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Warm-ups: opening up the debate and tackling common misconceptions
Warming up should be straightforward – but for many years in the fitness industry we’ve gone forwards then backwards, then sat on the fence about how to warm up. What is the best way, what is contradictory and should we warm up at all?
We turned to Tommy Matthews, Escape’s Head of Education and Training, to take a fresh look at a familiar subject. In his article, Tommy covers the following:
Do we even need to warm up?
The components of a thorough warm-up.
How to shape warm-ups to different people’s needs.
Three misconceptions about warming up.
Do we need to warm up?
The need to warm up is really dependent on the intensity of the exercise session planned. For example, if the session is a walk on a treadmill there might not be much need to warm up. On the other hand, if it’s an Olympic weightlifting session, then a warm-up would be essential before lifting.
But - and it’s a big ‘but’ - you could do so much more than just warm up. I prefer the term ‘movement preparation’ as it refers to preparing the body for what it’s about to do. If a thoughtful approach is taken we can do whatever is possible to get the most from our session.
What if your client had imbalances across the kinetic chain that could increase risk of injury or reduce performance? Even if they were just walking on a treadmill, if you could make them walk better and engage the right muscles wouldn’t it be worth it?
Therefore, to answer the question ‘do we need to warm up?’, yes, I think we should. There are not many people in the world who function optimally and can jump straight into intense movement. So perhaps a better question is, what type of warm-up should we perform?
What are the components of a good warm-up?
If I look back at my first fitness text book, I’m sure it will say something like: ‘A warm-up us a heart rate raiser to shunt oxygenated blood to the working muscles and increase neuromuscular activity.’
That’s not a bad definition of warming up. However, a warm-up can mean so much more. When I first started training I was taught an almost set routine for my clients no matter what the situation. It began with a heart rate raiser on a CV machine and then went into a series of dynamic stretches. I look back on that now and think, wow, is that really what I did? That’s not to say it was wrong, but there are plenty of other options available to the coach that will get the client better prepared for a workout.
My usual preparation protocol when I’m coaching clients usually looks something like this:
- Fascial release or static stretch to release tension in required areas. (Example: foam rolling of the muscles.)
- Mobilisers to improve range across a joint and up-regulate the fascial system. (Example: controlled end range lunge.)
- Mobility to increase suppleness in joints and synovial fluid. (Example: hip circles or shoulder rolls.)
- Static muscular activation to prime the weak muscles and increase neuromuscular activity. (Example: hip bridges.)
- Dynamic muscular activation to engage muscle groups and activate muscular chains. (Example: leg swings.)
- Bodyweight movements to put the kinetic chain into movements similar to those about to be performed in the workout. (Example: bodyweight squat.)
If I have time, this sequence works amazingly well. If I am pushed for time, I’ll choose the most important sections for the client.
This is generally the protocol that I follow if I am working in the gym. But my methods completely change if I’m out on the track or field about to run some intervals or hills sprints, or if I am about to jump on the bike for an endurance session.
Just as our training goals have specific training methods that best achieve them, so should our warm-ups. One method does not fit for all workouts. As an example:
- If we’re preparing for functional, multi-planar movement then our warm-up will require a sequence of drills that prepare our joints in all planes of motion. It should also engage the neuromuscular system to deal with the forces and loads placed on the body.
- But if we are about to do some running intervals, then we will need to prepare the cardiovascular system for aerobic and anaerobic activity.
As long as movement preparation doesn’t fatigue the client to the detriment of the exercises performed in the workout, it’s more than acceptable to spend well over ten minutes warming up. In some cases, where the force output or dynamic nature of the workout is extreme, 30 minutes of preparation can be necessary to get the body fully prepared for the workout.
The take-home point is to never underestimate the importance of a thorough warm-up. You’ll be missing out on huge benefits if you do.
Common misconceptions about warming up
To wrap things up, I think it’s worth opening up the debate a bit and leave you with some things to think about. So here are what I believe to be three misconceptions about warming up…what do you think?
Misconception #1 - don’t static stretch before a workout
This is a classic line that has been thrown around for many years. A static stretch will release muscular tonicity and therefore will de-regulate the muscle, allowing either greater range or less restriction across a joint. But if performed before exercise, it is thought unsafe due to the ‘shutting down’ of muscle fibres.
However, a static stretch can actually prepare the body quite nicely for exercise. This will happen when it’s used as part of a process where following the stretch the joints/muscle groups are put back into controlled, stable movements - allowing the joints to move through their new range and stimulate muscular activity.
Misconception #2 - you need at least five minutes of CV exercise to increase blood shunting
One of the most effective methods of blood shunting comes from specific movement-based ramp warm ups. Starting with loads at 25% and ramping up to 75%, the speed starts high and decreases as the load increases. The more muscular activation created in an area, the more requirement for blood flow.
Misconception #3 – five minutes is long enough to activate the aerobic system for activity
The aerobic energy system starts to kick in at around three minutes of activity. However, it takes a lot longer than this to get the system working efficiently and increase the amount of energy supplied by fatty acids instead of carbohydrate. Twenty minutes is considered the length of time required to get the body to start utilising fats as fuel in the aerobic energy system.
Looking for some tools for warm-ups?
One of the areas Tommy has identified in his article is the use of rollers for myofascial release as part of warm-up routines. Escape has a range of three rollers, each with their own characteristics: Ridge Roller, Ultraflex Roller and Ubersoft Roller. For trainers who really want to know how to use rollers with complete confidence, Escape’s Self Myofascial Release with Foam Rollers Product Training Workshop provides the knowledge they need.
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