Walk into any gym in the area and you are likely to see people who completely neglect the warm-up. Others spend 45 minutes or more on the foam roller, stretching with bands, or torturing themselves with lacrosse balls. So what is the deal with warming-up before a training session? The purpose of the warm-up is to prepare the body, mentally and physically, for the upcoming training session or for competition. When done properly, the warm-up can improve performance and in some instances, may lessen the risk of injury.
The positive effects of any warm-up are best achieved through an active form rather than passive or static stretching techniques. The positive effects of a warm-up can be achieved through temperature-related and non-temperature-related effects. Temperature-related effects include increased muscle temperature, core temperature, enhanced nervous system function, and improved connective tissue flexibility. Non–temperature-related effects include increased blood flow to muscles, improved oxygen consumption, and improved muscle contraction capabilities.
Other physiological and performance benefits of the warm-up include:
- Faster muscle contraction and relaxation
- Improvements in the rate of force development
- Faster reaction time
- Improvements in muscle strength and power
- Lowered stiffness in muscles and joints
- Improved oxygen delivery to working muscles
- Increased blood flow to working muscles
- Increased psychological preparedness
The Basic Components of an Effective Warm-Up
There are two basic phases to a well-designed warm-up before the start of a training session. These are the general warm-up and the specific warm-up. The general warm-up typically consists of 5 minutes of slow aerobic activity such as jogging, skipping, or cycling. The aim of this phase is to increase heart rate, blood flow, muscle temperature, respiration rate, and joint mobility. This phase is typically followed by a period of general stretching that aims to replicate the ranges of motion required for the upcoming training session. The specific warm-up
Typically incorporates movements similar to the movements of the athlete’s sport or training session. This should include rehearsal of the skill(s) to be performed. It is recommended the specific warm-up last 10 to 20 minutes with no more than 15 minutes between the end of the warm-up and start of activity (training session or competition).
The warm-up for a game or competition aims to maximize performance in the subsequent event. However, for the training session, in addition to optimizing acute performance during the session, the specific warm-up should contribute to the overall long-term development of the athlete. This is often an ideal time to incorporate individualized corrective exercise into an athlete’s program. For the baseball pitcher this may include rotator cuff activation exercises such as diagonal patterns with resistance bands.
Structuring the Warm-Up to Optimize Short and Long-Term Performance
Effective warm-ups should be thought of as an integral part of any training session, not as a separate entity. Raise, Activate and Mobilize, and Potentiate (RAMP) is an acronym used to describe a more detailed structure for a warm-up2. This builds on the general and specific structure offering an approach which maximizes both acute and long-term performance.
Raise, refers to increasing the level of several physiological variables and the level of skill of the athlete. This phase is analogous to the general warm-up and aims to elevate body temperature, heart rate, respiration rate, blood flow, and joint mobility through low-intensity activities. General aerobic exercises, such as cycling or the elliptical trainer, are often inserted here. However, it is more beneficial to attempt to simulate the movement patterns of the upcoming activity or develop the movement patterns or skills the athlete will need to utilize within the sport. Instead of treadmill jogging before a squat session, the athlete can perform walking lunges to prepare physically and psychologically. In this way, the training session, from the start of the warm-up, is targeted at key movement patterns and skills and not just aerobic capacity.
Activating and mobilizing refers to the stretching component of a warm-up. Key movement patterns required for athletic performance in both the subsequent session and the athlete’s long-term development are performed. This might include corrective exercise for core stabilization or specific mobility. Static stretching may be incorporated as corrective exercise if specific deficits are identified. Baseball players can consider inserting static stretches for the lats, forearms, or rotator cuff. Any decrement in subsequent strength or power from static stretching is likely very short-lasting1.
Performing dynamic warm-up activities following static stretching will override any small transient performance decrements. The focus of mobility exercise is always on actively moving through a range of motion not static stretching. Dynamic stretching requires a combination of control, stability, and flexibility and more closely relates to the movement requirements an athlete will face in the training session or their sport. Dynamic stretches are extremely time-efficient compared to single muscle static stretches. Prior to overhead pressing with the bar, try warming-up with 20 reps of a door slide exercise or band external rotation to press.
Potentiation refers to the specific warm-up and focuses on the intensity of activities. This phase incorporates specific activities that progress in intensity until the athlete is performing at the intensity required for the training session. The potentiation phase is often omitted from training sessions. It is common to see an athlete proceed from a stretching exercise directly into their first working set of a squat or Olympic lift. This only compromises strength and power output.
There is strong evidence showing high-load dynamic warm-ups enhance subsequent power and strength performance3. The more power necessary for the exercise or activity, the more important the potentiation phase of the warm-up becomes. The objective is to include high-intensity dynamic exercises in order to prepare the nervous system. Exercises which include short bouts of a high-intensity sprints, jumps or throws are ideal. Again, these warm-up exercises should be targeted to the upcoming session but also address the longer-term requirements of the athlete. A few sets of 2-3 plyometric jumps can be performed before getting under the bar for squats.
Many athletes or fitness enthusiasts are unaware of the optimal structure and performance benefits related to a proper warm-up. The RAMP protocol is a great foundation to structure any warm-up. More importantly, any properly designed warm-up should prepare the body for the subsequent training session and also assist in the long-term development of the athlete. If you are looking for performance gains for your next training sessions and the long-term, get serious about warming-up.
- Behm, D. G., Blazevich, A. J., Kay, A. D., & McHugh, M. (2016). Acute effects of muscle stretching on physical performance, range of motion, and injury incidence in healthy active individuals: A systematic review. Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism, 41, 1–11.
- Haff, G.G., Triplett, N.T. (2016). Essentials of strength training and conditioning (4th ed). Champaign, Ill: Human Kinetics.
- McCrary, J. M., Ackermann, B. J., & Halaki, M. (2015). A systematic review of the effects of upper body warm-up on performance and injury. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 49, 935–942. http://doi.org/10.1136/bjsports-2014-094228