Warming Up Wisely
By Noah Abbott
Each time we walk into the gym, we are confronted with a certain amount of work for the day. For many, this is one of the greatest pluses of working out at a “non-traditional” gym- you don't have to think about programming or planning. Upon walking in the door and looking at the white board, we are given a prescription: exercises, rep-and-set schemes, even target weights, be they relative (70% of 1RM) or absolute (225#/185#.)
Despite the seeming absolutism, each day there is as much unsaid information and room for improvisation and interpretation as there are set parameters and instructions undoubtedly scrawled illegibly and supplemented with original art from the Osorio Stick Figure collection. The way we warm up for each lift and WOD is our own time to acquaint ourselves with the given exercise, practice form and execution, and familiarize our body with the (often heavy as all get out) weight we are about to move.
In the “real world,” when give a task most people will start by hashing out a plan of attack before jumping into the deep end. If we were to fix a broken table leg, we would plan out what tools we needed, sketch a few ideas, acquire materials, set out a work space, and make sure we had enough beer to get us through our clumsy Bob Villa imitation. If given a project at work, we would brew a pot of coffee, do some internet research, sketch a few outlines, vent to coworkers about how unfair it was that we had to do this shit, call home and say we'd be home late, and then maybe get to work. I propose that before any endeavor in the gym, we should practice a similar amount of introspection, practice, and slow familiarization with our task at hand. The beer and the bitching are up to you.
Position, Balance, Tension, Focus
Our first consideration when beginning our warm-up sets is to use lighter weight repetitions of a movement as practice for the relatively high skill movement to follow. A good rubric to follow is to begin with an emphasis on Position and Balance in our first few sets and transition to emphasizing Tension and Focus as the weight begins to increase and we near our work weight. To illustrate this concept, let’s use the squat (our most familiar and important lift) as an example.
During your first 2 or 3 warm-up sets (always starting with an EMPTY BAR), while the weight is light and manageable, try to dial in your Position. Where are your feet and hands set up? Are they too close or far? Is your rack tight and centered? Are you reaching proper depth as you squat, are your knees shoved out, is your back in a good, safe position at the bottom? Think about these concepts, and begin to fix the feeling of proper positions in your mind. Your lifting partner is an invaluable resource at this time, as they can cue you on some things you can't see. Ask them questions, and use their feedback to inform your lifting.
Once your positioning feels OK, quickly check in on your Balance. What part of your foot is bearing your weight at the start of your squat, does it shift at the bottom or remain constant? Is your bar path straight and balanced, or is it wavering or shifting? Your partner is helpful here as well, although some elements of balance, especially in your feet, can be so subtle that they are tough to perceive. If you can't sense your balance due to your shoes, consider removing them - going barefoot is Tre Paleo.
Now that we are Properly Positioned and Badassedly Balanced, lets work on Tension and Focus. As the weight begins to increase, shift your inner gaze to getting TIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIGHT. Are you making sure to get a full, deep breath before you lift? Are you staying tight at the bottom of the lift? Are you holding that breath at the top and staying tight and controlled at the top of the lift before your next rep? Check in with your partner, and don't get offended if they say you've gone soft, this isn't Menace II Society, G.
Finally, its time to get Focused. Are you often suprised when your warm-up sets feel really heavy and slow, and then your heavier work sets feel faster and relatively light? If so, you are probably not truly focusing until your work sets, which can be both dangerous and prevent you from reaching full potential. Treat your last few warm-up sets exactly like a work set. If you have a ritual during your work sets- stamping feet, Monica Seles grunts, weeping uncontrollably- perform it during your last few warm-up sets. Prime your central nervous system for the task at hand, and your work sets will feel even easier and more controlled when you get there. Also, as you near your work sets, cut the chatter and jokes (what my grandpa called “grab-assin”) and go to your Squatty Place. Find your Power Animal, Chi, or Inner Ronnie Coleman, get centered, and then attack the bar.
Weight Go Up, Reps Go Down, or “The Two Trains Passing In The Night Theory of Warm-ups”
Numerous times I have had an athlete come to me and complain that their first work set of, say, 100 pounds for 5 reps felt incredibly heavy and slow. I walk over to their rack to watch their next set, and before they even begin, I spot a whiteboard where this dutiful soul has recorded their warm-up sets. It reads: 45x5, 55x5, 65x5, 75x5, 85x5, 95x5. As this point I begin sounding like Foghorn Leghorn as I stammer and sputter (I say, I, I, I say, boy!) and explain that a warm-up scheme like this means that before their very first “live” squat they have already moved over ¾ of a ton of weight!
Our first few warm-up sets, while the weight is light, should mimic the repetitions we plan to use when we work, or can even be slightly more. We can use these sets to get more mobile and comfortable in the positions we will need to hit when we work. As we begin to increase weight, we should drop the repetitions. We have already achieved Supple Leopard/Panther/Aardvark status due to our dedicated mobility work, standardized warm-up, and our first few light warm-up sets. Now we just need to accustom our body to the feeling of moving heavy weight. As we get close to work sets we should drop the repetitions to singles or doubles in an effort to not fatigue ourselves before we really get started. A warm-up set for the same reps at 95% of our work weight is just a neglected work set, sitting alone and unloved in our log book and condemned to a lifetime of second class Squatizen status.
If we warm up with intention (Position, Balance, Tension, Focus) and with a plan (dropping the repetitions as we increase weight), we are most of the way there, but there are still a few ideas to consider. First, as Fox likes to say, “you are your own Peyton Manning.” I assume he means 2010 Peyton Manning (a cool and introspective leader who is confident changing playcalls on the fly and makes funny commercials) and not 2011 Peyton Manning (a spinally-fused ghost who haunts the sidelines of the NFL's worst team looking like he wants to stab his teammates, yet still makes funny commercials). Listen to your body, and be prepared to add in some extra warm-up sets if you feel cold, wonky, or want to practice something. If something feels sticky or sore, do some mobility work or foam roll a bit between warm-up or work sets. You are Peyton Manning! (Minus the peanut shaped head.)
Also, keep in mind that lifts using smaller muscle groups (think: Beach Muscles) will fatigue faster than those using your larger muscle groups (think: Yo' Butt) Don't go overboard warming up the Little Guys, they are generally simpler lifts anyway, and you'll find yourself fatigued when you work. You can linger a little bit on the Big Mommas, which have higher muscular endurance and can be trickier to nail down.
Prior Proper Planning Prevents Piss Poor Performance
Hopefully, now that you've suffered through some decent information wrapped in a bunch of bad jokes, you've got a better understanding of the general concepts that drive a good warm-up. If nothing else, when warming up make sure you have a plan. Think about what you want to accomplish with your warm-up, and use that time to get yourself ready to succeed. A lackadaisical warm-up inevitably leads to spotty and uneven results. Make your warm-up a dress rehearsal for your lifts and then break a leg. On second thought, don't.
Tell us about YOUR warm-up ritual.
Getting Ready to Squat Margie Lempert
Heavy: A Response Margie Lempert
Opportunities David Osorio
Good Training Habits, Part 1 David Osorio
Sett(l)ing for a new PR Chris Fox
Preparing to 1RM Chris Fox