The Why Behind the Warm-Up

Think of the warm-up as your body’s alarm clock. Maybe you’re coming straight from work at 5:30 PM, or maybe you are walking in the gym at 5:00 AM still trying to wake up. Either way your body has a routine, and when you come through our front doors you are in “rest” mode.

In technical terms, your body is predominantly controlled by the parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS). This is known as the “rest and digest” system, and 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 more easily identified as “fight or flight”. This is the system that responds to stress, whether it’s physical, mental or emotional. When this system is in control for extended periods of time, your body can begin to break down. However, for short periods of time, like during a workout, “stressing” this system results in benefits that ultimately lead to improved health, brain function, and all the health benefits that exercise brings to you.

In simpler terms, a warm-up is what gets your body ready to work. It triggers the SNS to prepare for fight or flight. Now, unless the world turns into the Hunger Games overnight, we’re talking about fighting through a tough workout. The warm-up wakes your body up and gets it ready for the fight. Work, relationship stress, money, family issues, or whatever else may be bothering you melts away during the warm-up leaving you to focus on the task at hand.

At the LAB there are two parts to any warm-up: the general warm-up and the specific warm-up. The general warm-up encompasses a five to ten-minute row, bike, ski, jump rope, or any other cardiovascular movement. The specific warm-up is led by a coach and consists of shoulder dislocates, good mornings, wall squats, lunges, kettlebell swings … the list goes on.

The specific warm-up is coach-led and programmed precisely to “zoom in” on areas of your body that need to be primed and ready in order to get the most out of your daily 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 lead up to a 1RM or any high percentage lift with a “build to heavy”.

This is key in order to wake up those neuromuscular pathways that are involved with that specific lift. For example, if your squat 1RM was 180#, we 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, but rather to wake them up slowly.

That’s why we ask athletes to start with just the bar and focus on form. Then slowly begin to add weight to the bar and perform enough reps that allow you to trigger the SNS without overloading the system. This load increase is different for each person, but typically it should take about 10-12 reps to get there. After that rep scheme, your body should be ready to go. If you didn’t take the time to warm-up your system, you will not be physically or mentally prepared to lift the weight you desire.

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 shortchanging 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. We 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. Again, we cannot stress enough the importance of the warm-up. 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. We want that to be the best hour of your day. I don’t want you to undermine it for the social aspect that so many people love 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.

Now let’s get to it!