“You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.”

Jack London

Photo: Mr. T in DC
Photo: Mr. T in DC

I’ve received many questions as of late asking, in essence, what it is that I consider to be the proper method and duration for an adequate warm-up.  The truth of the matter is that — like the workout methodology itself — there is no one-size-fits-all, correct answer.  There are, however, a couple of basic, all-encompassing statements I can make about a proper warm-up, and those would be:

(1) make the warm-up ballistic and/or dynamic in nature, (2) make it intense enough, and of a long enough duration (but not longer), so that you’re primed (CNS and muscle/ligament structure) and ready for the actual meat of the workout, and (3) I’d much rather see someone go a little overboard on the warmup than to short-change the endeavor. Take it from someone who is (your choice) either (a) hard-headed or (b) just plain dim-witted enough to have made this mistake (and more than once, I hate to admit); just about every sporting injury I’ve suffered since my actual on-the-field days can be traced back to a poor warm-up prior to the injury. 

That said, when the warm-up is completed, your body ought to be primed to explode, and this includes the central nervous system.  Long, slow and passive stretching is no way to accomplish this task, as this type of stretching actually blunts the body’s speed/power response — the antithesis of what you want prior to hitting it hard and heavy in the gym or on the field or track.  Reserve static stretching, if you still wish to incorporate it, into the cool-down session.   I believe that yoga and yoga-like stretching is a fabulous workout in and of  itself, and can be a useful augmentation to a successful power-oriented, exercise program at certain distinct points within the overall marocycle (or even a stand-alone program in the right circumstance).   These types of movements are not, however, good lead-in’s to a dynamic, power-oriented session.  A skilled carpenter chooses the correct tool for each particular application, and methodology-matching for various training applications is no different.

I can tell you this: I don’t spend an inordinate amount of time warming up.  The fact that I don’t have the luxury of extra time to spend dilly-dallying has much to do with this.  The other thing is that I don’t particularly like to spend much time warming-up; I’d rather get to “the good stuff” as soon as possible.   Another thing I can tell you is that I’m not one to “ease” into my warmup, even prior to my early morning workout sessions.  For example, most mornings the first thing I do at the gym is alternating 20 meter skips and sprints.  The only “ease in” I incorporate is that I begin at about a 3/4 effort for the first 2 or 3 efforts.  After that, it’s full throttle, game-on.  In fact, many have mentioned to me things along the line of “damn, man — don’tcha warm-up before your workout?”  Uhh, well, this is my warm-up…

Now, while I might not have the luxury of time, I do have the luxury of a 200 meter (roughly) indoor track at my facility, so the bulk of my warm-up, even prior to a weight session, is comprised of short sprints, skips, lunges, ballistic toe-touching and such.  Usually, I’ll throw in a few reps and varieties of power pull-ups as well.  Check out this video clip from Mike Young of EliteTrack, as he talks about a lot of the stuff that I like to incorporate into my own warm-up sessions.  These are the kinds of warmup exercise I do directly out of the chute, even on those before-the-ass-crack-of-dawn sessions.  Also, Mike has an informative companion article, here.  Then, if my session involves hitting the weights, I’ll perform a round or two of  the Bergener Warm-up.  From there, I might do a round or two of my actual workout for the day, building up to my working weight for that particular session’s exercises.  I can tell you that, as a rough gauge, my warm-ups, even on the coldest of days, rarely last longer than 15 minutes or so.  I am, however, in constant motion during that time.

Curious as to how a world class sprinter goes about warming-up prior to a working session?  Well, here are a couple of video clips of Asafa Powell and Powell’s (and the MVP club of Jamaica) coach, Steven Francis going through a pre-workout warmup routine.  Notice how none of the sprinters in these clips would necessarily be considered outlandishly flexible.  I think there is most deffinately a point of diminished returns when it comes to flexibility and speed and/or strength.  Also note that “flexibility”, per se, is not the point of the warmup routine — properly priming the CNS, musculature, ligaments and supporting structure, along with increasing the body’s core temperature (and an increased heartrate) is the focus and only goal of the pre-workout warmup.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=13ZpOZdJaaQ&feature=related]

…and part 2

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hy41fwLE250&feature=related]

And you certainly don’t have to have an indoor track available to perform an adequate warm-up.  Just be creative, with exercises such as the Russian Lunge Scissor Jump, for example, are great ways to warm-up.  The take home point here is that the pre-workout warmup ought to be ballistic manner, and challenging enough to prime your CNS and raise your core temperature; cool down, if you wish (I don’t, but that’s just my preference) with whatever passive stretching you feel you need.

