Making Sense of the Warm-Up: The Basics

Everyone knows they’re supposed to warm up before training. It’s one of the most pervasive ideas in the training world: if you’re gonna work out, then you better “get warm” – or else! There are a number of very good reasons why you should warm up, but I bet if you asked your average gym goer – or even your average trainer/coach – you probably won’t receive a particularly well thought out answer. It’s one of those things that, the more commonly accepted it is, the less we seem to actually know about. Not today!

In this article we’re going to go over the three primary qualities a good warm-up should address and why they’re important. Following that we’re going to show you some basic templates that you can use to make sure you’re always getting the most out of your warm-up, whether you’re a Weightlifter or a Powerlifter.

The Big Picture

Before we get into the details of this, let’s start by stating what the real value of a warm-up is. All a warm-up should do is prepare your body to most effectively meet the performance demands of your training. In our case, this means ensuring that your body is primed to:

  • Produce maximal force throughout the day’s training 
  • Move as well as possible in the exercises of your workout
  • Reduce the potential for injury as much as possible

So what does this actually look like when we attempt to apply these ideas to constructing our warm-up?

In our approach, we think that these concerns can be addressed by three foundations that support one another. Ever seen one of those pyramid models that describe concepts in relation to a hierarchy of importance (e.g. the “food pyramid)? Well, here’s another: 

Bottom of the Pyramid: The Warming Phase

The bottom of the pyramid, the “Warming” category, is both the basis of our warm-up and the easiest component to accomplish. It’s simple: literally make your body warmer. Why? Because muscles contract better when they’re warmer.

There are stories of old-time Russian Weightlifters “performing” their warm-up by getting cozy in a sleeping bag next to the platform in the competition venue’s warm-up space. While certainly inventive, I know I already have enough to do making sure my knee sleeves don’t reek. Imagine what a sleeping “warming” bag eventually turns into…

What these lifters and coaches understood, however, is that the getting warm part must be a gentle process. You want to conserve as much energy as possible for the part of the workout that actually drives the adaptations you want to produce. The common solution of going for a quick run only makes sense if you’re a runner. Do you think ANY kind of run is easy for a superheavy lifter? Of course not! This is where we need to keep things really simple and go by feel. 

The guideline here is to do something where you can feel yourself ramp up, both gently and gradually. Some kind of sustained cardiovascular-focused work does make sense, but the key is doing it at the appropriate intensity. You should feel a noticeable elevation in your heart rate, but it should never approach uncomfortable. If the gym is a 10-minute walk away, then just getting to training can fit the bill here. 

Middle of the Pyramid: The Diagnostic Phase

There are a handful of people in the world who possess fantastic, functional flexibility that can be called upon at will, no matter the occasion… and then there’s the rest of us. 

The vast majority of athletes we’ve worked with all possess some kind of movement asymmetry or specific inflexibility(ies) that they need to address. Worse, the older you get the more evident this becomes. Why is this important? Because being in the right position at the right time is crucial to lifting well, and if you can’t easily put your body in these positions, then how can you lift well? Let’s check out an example:

Modern life makes it so that most of us have at least slightly forward-rounded shoulders. This is no good for receiving Snatches and Jerks overhead. I can’t count the number of occasions we’ve seen an athlete frustrated in the middle of a workout, missing half of their lifts, just because their tight pecs prevent a secure receipt of the bar. 

The Diagnostic Phase of the warm-up is important because beyond letting you know what needs work, it can also be thought of as an enabler. In the above image, Ashley pulled an excellent Snatch, but excessive tightness in one pec prevented her from securely receiving the bar. If that pec was more cooperative she’d have made the lift without issue. 

You don’t need to “enable” everything. Just the parts of your body that you can feel are the most restricted and/or will be problematic when it comes time to lift. This is the point in your warm-up where you should be doing your stretching/rolling. Here’s an example of what we’re talking about. 

Let’s say you’re a Powerlifter with a Squat workout to prepare for. To begin the Diagnostic Phase of your warm-up, you stick with the basics: sit into a Squat. Initially, everything feels tight; but after 20 seconds you can feel things begin to cooperate. Your hips are loosening up and you’re gaining awareness of your glutes. But, one of your ankles is being uncooperative and refuses to loosen up.

What you might do from here is take some extra time to roll out your calf, stretch, and maybe even do a few single-legged calf raises just to really make sure your ankle is able to move fluidly. You’d take a few extra minutes to do this, then re-test that Squat. If everything’s (mostly) feeling better, then things are good enough and it’s time to move onto the next phase.

Top of the Pyramid: The Skill Phase

If you watch Weightlifting videos on Youtube, then you’ve undoubtedly seen an athlete go through a series of movements related to the lift they’re about to perform with an empty bar. They’re not just doing random movements. This individual is almost certainly going through specific movements that they feel will prime them for the work ahead. This is exactly the kind of thing we want to be doing in the Skill Phase of the warm-up. Beyond preparing our bodies for the training ahead, we want to calibrate the movement(s) we’ll be performing. 

Don’t forget, lifting is a skill. The more you practice and hone this skill, the better you’ll be when it comes to moving weight. 

Here’s what a Snatch and Bench “Skill” warm-up would look like from our handy Warm-Up Templates:

Our members have access to the full version of these Warm-Up Templates with examples to illustrate these principles in an easy-to-follow format.

The Big Takeaway

While there’s no one size fits all warm-up for everyone, there are principles that we should all adhere to when getting ready to train. To review: 

  1. Be sure to (literally) get your body warm through a variety of means. The key is that they must NOT be meaningfully fatiguing. 
  2. Utilize a series of stretches and movements chosen both to prepare you for the training to come and to indicate whether there are any particular movements/muscles that need extra attention. 
  3. Use some kind of skill priming movement that’s specific to honing the qualities of the exercises you’ll be performing in the workout to come. 

Warming up is an essential part of the training process that shouldn’t be an afterthought.

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