The Warm-Up Manifesto - Part 1

Think performance, not fatigue!


The other day I was training at a local gym and witnessed a horrible tragedy taking place – a personal trainer taking his client through a warm-up!

The first 10 to 15 minutes were spent on a treadmill followed by another 10 to 15 minutes of static stretching, plus tons of small talk. That's almost half an hour wasted on a so-called "warm-up" before even touching a weight. (Which, by the way, only lasted for another 20 minutes and was performed as a circuit on the machines before stretching again and then finishing up on the elliptical trainer for some more cardio).

I have a sneaking suspicion that many personal training organizations advocate this approach, and what's worse is that many trainers actually follow it. These trainers are doing a huge disservice to their clients. Not only is this a complete waste of time, but it's also counterproductive!

Physiologically Speaking

Let's look at the physiological benefits of a proper warm-up:

Increases body temperature and warms the connective tissues

Increases blood flow to muscles and heart (i.e. charges the circulatory system)

Delivers more oxygen to muscles (specifically greater exchange of oxygen to tissues because hemoglobin gives more oxygen at higher temperatures as well as greater oxygen-carbon dioxide exchange)

Increases nerve conduction velocity (i.e. activates the nervous system)

Improves efficiency (rate and strength) of muscle contraction and reaction time

Promotes more efficient cellular metabolism (i.e. facilitates metabolic transition to activity-specific energy systems)

Excites the hormonal system

Increases the amount of synovial fluid in joints (thereby decreasing the viscosity of the joint capsules)

Decreases muscle viscosity

Lubricates the joints and reduces muscle and joint stiffness

Increases joint range of motion

Increases muscle coordination through related movements

Increases work capacity

Prevents injury

Holman notes: "Studies have shown that muscle contraction is quicker and more forceful at elevated temperatures. In other words, a good warm-up helps you to contract more fibers. The nervous system also benefits, as the nerve receptors and the speed of the nerve impulses are temperature sensitive and improve when your body temperature is higher."

Now, does a warm-up really work? The answer is yes! In a study by Rochelle et al. back in 1960, "Participants warmed up and then threw a softball for distance, which was then recorded. At a later date, they were offered money if they could match their prior throwing distance without a warm-up. But despite the offer of a monetary reward, the subjects were unable to throw as far as they had after the warm-up."

Yet record performances among athletes have also occurred without a so-called warm-up, and some studies have shown absolutely no difference in performance with or without a prior warm-up. Confused yet? Don't be.

Although the warm-up is still a subject of study and results are somewhat conflicting, most evidence favors its use. Fox et al. confirm that preliminary exercises (a warm-up) should be performed prior to a heavy workout or competitive performance. And that, my friends, is the bottom line!

Also, bear in mind that a proper warm-up will minimize tissue stress. McGill notes: "Consider the athlete who may stand for a period of time. The cartilage interface at the knee femur-tibia junction will slowly conform to the pressure resulting in a small 'dent.' If forceful motion, particularly at a high speed, is suddenly performed, huge stresses develop at the edges of the dent. This destroys cartilage. This is prevented with a warm-up consisting of gentle motion slowly progressing in vigor."

Okay, so it appears that a warm-up can improve performance and minimize tissue stress, but is it absolutely necessary? No! Simply going through the motions of any exercise is sufficient to supply blood to the appropriate working muscles. Just a few reps is all you need to really warm-up the muscles. Aerobic activity isn't necessary and may in fact zap some valuable energy as well as time.

As rehab specialist Paul Chek puts it: "Resistance training induces specific stress to the muscles, tendons, ligaments, and joints of the arms, legs, and/or involved spinal structures. The loads are often high, requiring significant activation by the nervous system. Although aerobic exercise activates the cardiovascular system and warms the body, this type of warm-up is only specific to the working joints."

I mean, how specific is a stationary cycle as an upper body warm-up? But more on that later.

Excuse Me, Mr. Wolf, I Need A Second...

In fact, some authorities feel that we should teach the body to perform without a warm-up. If a wolf attacks you in a forest, are you going to ask it to wait for you to warm-up? Do you think that a caveman warmed up before he ran down a deer?

These are some valid questions conjured up from Pavel Tsatsouline, who made the following revelation in a past T-Nation interview:

"In the Russian military the alarm sounds in the middle of the night. The sergeant strikes a match and before it burns his hand you had better be dressed and on your way to get your gear and ammo. Warm-ups aren't appropriate for the military. Ditto for law enforcement and other government agencies. These people do not have the luxury of a warm-up. Take the US Department of Energy, one of my clients. If a bad guy is going to try to hold up a nuclear power plant you can't tell him, 'Sorry, I've got to warm up first.'"

SSgt. Nate Morrison adds: "When joint mobility drills are performed consistently, the muscles and nerves maintain a high state of readiness, making it possible to go from a deep sleep to running and fighting instantly. This is of obvious benefit to any military or law enforcement member."

Basically, these individuals don't have time to warm-up when someone is trying to kill them. The same holds true in the animal kingdom. Does an animal have time to warm-up before being attacked by a predator? And how often do these animals get injured not warming up? An injured animal is a dead animal in the wild!

So we've established that a warm-up works but isn't absolutely necessary. Great! What does that mean? Bottom line: If you're lacking time and/or wish to maintain a high state of readiness for instant performance, then skip the general warm-up and go straight to a specific warm-up.

