Time to Prepare - The Importance of the Warm Up

Think of the warm-up as your body’s alarm clock. Maybe you’re coming straight from work at 5:30pm or maybe you are walking in the gym at 5:00am still trying to wake up. Either way, your body has a routine and when you come through the door, you are in “rest” mode. In science-y terms, your body is predominantly being controlled by the parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS). According to my freshman anatomy teacher, this is the “rest and digest” system. Your body can maintain this level of work for extended periods of time. Contrarily, there is also the sympathetic nervous system (SNS). This neural system of control is easily identified as “fight or flight”. This is the system that responds to stress, whether it be physical, mental, or emotional. When this system is in control for extended periods of time, your body begins to break down. However for short periods of time, like during a workout, “stressing” this system results in physiological benefits that ultimately lead to improved health, brain function, and all the health benefits that exercise can and will bring to you.

The warm up is how you separate the gym and your workout from the rest of the world. This is how your body gets ready to work. The reason for this is to trigger the SNS to prepare for fight or flight. Now, unless the world turns into the Hunger Games overnight, we’re talking about fighting through those tough workouts. Your warm-up is what wakes you up. It prepares you for the fight. Work, relationship stress, money, family issues, or whatever else could be bothering you melts away during the warm-up so you can focus on the task at hand.

There are typically two parts to any warm-up in the workouts at the LAB: the general warm-up and the specific warm-up. The general warm-up is what gets you moving, gets your heart rate up, and quite literally starts to warm your body. This is the building loop, five minute row, bike, ski, jump rope, or any other cardiovascular and repetitive movement. The specific warm-up is where you traditionally see your shoulder dislocates, good mornings, wall squats, lunges, kettlebell swings, and the list goes on. This is because the specific warm-up is tailored to each particular work out.

The specific warm-up “zooms in”, per se, on movements that your body needs primed and ready to go to successfully perform during the workout. For example, let’s say we have a benchmark workout. The workout calls for back squat 1RM, so you will probably see some combination of wall squats, air squats, or jump squats in the specific warm-up. Then, we typically prelude the 1RM or any high percentage lift with a “build to heavy”. This is key to waking up those neuromuscular pathways that are involved with that specific lift. If my squat 1RM was 180#, I would not immediately start with 180# and then work up from there. The goal is not to wake up those neuromuscular pathways with a bucket of ice water, it is to wake them up slowly. I would start with just the bar and focus specifically on form (form is key to anything you do in the gym). Then, I would begin to add weight and perform enough reps that I am triggering the SNS but not taxing the system so much that I can’t perform the lift at a high intensity. This is different for each person, but typically it should take about 10-12 reps to get there. After those 10-12 reps, I’m ready to go. I’m close to 180# and I’m taking a few minutes between each squat to properly recover and mentally prep for the next one. If I didn’t take the time to do that, I would not be physically or mentally prepared and most likely, wouldn’t see the results I desire (which in this case is a back squat PR).

That is a long winded example, but it rings true in every workout, benchmark or not. If you rush through the motions and are not mentally present during the warm-up, you will not live up to your potential during the workout. If you are short changing yourself during the workout, then you won’t receive all the benefits. Without the benefits, what’s the point? The warm-up is crucial. A good warm-up means a good workout. A bad warm-up means a bad workout. I cannot express the importance of the warm-up enough. Yet the warm-up is often the time used to catch up with friends, to walk in late, and to screw around. My intent is not to scold anyone for any of those actions. I’m usually always running late for something and I always talk to people while I warm-up or I’m making my preworkout or I’m writing an email to a professor or stressing about whatever is on my mind. What I’m trying to stress is the importance of doing the warm-up with a purpose. Don’t sacrifice your wall squats to talk to Betty Sue about her lunch plans. You come to the gym for a reason: you know that you deserve to give yourself that hour. That hour is for you. I don’t want you to undermine it for the social aspect that so many people love, including and especially me, about the LAB. The warm-up is your time to focus. It’s your time to zoom in on you. It’s your time to wake up. It’s your time to prepare for the fight.