Wednesday, August 6, 2014

The Road to Relentless - Warming Up

In a way, what you do around your workout can matter just as much as during your workout. Starting with the warm-up, I believe there are four functions to a good warm-up:

  1. Increasing your body temperature/blood flow to muscles
  2. Mobility work
  3. Muscle activation work
  4. Dialing in technique
Body Temperature/Blood Flow
The warming-up part of a warm-up. Generally speaking, I don't worry too much about this myself. Usually I get to the gym by walking, which I feel is enough of an activity to start the blood flowing. If you ask around you'll get the standard responses. 5-10 minutes of activity. Walking, jump rope, rowing machine, elliptical, exercise bike, etc. Technique doesn't really matter here so much as activity.

Do something, do anything. It doesn't matter. The point is you want to loosen things up, get your heart rate raised a little to warm your body up. I've often heard of muscles described like rubber bands. How it's easier to snap a rubber band that's cold than one warmed up. While that's not the best description, it'll work for our purposes.

One final thing I'll say about this is that I don't think you necessarily need to be breaking a sweat to be warmed up. Sure, it might happen, but you don't want to waste your time and energy warming up before you spend it on the workout itself!

Now there's definitely a lot of bru-ha-ha about static stretching vs. dynamic stretching. Studies show that static stretching before a workout can decrease the strength of the muscle. They say you'll destroy your gainz if you stretch. Ignore them. It doesn't matter, do what you find works for you. If it feels better to do some static stretching before a workout, then do it. There's science to support this:

  • The strength decrease is on the order of 2-3%. That's nothing. You can lose up to 19% of of your strength just by being dehydrated.
  • A recent study has shown that the strength recovers within 5-10 minutes. You shouldn't be hitting your working sets within that time frame anyway. 
  • Skill-based warm-ups following stretching negate the differences between stretching types. 


It all comes down to a matter of purpose. Think about what you're doing more than just blindly following recommendations or programs. When you can understand why you are doing an exercise you can determine if the exercise is working for you, and how to make it more effective. A warm-up is used to prepare our bodies for the workout. Consider stretching and what it does to the body.

As I understand it, stretching increases flexibility by teaching your body to relax muscles. Along the way this can induce microtears in the muscle; whether this is breaking up scar tissue or tears in the muscle fibers themselves. So it's obvious that we don't want to tell our bodies to relax, nor damage them in any way while we arm up. Makes it sound pretty bad to stretch before activity then.

Put it into perspective though. When we stretch in a warm-up we are trying to ensure that we have our maximum range of motion. We want to move to the best our abilities in our workout. We're not trying to increase our stretch, only restore what we already have. (At this point I would argue that there's a difference between mobility and flexibility, which is another essay/aside in and of itself). Increasing our stretch has its place at the end of a work-out, when we aren't worried about what will happen with the 400lbs on our back.

Static stretches can help with this restoration. Some joints and movements may require a good static stretch to open up. We're not trying to push past what we have, just make sure we can use what we've got. If you need to use pigeon pose to open up your hips for a full squat then by golly use it!
Blah blah blah blah blah, science. Long story short, once you've got the blood pumping I think it's beneficial to make sure you can move properly. The last three parts of the warm-up ensure this. And don't get me wrong, these can all overlap. I'll often use mobility work to get my blood coursing.

The main idea is that we use exercises with a dynamic range of movement to restore our bodies to a prime functioning state. Break up those adhesions and scar tissue and whatever else might be holding you back from what you're capable of. Depending on how I feel each day, I'll pick and choose what I use to do this. Here's a general list of the movements I like. On any given day I'll do 5-8 of them as a warm-up.

