Warm ups: What and Why

The last 3 years has been a settling in process. Moving from the UK back to the States has felt weirdly foreign instead of an easy slip back into being an American. These 3 years have also been a transition from my CrossFit and small boutique fitness world and back into a large nationwide health club.

Coming to a big health club was scary at first. The building rose into view ominously and I immediately felt like I might not like it. I was wrong, and the rest is history. I love my big, fat health club! What I notice, though, is a ton of people working out without warming up.

There is one thing missing in my club. And it’s not equipment or machines. What’s missing in the club? The warm-ups! Fitness family: please warm up!

I get it. I was there. I got a gym membership, but that didn’t mean I knew what to do with it. What I see now is much like I used to do as your average gym go-er. Started off just trying to lose weight doing an elliptical and it grew into a 5 days per week habit. I would do either a little cardio or a lot and some weight machines or free weights. I started focusing on body areas (legs, arms, back) but was basically just copying people I saw or read about in fitness magazines. Warm up? Sure, I did a little time on the treadmill or the stairs. Done, then straight into the lifting.

I see a lot of you doing the same stupid thing I did. I paid a price and so are you. I didn’t get the most out of my workout and I risked (and suffered) injury.

The warm up should be movement preparation with the view of getting body systems ready to work. What should your warm up consist of? Depends on the aim of the workout and the movement required. But if you are expecting to lift big or work hard with a brief, unfocused flail about, then what can I say? Enjoy the bad backs, clunky shoulders and old-man knees that you’ve earned.

The warm up process should also take into account the weaknesses, prior injuries and mobility limitations we all have. Can’t get your elbows to extend overhead? Got a pain in your knees when you squat? Your warm up is a time to stretch out the problem areas, wake up under-used muscle groups and work towards the range of movement that will ultimately allow you to get in the best shape possible. If your aim is strength or size in the weight room, your focus will be on activating and preparing all the muscles you need before hitting the working sets. Have a cardio conditioning or endurance workout? The warm up will focus on preparation of the body also in terms of your cardio respiratory system – a little building up of the intensity in the heart and lungs – as well as considering the muscles needed to support the challenge ahead. A runner or cyclist, for example, would do well to mobilize hips and ankles, activate core/trunk muscles as well as start the heart and lungs working before entering into the main body of the workout.

The warm up is for your body, but it also is essential for the neurological and psychological components of working out. A work out is a physical challenge that won’t go well without the both a degree of adrenaline and determination. Incrementally putting your body under increasing amounts of stress will trigger changes and reactions in our nervous system. A huge range of our experience is then affected by these changes and reactions. The aim of the warm up is to get your nervous system awake – to start talking to your muscles – so that when the workout heats up, they are ready to fight. Not only that, but your warm up can become a ritual that allows you get your mind into the game. Warm ups work by getting us into a state of physical and mental readiness through a practiced ritual of movement prep and mental focus.

So, if you’re someone who has been avoiding lifts or movements your body doesn’t allow you to do, start looking at your warm up. There may be issues that you know will never allow you to do something. For example, if you have a condition that puts limits on your workouts – although warms ups are also essential for you, some issues are more problematic and I’m not making a blanket statement to everyone. What I’m referring to are the many people who are working out around a niggling pain. Those that when the movement became difficult, didn’t fix it. Instead, they just focused on all the other things they could do. Building muscles around the problem rather than resolving it. If you back hurts, don’t just whack a weightlifting belt on it and keep working. When you’re not able to hit a decent squat depth, don’t just keep going. Or worse, stop squatting altogether. Take some time, assess, get advice, make a plan. And, for the sake of your fitness, warm up!

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