In Health,

Keith

9 COMMENTS

  1. Keith,

    I like the way you use the metaphor of the carpenter. I think that a warm-up should ideally:

    1) gradually increase load
    2) incorporate all the movements/aspects of the main workout or game
    3) be a short as possible, but not shorter than possible

    So if you would go for a jog (I said ‘would’), you wouldn’t need a lot of warming up, except for some gradual increasing of running

    On the other hand, if your warming up for a basketball game, the warming up will be more elaborate and will have some running, sprinting, jumping, step-slides, shots, lay-ups, free throws, defensive moves, cutting moves, …

    It would not be necessary to do some form of high foot kicks. For martial arts it… you get what I mean.

    If your workout/game has a big flexiblity aspect, you should incorporate flexibility in the warm-up, but not necessarily passive stretching, probably better not passive stretching (unless your warming up for a game of sitting in a full split for as long as you can 🙂

    To put it in another way: it should prapare you (as an organism, so both body and mind) for the things to come.

    Indeed, the central nervous system priming is crucial. Can you imagine studies have been done putting people in a hot bath for warm-up?

  2. Keith,
    As always, I love your writing and appreciate all you do to keep us motivated.
    I wanted to write an update on my continued attempts to put theory to practice as I have just reached 101 pounds lost. Having gone from 356 lbs. to 255 lbs. has given me so much vitality and joy. I can now fit in size 36 jeans and XL shirts, coming from size 48’s and 4XL!
    I am still pumped about eating well (paleo with minimal cheats) and exercising (beginning Crossfit). I have survived stressful times without binge eating, which was a major concern.
    Also, and most importantly to me, I am showing my children that these things are possible. A side note to this point: I have begun having the occasional ice cream with my kids. I felt that it was important to show good eating habits but also the ability to show restraint with foods that kids like. (Thoughts?)
    They have begun to see that junk food need not be “everything” and they don’t ask for candy anymore. Well…at least not from me. 🙂
    In fact, last week my dad even asked me to go over my diet with him. He sees the results and knows I am not eating poorly to lose weight and wants in. Yeah!
    Anyway, this is where I am.
    Hope you and yours are well. Please keep up your great writing.
    Thank you,
    Jeremy Palmer

  3. After reading your posts, I recently built up a fixie which I’ve been riding to/from the track and the gym. I’ve found that for a 5:00 AM session, my body isn’t ready for a dynamic warmup straight out of bed, but the ride gives me a chance to wake up, get the legs moving, and raises my temperature enough that when I start the true warmup, I’m not as cold/stiff as when I rolled out of bed. The ride home helps clear the waste out of my legs. I couldn’t be happier with the new strategy (and the new toy).

    • Hey, cool! Great to have a new member of the Paleo-fixie community (I think there’s maybe 10 of us in the entire US 🙂 ) Anyway, a good fixie huck is a great way to get the body warmed up for some more involved dynamic & specific warm-ups. Be warned, though — if you plan on sprinting (of the running kind), be sure to properly warm-up your posterior chain prior to delving in full bore. Take advice from someone who’s found this out the hard way (and more than once — yeah, I’m a dumb-ass at times) — biking is quad-dominant, and is fantastic for prepping the quads for some heavy-duty action. Not so the glutes, calves and hams, they still have to be dynamically warmed-up even after a tough fixie huck — if the meat of your workout involves heavy PC involvement. Don’t do what I’ve done in the past — hop right off the fixie after a tough ride (thinking I’m well warmed up) and morph right into 90%+ sprints. You might get away with it 9 out of 10 times, but when the ham pull finally bites (and it will), you’ll be singing the blues. Ask me the tune — unfortunately, I know it by heart. 🙂

  4. Thanks. I usually warm up with strides, butt kicks, and A/B skips. Haven’t pulled up lame yet, but I do notice that I feel a little “clumsy” when I first get off the bike and start to run. Must be the different muscle recruitment.

    However, while we’re on the subject, I have gotten several hamstring pulls prior to getting the bike, but since I’ve been Paleo. Any ideas why? Two things I can think of:
    1. Increased meat and veggetable consumption (which I do salt) coupled with the reduced water retention from all the carbs, throws my electrolyte balance out of whack. Before Paleo, I was eating lots of oatmeal, sweet potatoes, and fruit, and my sweat was essentially pure water (now it’s far more salty)
    2. Glycogen levels are too low, leaving my muscles weak. I am much more of a natural endurance type, and do a fair bit of distance running, and even my sprint workouts tend to be longer in duration and lower intensity. (i.e., instead of 10 x 100 @ 99%, I’m more likely to do 12 x 200-400 @ 90-95%, with jog recoveries. I just can’t seem to run fast enough to wear myself out after 10 100s. Just don’t have the explosive speed that you do. All a long winded way of saying that my workouts probably deplete my glycogen more than the suggested Paleo workouts, and probably don’t get repleted through gluconeogenesis alone (my legs often feel “dead,” though my upper body recovers well from my less-frequent, low-duration weight workouts). I’ve been eating Paleo for ~2 years, so I think I’m as adapted as I’m going to get.