  1. Foam Roll Adductors:
  2. Bent-knee Iron Cross
  3. Roll-overs into V-sits
  4. Rocking Frog Stretch
  5. Fire Hydrant Circles (up/down + both directions)
  6. Mountain Climbers
  7. Seated Piriformis Stretch
  8. Rear-foot-elevated Hip Flexor Stretch
  9. Prisoner Squat
  10. High Knees
  11. Leg Swing (Forward, Backward, Side-to-Side)
  12. Pointers
  13. Cat-Cow Pose

Muscle Activation Work
The next step to prepare for movement is to ensure that the movement is... well.. moved correctly. If we look at the movements I like for the main lifts, we notice they're all compound movements. The squat isn't driven purely by the quads, for example. At the bottom of the squat you use your glutes and hamstrings to drive up out of the "hole". If your glutes aren't being used you're not doing the movement as well as you could be. Pretty simple actually. Depending on how you do your mobility work, a lot of this may already be covered. Think of muscle activation stuff like a little supplementary work. Useful to add in once in a while to correct movement patterns.

Another way of thinking about it would be to work in "patterning" exercises here. Patterning, as I learned through Dan John is essentially a lower-technique version of a movement to teach your body correct movement pathways. Things that you don't need to think about that much that will teach you the skills for technique intensive lifts. So, for example, a goblet squat would be a great patterning exercise for a barbell squat. You're forced into correct movements paths by virtue of balance. Easy peasy, nothing to think about.

There's a whole science to this, by the way, done by professional coaches and kinesiology experts. They can analyze your movement patterns to determine what's wrong. If you're having problems with any of the lifts, I highly recommend you get a coach. Nothing like a second set of eyes to figure out what's wrong. It might be tight calves, or sleepy-booty, or any number of other thigns.

I don't really have a guide, or recommendations here. Only that you pay attention to your training, take notes, and experiment. In my own training, I have noticed that if I don't do some glute-work in my warm-up every once in a while, my lower back will start to get fatigued early on. Actually, it never hurts to do some glute-work. They're like the pecs of the back. Butt-pecs, if you well.

Patterning + Activation Exercises
  1. Single-Leg Glute Bridge
  2. Wall Slides
  3. Goblet Squat
  4. Push Up
  5. Bulgarian Goat Belly Swing
  6. Bat Wings

Dialing in Technique
Finally, we get to the end of the warm-up, dialing in technique. When I took the workshop with Dan Green, he mentioned the idea that many sports use drills to hone skills during their warm-ups, so why not power lifting? Why not use the warm-up sets to intensely focus on technique, really dialing things in before you get to the heavy stuff.

If you look at my training logs, you'll notice that I don't just jump into a 405# squat. I'll often have sets ramping up like this:

  • 45# x 10
  • 135# x 5-8
  • 225# x 5
  • 275# x 5
  • 315# x 4
  • 365# x 3
and so on. I firmly believe that until you hit within 10% of your working weight for the day, everything is a warm-up. So use that time to really hone in on your technique. The weights are light enough that you can pay attention to all the little things. 

There are a few ways to approach warm-up sets. First of all, always start with the empty bar. Hell, throw in a body-weight version of the exercise if you can. Build up slowly, but evenly. Don't waste your energy on the warm-ups. Notice that I tone-down the reps as I approach my working sets. I'm a a big fan of using 45# and 25# weights to determine my warm-up sets, but you can also calculate them. For example:
  • 50% x 5 
  • 58% x 4
  • 68% x 3
  • 75% x 2
  • 78% x 1
  • 83% x 1
  • 88% x 1
When applicable, I am a HUGE fan of the over-warm-up. Basically, hit a few reps over your working set weight. In the previous, calculated schema, the 78-88% might be over-warm-ups, with the working weight done around 70-75%. An over-warm-up is pretty awesome. By going heavy you gain the confidence for the working sets, as well as prime your body for work. After hitting a few over-warm-ups, when you drop down to your working weight it'll feel like nothing. That boost of confidence is a fantastic thing to have when training. 

I know this all sounds like a lot, but honestly your warm-up shouldn't be that complicated. Move around a little, pick some stretches/movements to practice, then start on your main lift. I like my warm-ups to progress from general movements to technique specific. They are preparation, after all.

In the end, it's all about how you feel that day. On days that I feel very beat-up, I may spend some extra time on the mobility work. Other days I may feel on top of the word and breeze through things. I should emphasize that I never skimp on my warm-up sets though. Don't mess with your technique.

Further reading

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