I’ve always hated the idea of warming up. The last time I did any kind of warm up was in 2014, when my understanding of training concepts was severely limited and flawed. I haven’t sat on a foam roller in ages and definitely don’t miss doing hundreds of jumping jacks in an effort to “increase my heart rate” to prep for a training session.
Most coaches and articles online will list a few standard reasons for why the warm up is important. The list will usually include increasing the heart rate and body temperature in preparation for the workout, improving mobility of the joints to improve performance and prevent injuries, and mental readiness. ALL of these things can be achieved in 5-8 minutes, if you’re smart about how you approach your warm up. Trust me, there’s no need for running laps to break a sweat, unless you enjoy running laps.
Foam rolling, lacrosse-balling and stretching – what’s the deal?
Before CrossFit became popular in 2011-2012, not many people had heard of a foam roller or were using lacrosse balls for things other than to play lacrosse – the sport. If you think about it, CrossFit and the famous Mr Kelly Starret of Mobility Wod-fame were like a two-in-one package. You couldn’t discuss a WOD without first discussing the latest way to be a supple leopard.
But even before Kelly Starrett made it cool to smash your muscles, distract your joints and loop bands through various parts of the body that sometimes made you wonder if you were tricked into committing to a BDSM cult, the gold standard for enhancing performance and preventing injuries was the simple idea of static stretching. The fitness industry continues to outdo each other in coming up with various ways to specifically stretch the glutes, hip flexors and pecs because these are the muscles often considered to get tight from having desk jobs and because, you know, “sitting is the new smoking.”
But I digress.
Does stretching have any value? While a large chunk of fit pros still engage in intense online debates about the benefits of stretching, I’m not a fan.
The decision to eliminate stretching completely from my coaching toolkit comes from a growing body of research that not only suggests that pre and post-exercise static stretching has no real impact on performance or injury prevention, but also that pre-workout stretching could have negative effects on performance.
Studies also continue to show that foam rolling and smashing specific muscles with a lacrosse ball does nothing toward improving flexibility, mobility or joint range of motion – which are usually what they’re sold to be great for. Feel tight? Foam roll! Hip imbalance? Sit on a lacrosse ball! Desk job? Spend 50% of your time awake stretching! Stuck in traffic? Hook a band to your gearbox and get working on those damn hip flexors!
In some fitness circles, there’s even some talk of how foam rolling can break up scar tissue and so on. By that logic, every time you fall or bump into something, your fascia must undergo all kinds of structural changes from that impact.
Word of advice – please give your body more credit than that and stop believing that it’s so fragile that the slight pressure from a foam roller can possibly create permanent structural changes.
But foam rolling feels soooo goooood!
Yes, I hear you!
What foam rolling, stretching and using a lacrosse ball on tight muscles can most certainly do is make you feel immediately better. It can make you temporarily feel better. The keyword here being ‘temporary’. While none of these warm up practices can prevent injuries, increase joint range of motion, improve performance or make you more “functional”, what it does effectively is change the way you might perceive pain or readiness. Both of these factors play a direct role in how we’re able to approach our training and how hard we’re able to train.
While there might not really be anything bad per se about spending some time on a foam roller or stretching before a workout, it definitely can be counterproductive in the sense that all of us are short for time most days and we could be spending those precious extra minutes on another set of squats or deadlifts, which can add more direct value to our training and goals.
What about using bands to mobilise certain joints?
Again, that’s the purpose of doing 25 shoulder external rotations before a bench or upper body workout, if you’ve not been able to wean off them, and have been doing them for years? Any rational thinking adult would stop to consider the fact that its not adding any value to their shoulder health. Moving your joints through various ranges and plates of motion as part of your workout through smart exercise selection might have a more direct and permanent impact on joint health and range of motion than working a muscle in isolation.
For this specific example, I’ve had more success with programming moves like yoga push ups and various rows that get the shoulder blades moving to address shoulder health than a detailed and time-consuming warm up routine.
Before we go into specifics, let’s set some ground rules:
- Firstly, start thinking of your warm up as movement prep. It’s exactly what that means – whatever you choose to do before a workout, it should DIRECTLY enhance your training experience in one way or the other.
- Give yourself a time limit. This will allow you to weed out the fluff stuff. 8-10 minutes is a reasonable amount of time to spend on a warm up.
- Think movements and not muscles. There’s a good chance you’ll ‘activate’ your ‘dormant’ muscles by moving enough and moving well.
- Your warm up should mainly contain ‘regressions’ of exercises from your workout. Have heavy goblet squats or back squats? Do bodyweight squats, light goblet squats or back squats with just the bar as part of your warm up.
- Your warm up should ideally look slightly different on each day, depending on your training session, while still involving as many body parts as possible.
BONUS: If you’re working on a particular warm up drill because you think your squat (or any exercise) needs to look a certain way and that’s the only reason, STOP. Not everyone’s squat looks a certain way. We all have different bodies that move differently and are capable of getting to different positions through different means. Don’t spend hours mobilizing your ankles because you’ll only activate your glute medius if you squat with your toes straight. I dare you to turn those toes a tiny bit and have a stress-free squat session.
Quick note on load:
- If you find that you’re not able to achieve a particular movement outcome, there’s a good chance you’ll be pleased with the results once you load it. Bodyweight squats look/ feel terrible? Hold a kettlebell and do a goblet squat, thank me when your first set (even without all your mobility drills) look pretty good.
- If a particular exercise looks awesome until you get to a certain load and there’s form breakdown when you add weight at that point, DO NOT mistake it to be a mobility/ flexibility/ movement issue. It’s a load issue. You’re not ready for that weight, that’s all.
Sample Lower Body Warm Up
- 90-90 Breathing – 8 reps (The benefits of breathing is still a topic of debate. It may or may not do much, but it’s a great place to start each workout with mainly because it forces us to focus and pay attention to what we’re doing, which is always something we can all do with more of before a workout)
- ASLL – 8 reps/side
- Single leg glute bridges – 8 reps/side
- Alternating Spiderman – 5/side
- Inch worms – 6-8 (Throw in a push up on every rep, if that’s something you’re working on!)
- Lunge matrix – 6-8 reps/side
Depending on what your workout is, you can finish up with either some goblet squats or kettlebell swings/ kettlebell deadlifts.
Sample Upper Body Warm up
- 90-90 breathing – 8 reps
- Side-lying windmills – 8 reps/side
- KB Pullover Deadbug – 6-8 reps/side
- Plank to toe touch – 6-8 reps/side or Yoga push ups – 6-8 reps
- Crawl – 10 – 12 steps/side
- Banded rows – 15-18 reps
Depending on what your workout for the day is, you can finish up with either some med ball chest passes or med ball slams!
Before playing recreational sport
Note 1: If you WANT to do a warm up/ have the patience to, try this out. Otherwise, shooting some hoops, tossing the ball around, jogging around a bit is more than enough
Note 2: This circuit can also just be what you do before a training session at the gym.
1-2 rounds of the following like a circuit:
- High knee walk – 8 – 10 reps/side
- SLDL walk – 8 – 10 reps/side
- Alternating Spiderman – 5 reps/side
- Inch worms – 6-8 reps (throw in a push up!)
- Lunge matrix – 5 reps/side
- Crawl – 10 – 12 steps/side
TLDR – Don’t waste time on random warm ups. Do some pull ups, push ups, bodyweight squats and you’re good to go!