Written by Alex Rees
Having spent at least 6 months researching the topic of warm up and pre-exercise preparation, I think I have come to a fairly grounded concept of the best approach. But as with all fitness or performance based topics there can always be a different perspective often over-looked by even the most astute. I welcome thoughts and feedback always.
Optimal Warm Up Routine – by Alex Rees
I intentionally wanted to explore the best form of warm-up routine for maximising sporting performance. I use the term sporting performance as it captures a very broad amount of athletes and their unique physical qualities and requirements for their given sports. This would allow me to see it from a number of angles that could be transferred into a Strength and Conditioning concept or to be more precise, into CrossFit. Not just for my own training but for the many athletes who’s performances and progress will depend on great coaching and advise. The data was collected from hundreds of research papers and from my own personal study, and in-turn we can identify the best form of warm up routine to maximise sporting performance across a number of physical components. Of course, I have greatly condensed the literature to the key facts and important variables.
The optimal routine contains a number of variables and works best as a systematic approach.
Phase one is a generic warm up or pulse raiser, designed to warm the bodies core temperature. Although this will depend on many factors, including the environmental conditions and the trainability of the athlete, it is suggested that the intensity is kept to a minimum and the training zone should be around <60% MHR (max heart rate), which is low enough to hold a conversation. The duration varies greatly in each environmental condition, meaning if you are training somewhere hot this part should last around 5-minutes and If you are training somewhere cold this can take approximately 10-15 minutes. Our own study suggested 5-minutes of continuous work during this part was sufficient and the most practical given the time allowance available in reality, as time constraints will be a challenge in a real-world scenario. However, there are numerous amounts of additional studies which suggest a longer time would be optimum. A good indicator to wether the pulse raising activity has been sufficient should be a noticeable change in body temperature and even a light sweat. Some exercises performed during this phase can be light running, cycling, rowing, ski-erg, skipping, or small team games. Remember low skill and low intensity and this is very much athlete dependent.
Phase two is the activation and mobilisation of prime muscles and key joints associated to the subsequent activity/task. Dynamic stretches are designed to excite the muscles in use and take them in and out of their full ROM (range of movement) for a set number of repetitions. A number of dynamic stretches can be used to excite the major muscle groups such as, Leg swings, arm swings, open/close gates, and mountain climbers etc. Additionally specific movements or exercises targeting the prime muscles used during the main theme of the session should be incorporated. It’s best to perform these exercises slow and controlled initially and gradually increase the intensity and complexity of them. These can include lunges, squats, calf raises, and push ups etc. It’s also essential stretches and positions are not held for any period of time, as this has been proven to have a negative impact on explosiveness, quickness and any form of movement that requires a fast activation and response from the muscles. There is no specific number but aim for around 4-6 dynamic stretches and 4-6 specific exercises or 8-12 total between the two. The movements, exercises and stretches should gradually increase the ROM and intensity, and last approximately 4/5-minutes.
Phase three is the potentiation phase and is the final physical phase of the warm-up and will be the link from the warm-up to the main theme. Potentiation can be a number of things depending on the sport or exercises being conducted afterwards. What needs to be assessed is the demands required on energy systems, rest timing and overall intensity of the main theme. One example in weightlifting is to use the potentiation phase to include similar movements at lighter loads or to develop a particular part of the lift which the athlete may be weak at, for example snatch drills including snatch balance, power snatch or muscle snatch. Another approach from the potentiation phase could be to include a small amount of accessory work that would be beneficial to the main theme but also provide a form of adaptation over a collective period of time. An example here could be speed, agility and plyo drills before football training. This may prove to be effective in two ways, firstly by incorporating small amounts of intense work the athlete will be somewhat less fatigued as opposed to completing a 60 minutes session purely on speed and agility drills, and therefore less likely to pick-up any small niggles or injuries. Secondly, this will save a lot of training time to work on the main theme of the sessions, as the warm up becomes beneficial to the main session anyway. Again, there is no set number but aim for around 4-6 low skill explosive exercises that target a number of the training variables and components of fitness associated to the subsequent task but without generating fatigue. Use this phase to excite the prime muscles and neurological application for performance. There are a number of exercises that can be used including, box jumps, ladder drills, acceleration drills and cone agility work, but this will be completely dependent on the main-theme of the session and the athlete.
Last but not least, we also incorporated the use of mental practice and visualisation training. We had our test subjects use focus, replaying habits and mental rehearsal before they were tested at each given physical component. The physical tests used were designed to access the athletes speed, agility, peak power, rate-of-force-developement and strength endurance. When visualisation and mental rehearsal were incorporated, there was a minor increase in performance almost every time. Although the difference was small and insignificant, at the top end and in world performing stage of sport this could make a massive difference to an athletes overall performances and should certainly be looked into further.
In conclusion, the results formulated from the research and by our study, indicate a need for coaches and athletes to implement a strategic method when prescribing and assigning a warm up routine. A one size fits all approach may not work, as there can be many different factors and variables to consider for the target athlete and the sporting requirements. A specific individual or sporting needs analysis should be recorded prior to implementing different warm up components. Warm ups implementing dynamic stretching demonstrated significant increases in performance in relation to assessments in speed, agility, lower body strength endurance and peak power, as opposed to static stretching which lead to significant decreases in performance. However, coaches and athletes should consider carefully the requirements of flexibility within their sport before determining best practice. On a final note it is worth mentioning that any form of warm-up produced significantly better results when compared to no warm-up.
In truth, the ‘RAMP’ warm up approach developed by Ian Jeffreys offers a well-structured blue print to follow, and works well in conjunction with many sporting specific demands as the sequence of application falls right inside that of our study and previously sought research as the optimal approach. Furthermore, implementing this as an effective warm up strategy may produce positive long-term training adaptation in athletes and may reduce the need for additional training time needed for specific components of fitness such as, speed, agility and plyometric drills.
Action steps for athletes and coaches:
Follow the sequence ‘RAMP’.
R – Raise Pulse – Low intensity and low difficulty. Think small games or basic CV equipment like rowing/cycling, 5-10 minutes should do it.
A – Activate & M – Mobilise – Consider these two parts together. Think pre-hab and taking the muscles in and out of full ROM and activating major muscle groups and joints. Check out some of our warm-up flow video for key activation and mobilisation practices here.
P – Potentiation – The final stage and the link between the warm-up and the main-theme. Think skills and drills.
Warm-ups are critical in preparing and maximising performance for subsequent activities. In addition, incorporating small amounts of skill work can lead to vast improvements over an extended period of time and a decent warm-up will lower the chances of injuries and niggles developing in athletes.
Have fun and enjoy your warm-up, its important.