamite were brains you could not blow your nose if you don’t warm up before high intensity activities.   

All coaches and athletes should recognize and embrace the inclusion of a properly-designed warm up — that will potentiate the training session/competitive outing and decrease the risk of injury.  This could range from the pulsing reverberation of bumper plates smacking the platform or the medley of medicine balls ricocheting from cinderblock walls.

A properly-designed warm up is analogous to the manufacturer recommended “break in” period when driving off the lot in a new car, a brief period where speeds are regulated and redlining is avoided to ensure the internal mating surfaces of mechanical parts, seating of piston rings, and to establish new seal surfaces within its powertrain are in working order.

This practice is especially important when getting a sports car — whether a Michigan chiseled, modern-muscle car or an exotic European model with as many syllables in its name as commas on the sticker price.

Athletes, regardless of their sport,  be it football, powerlifting or bare-knuckle boxing in the back of the mobile home turned redneck speakeasy, need to be viewed as high performing machines.

Like high-performing machines, athletes can’t be suddenly thrust into maximal efforts from an idle state without a risk of something going wrong.

From a scientific standpoint, warm ups reduce residual viscosity within muscle and myofascial structures and course synovial fluid throughout the body’s most movable joints.

Additionally, warm ups also increase the body’s core temperature and drive blood to working localized muscles of the arms and legs. Furthermore, the cleaving of oxygen molecules from their red blood cell carriers — hemoglobin and myoglobin — is expedited, meaning oxygenation of working musculature is hastened, thus increasing stamina and acute work capacity.

Certain warm up modalities, specifically, dynamic warm ups and muscle activation exercises, are capable of facilitating faster muscular contraction and relaxation rates of agonist and antagonist muscles, meaning that the intended muscle fires more quickly while the involvement of those which oppose its action is limited.  You can lock out much more in the bench press when your triceps fire and your biceps relax.  For lifting maximal weights and high speed activities, relaxation is every bit as important as activation.  

Warm ups, which utilize ballistic movements such as jumps and throws, have been found to contribute to increased rate of force development and prime the body’s central nervous system for the work that lie ahead.

Check out this video of how Josh has used this strategy with strength athletes

Warm ups are categorized as generalspecific, and movement pattern oriented.

general warm up is typified by five to 10 minutes of low to moderate intensity and usually incorporates a form of cardiovascular exercise performed at a steady state, such as walking, jogging, running, or operating a stationary bike or elliptical trainer. Steady state is defined as the needs of cellular ATP being met by mitochondrial ATP production and should not cause fatigue in trained athletes. Conditioned athletes performing a general warm up work up to 50-75% of their maximum heart rate, expressed as a rating of perceived exertion (RPE)  of four to six out of a possible 10.

specific warm upis characterized by eight to 12 minutes of activities or drills that are continuously performed at progressively greater intensities. Rarely are there full rest periods, in which an athlete rests for the amount of time it took to perform the activity or drill. It is during the specific warm up that dynamic movements are performed with full or desired ranges of motion.

Specific warm ups can be classified further — team sport-based warm ups prior to practice or competition will include greater anticipatory and accelerative or “on the go” demands, whereas, weight room or strength training-based warm ups will be skewed more toward activation and “anchoring” which jointly lend themselves to stability.

Below is an actual list of movements and embedded videos that Joe uses with his collegiate and professional basketball clients.

1.  High Knee Hug Walk
2.  High Knee Hug Walk to Lunge
3.  High Knee Hug Walk to Lunge with Overhead Reach
4.  High Knee Hug Walk to Lunge with T-Spine Twist
5.  Inchworm to Yoga Plex
6.  “Muscle March”
7.  RDL Walk
8.  RDL Walk with Overhead Reach
9.  Cradle Walk
10. Carioca Walk with High Knee Sweep
11. Gliding Adduction
12. High Knee Ankling
13. Falling Acceleration Tempos (aka “Lean, Fall, Run!”)
14. Deceleration to Defensive Stance

Additionally, skill rehearsal activities and drills that integrate more complex sport-specific drills can be woven into the warm up period.

movement pattern oriented warm up, also known as “movement patterning” involves skills that activate musculature specific to a given exercise or activity, and the buildup of progressions or breakdown of regressions, respectively referred to as “ratcheting up” or “ratcheting down” a given lift, for complex movements like Olympic lifts. 

The occurrence of a weak or sticking point will permit the intervention of the strength coach who will guide the athlete with external cues to improved performance or make recommendations for future exercises. “Hump the bar”, in this case, would not be invitation for an athlete to haphazardly do the toe-to-toe mambo with an entire tavern but a way to cue hip extension in a barbell lift.  This same cue could also be reinforced by putting horizontal band resistance across an athlete’s hips. 

An example of a movement pattern oriented warm up of one of Joe’s basketball players can be found below:

1.Three Month Position with Belly Breathing
2.Dead Bug atop Foam Roller
3.Single Legged Lowering
4.Slant Board Glute Bridge with Adduction
5.RNT Hinge
6.Band Stomp with Knee Extension
7.Bowler Squat

The exact warm up above was incorporated prior to a dynamic effort hex bar block pull as it optimized activation patterns of smaller, intrinsic core muscles that stabilize the lumbar spine and lock down the ribcage, acutely increase the extensibility of the hamstrings while activating the hip flexors — both needed for positional stability prior to the pull — awakened the glutes, which are heavily involved in hip extension and lastly promoted leg drive, one of the most overlooked aspects of deadlift variations.

In any case, sports and activities involving greater power outputs require more thorough and usually longer warm up periods.

For lifting movements with a smaller learning curve like the squat, bench press and deadlift, movement patterning is generally done with progressively heavier submaximal weights. 

For example, a warm up for a 405-pound squat would look like:

  • A general warm up consisting of a five to eight minute brisk walk 
  • Five minutes of dynamic movements [the Jailhouse Strong Dynamic Warm-upis a great place to start]
  • And lastly capped off by squat movement patterning with incremental increases in weight performed in the following fashion: 45 x 6 reps x 4 sets, 135 x 6 x 2 sets, 225 x 3 reps, 285 x 1 rep, 330 x 1 rep, 365 x 1, rep, 405

For bench pressing 225 pounds, you would do the same general and dynamic warm up, then bench press 45 x 6 x 4 sets, 95 x 6 x 2 sets, 135 x 4 reps, 165 x 2 reps, 190 x 1 rep, 210 x 1 rep, 225

Deadlifting 500 pounds would be involve the same general and dynamic warm up but in the following fashion for the submaximal build up 135 x 6 x 2 sets, 225 x 4 reps, 315 x 2 reps, 365 x 1 rep, 405 x1 1 reps, 455 x 1 rep

This strategy allows you to build technique with non-fatiguing submaximal volume. Over time you will learn yourself and be able to adapt sets and reps to your needs and the immediate climate.

Final Thoughts
Warming up is a preparation and potentiation for physical exertion. Not only will a proper warm up make you perform better in practice and competitive outings, but will reduce the likelihood of injuries,  no matter who you are!

Jailhouse Strong: 8 x 8 Powerliftingis getting some great reviews!