Does Your Warm-up Matter?

It’s time to change the way we’ve been warming up for our workouts. Here’s how to make them more efficient and worthwhile. 

When it comes to warming up, I’ve noticed a couple of things:

  1. Long, drawn out warm-ups in which people are trying to mobilize every joint in existence.
  2. People lying on the floor with their eye glued to their phones texting their friends.
  3. People foam-rolling for what seems like an eternity.
  4. In general, people missing the point of a warm-up entirely.

Trust me, I’ve been there before, too. My fellow coaches still rib me about how long my warm-ups take before I begin my workouts in earnest. To them, it looks as if I’m spending a half-hour on the foam roller, but I beg to differ. These days, I think I’ve cut them down to 20 minutes or less (hopefully).

It’s a constant work in progress for me, and they have a good point. Warm-ups really should not be taking that long.

The warm-up should be focused and short, and it should do exactly as its name implies. It should warm you up.

Foam-rolling is good, but only up to a certain point. Unfortunately, it is not as magical as people make it seem. It doesn’t actually cure cancer, nor does it produce long-term soft tissue changes in your body. Our good friend Quinn Henoch is quick to point out the handful of research articles out that supports this notion. Here’s one example of a study that demonstrates that foam rolling has no effect on hamstring stiffness when compared to a cycling warm-up.

Consider spending less time humping the foam roller and more time moving with intent. Thanks. – Science • #Repost from Virginia #clinicalathleteprovider @michael.ray.dc: • Warm-ups are best served by dynamic active movements.  Overwhelming meh for utilizing foam rolling in warm-ups to effect muscle stiffness for the hamstrings, based on this study: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28124382 • Four pronged study:  cycling, foam rolling, mixed, and control. Overall findings: • No significant ROM changes in foam rolling or controls. No significant changes in passive torque in foam rolling or controls. Shear modulus decreased the greatest via cycling at the 5 minute measurement. Finally, “Our results showed that a 15- minute cycling- based warm- up was more efficient at acutely reducing passive stiffness of the hamstring muscles than foam rolling.” • #clinicalathleteprovider #logicofrehab #svpc #physicalmedicine

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Generally speaking, after a short bout on the foam roller, there are better things you could be doing with your time.

Research has also pointed to the value of dynamic movements over static stretching when it comes to warming up. Static stretching has actually been shown to decrease power output in movements that are done immediately afterwards. This is definitely something you don’t want if the day’s agenda calls for heavy squats, bench presses, or anything of that sort that actually requires effort.

Do less of this if you want to perform better in the gym.

Chances are, you’re probably warming up the wrong way. It seems as if we’ve been getting away from the true purpose of warming up, which is simply to increase your body temperature. Long, drawn-out warm-ups for every inch of the entire body should be a thing of the past.

All this begs the question:

How much does a warm-up matter anyway?

I still view warming up as one of the most crucial components of a successful training program. It’s a good time to focus on movement deficiencies and problem areas, clean up technique, and work on little details before your big lifts. So why do warm-ups end up taking so long?

Simply put, warming up feels good. And this is important. There’s nothing wrong with foam rolling or stretching; both of these modalities change our perception about our “tight and sore” muscles. Suddenly we feel supple and limber, and we end up craving more and more.

Because of this, it’s easy to get carried away. However, lasting physiological changes do not occur in that short time span, nor do they occur through a passive effort. As we can learn from the Functional Range Conditioning system, lasting changes in our mobility and flexibility actually occur as a result of active effort, intensity, and discomfort. Hate to break it to you, folks.

Furthermore, warming up dynamically and increasing your core temperature have the same effects on our minds and muscles as foam-rolling and stretching do.

When it comes to feeling good, there is a point of diminishing returns. Are your hamstrings stiff and sore? You only need to roll as much as is necessary to produce a change in your perception of muscle tightness, and no more. What people don’t realize however, is that producing this change doesn’t take much time or effort.

Once this occurs, you should begin moving dynamically, with movements specific to the lifts in each training session. Going off the example above, if I’m deadlifting that day, I am definitely doing some bodyweight RDL’s before going into my training. Not only is this movement specific to the deadlift, it also mobilizes my hamstrings, and I can get in touch with how they feel within the confines of the specific movement. I can effectively gage my hamstrings’ tolerance to stress this way.

This is also why I’m not a huge fan of having one general warm-up for an entire month or training block. A general warm-up fails to address the specific needs and movements of each individual training session and its movements. Instead of trying to be a “catch-all” solution that just ends up wasting more time, a warm-up should focus on the motions that are being trained immediately afterwards in each training session.

Another thing people fail to realize is that going through a warm-up, no matter how long or thorough, doesn’t mean that you are immediately ready to squat 3 wheels or deadlift 405. Working up to these heavy sets is a warm-up in and of itself. From the perspective of efficiency, it makes little sense to have a long warm-up in the beginning when you still need to warm-up for your heavy sets.

There’s certainly a time and place for “extra work” on certain problem areas and mobility limitations regardless of the workout ahead, but these problems should be determined through assessment, and it’s best not to get carried away with them. The goal is performance; not mobility for the sake of mobility.

What really matters is mobility for the sake of proper performance. Can your joints and muscles get into the proper positions for the things you want to do? If the answer is yes, you’re good to go.

Stay tuned for more about warming up properly, including pointers on how to build a warm-up that flows well from start to finish, and certain implications to keep in mind.

by Jeremy Lau

Jeremy Lau

Jeremy Lau Halevy Life Staff CoachJeremy Lau is a Senior Staff Coach at Halevy Life.

Jeremy graduated cum laude from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute with a BSc. in Biomedical Engineering and received his Master’s in Exercise Physiology at Columbia University. In addition to his academic accolades, Jeremy is a Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist (CSCS).

Prior to joining the team at Halevy Life, Jeremy completed a coaching internship at Cressey Sports Performance, where he coached both amateur and professional athletes, among whom were many professional MLB baseball players.

As an athlete, Jeremy has played baseball competitively for most of his life.