    Any other ideas? I know the answer is probably that I’m trying to combine non-Paleo workouts with a Paleo-diet, and that I need more rest/recovery, but I guess I’m fishing for a more preferable answer…

    • Pulls or cramps, ebrunner? A bad cramp can be as debilitating and painful as a muscle pull — at least in the short term. Of course, cramping is brought on by (at least in part by) insufficient fluid intake and/or electrolyte balance. I’m not so sure muscle glycogen levels would have a hand in it, though I’m far from an authority on the subject. It may also be that “natural endurance types” may gravitate toward a naturally greater carb intake, and this comes back again to the n=1 experimentation and the fair consideration of nature/environment vs. nurture. I think this is the great unknown territory that we must all tease-out for ourselves. When faced with as “ancestral” an environment as possible, given the confines of our current modernity, what is our resultant, natural phenotype? This idea is most classically demonstrated by an observance of east African ancestry distance runners vs the west African ancestry speed-demons.

      • Maybe a cramp-induced strain? I’ve always thought of cramps as temporary, whereas a sprain/strain can be felt for days or weeks. I usually need a couple of weeks to feel normal again.

        I agree with your point on phenotyping, and this subject fascinates me. One area I wrestle with is optimal training. I believe you’ve suggested in another post that we should train to improve our weaknesses. But what if Lance had ran the sprints? What if Usain Bolt decided to ride the Tour? Would more explosive training give me much needed speed that would carry into the longer distances, or would training that energy system ruin my existing endurance? Is it worth it to sacrifice being an above-average distance runner to become a mediocre (at best) sprinter? Obviously not if the goal is purely competitive performance. But what about for health? Is it possible that endurance training induces a state of stress and inflammation for the fast-twitch type, but not for me?

        How about diet? I know that I seem to feel best on a Paleo diet. Though I’ve always been pretty lean, too many grains make me feel sluggish. And absent heavy activity, many East Africans fatten up on their carb-based diet. In fact, many Kenyan runners (i.e., individuals who are probably predisposed to being lean) often gain 20-25+ lbs in their offseason while eating their traditional (high-carb) diet. So is a high carb diet really optimal for them, or are the harmful effects of the diet simply mitigated by extreme exercise?

        • “Is it possible that endurance training induces a state of stress and inflammation for the fast-twitch type, but not for me?”
          Yes, this, in my opinion, is entirely possible. I think one reaches an optimum level of health when the expressed phenotype aligns with one’s natural inherited tendencies; in other words when nature, nurture and environmental stimulus are all on the same “frequency”, so to speak. I do think that there exists a ground floor level of dietary and fitness-related “givens”, though that are true for everyone and from which a true n=1 experimentation ought to begin. For example, I don’t believe that anyone can thrive on grains, period. Now, some may tolerate grains better (coupled with ingestion load factors) than others, but no one will thrive on the stuff. By extension, then, this “tolerance philosophy”, if you will, translates to simple carbohydrates and, most of all, HFCS. From this base, then, we can begin to alter protein, fat and complex carb ratios according to individual make-ups. Raw dairy consumption would fit in this discussion as well. I think the same “theory” applies to fitness. I think short duration, in-frequent and intense is the base from which we all ought to begin. For a natural endurance-leaning athlete (someone of east-African descent, for example), a “sprint” may well be 800 meters, with “short duration” being an hour-and-a-half. And you’re right, I think; the east-African would never be able to approach “red-line” intensity in 100 meters, much less 20 meters…or 10 sets of 2 in the power clean. After a proper warm-up for example, I can pull-off a no-holds-barred, 100 meter sprint or an all-out deadlift and be totally and utterly spent. The endurance athlete, because of fiber-type and CNS propensities, will never be able to engage enough muscle and CNS activity in that short amount of time to amount to any appreciable fatigue. Now the 64k$ question becomes, is the athlete endurance by design, or by nurture and/or environment? Again, we have to step outside of ourselves and find out who we really are before we can progress forward.
          The “train what you’re not good at” notion must be taken into proper context to be effective. For example, it’s not that I’d have Lance train in the sprints per se, or Bolt for the Tour, but rather that I’d have Lance train (as an off-season diversion) for med. distance sculling say, or Bolt for max muscle-up singles in a 2-minute period (again, as an off season diversion). Glassman’s use of pull-ups with the women’s US ski team is a good example of this kind of methodology. On the other hand, in a Crossfit-like athlete, this dictate can be taken quite literally. Can you press the world, but absolutely suck at pull-ups? Hey, guess where the best bang for your training buck is gonna come from? What’s going to make you a better all-‘rounder? Why this is so is quite obvious for the all-‘round guy or gal; harder to figure is why this should be so with a seasoned/specialized athlete. Theories abound here, including the theory that the whole concept is a load of crap. My own take is that it equates to a form of periodization for the specialized athlete – keeping the CNS engaged in a way that is similar to their sport of origin, yet different enough so as to allow full recovery of the sport-specific, bodily and CNS pathway. There may be a substantial psychological element involved as well.

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