A Mental Warm-Up

Shellock notes that a number of researchers believe many of the benefits of warming-up before physical activity may be related more to psychological phenomena as opposed to being solely dependent on physiological mechanisms.

As Dr. Mel Siff explains: "Unfortunately, the term 'warm-up' is poorly understood because increase in blood flow and muscle temperature are only part of the preparation process, which also implicates neural, motor, and psychological factors."

The psychological advantage of a warm-up includes increased attention and focus; decreased stress, anxiety (high anxiety increases fatigue) and tension; and decreased fear of injury. Great, but did you know that just imagining a warm-up actually enhances exercise capability? It's true! Warm-ups can serve as an outlet to vent anxieties. This is a perfect time to concentrate on performance. However, according to Dr. McGill: "Imagery is more than simply visualizing the motion. It incorporates replicating the kinesthetic sensations associated with an action... Imagery is about seeing and feeling each component needed for eventual success."

In fact, it's been stated that optimal weightlifting performance depends in part on your psychological status!

Foreplay Before The Big Push!

So how can we use imagery to our advantage? Well, if you've got some time on your hands, consider lying on a foam roller before your workout. In the book, The Development of Muscular Bulk & Power, Anthony Ditillo recommends simply lying on a flat bench with your arms behind your head and eyes closed for 15 minutes prior to a workout. During this time, he advises utilizing visualization of the upcoming workout to encourage a positive state and enhance performance.

Olympic strength coach, Charles Poliquin, takes this a step further by having his athletes lie on a 6-inch foam roll for 15 minutes before their workout to help decompress the spine by opening up the intervertebral spaces. Apparently, lying on the foam roll – referred to as a spine roller by physiotherapists – lengthwise along the spine will help restore normal spinal curvatures since gravity acts downwards, straightening the spine at the apex of excessive curvatures (generally reducing kyphosis a.k.a. the hunch-back posture!). Since this method allows for optimal nerve conduction, Poliquin claims that it will increase strength by as much as 3%.

I've found that a greater effect is achieved if the base of the skull (suboccipital area) is placed at the edge of the roller causing slight cervical extension. This seems to pull the spine allowing a greater decompressive effect. Remember to use this time to visualize the upcoming workout – see yourself successfully completing all target loads.

In General Terms

A general or unrelated warm-up isn't associated with the particular neuromuscular components that will be involved in the athletic event. In other words, the general warm-up involves movements that aren't related to the specific exercises you'll perform in your workout. These are basic activities that require movement of the major muscle groups. Generally, gross motor patterns are emphasized first in a warm-up before moving to fine motor patterns that enhance performance.

Chek notes: "The warm-up should be long enough to achieve freedom of movement in all working joints and tissues. The presence of sweat indicates activation of the body's cooling system, which ensures that your working tissues are now warm."

Basically, a general warm-up should be intense enough to increase body temperature and cause mild perspiration, but not to a point of fatigue.

Camel/Cat Exercise

We'll start with an easy one. The camel and "mad cat" are two classic exercises which stretch the abdominals and back respectively and are prescribed in many rehabilitation programs. Dr. McGill recommends this series of exercises to floss the nervous system and reduce viscosity.

Assume the quadruped position on your hands and knees and alternate between arching (the camel part) and rounding (the mad cat part) your back. Perform 5-6 cycles of this and don't press the end range (make sure to involve the cervical spine as well.) McGill stresses that this method isn't a stretch, but rather gentle motion. By getting nerves to move, they can create their own space; it's not enough to just stretch them!

Also, it's a good idea to avoid these exercises first thing in the morning. Wait at least one hour after awakening. Waiting an hour is critical since your tissue is superhydrated when first rising, resulting in an 18% loss of strength in the spine and risk of injury is heightened!

Have A Ball During Your Warm-Up!

Here are several warm-up techniques using the Swiss ball that I think you'll find interesting. Most of these I picked up from Chek and Poliquin while the last gem was inspired by Dr. Siff.

Pelvic Rocks On A Swiss ball

Pelvic rocks are actually an extension of the camel/cat exercise described above; however, they're not limited to just one plane of movement. Chek recommends this series of exercises as a method to pump fresh fluid through the spinal discs to nourish the tissues.

Pelvic rocks involve forward & backward, side-to-side, and circular movements on the Swiss ball. The goal with this (and any other active warm-up for that matter) is to gradually increase speed and range of motion (ROM.) Basically, go "further" and "faster" as you progress. If practiced enough, you may even improve your dancing skills!

Forward and backward pelvic rocks
Side-to-side pelvic rocks
Circular pelvic rocks

Swiss Ball Circuit

Let me start off by revealing a fact: You can't make any appreciable strength gains recruiting too many motor units to stabilize, but waking up the stabilizers can help you make strength gains! Paradoxical, but true.

This routine will help wake you up on those days that you're feeling a bit tired. Perform up to five reps of each exercise and gradually increase both range and speed where appropriate. Challenge yourself by testing the limit of your balance on the last rep – take it right to the edge when possible.

Note: Proper inflation of the Swiss ball is necessary to reap the benefit of this routine. If the ball is too flat, it increases the surface area on the ground and won't do much to challenge the system.

1. Supine Single Leg Extension

2. Supine Lateral Ball Roll

3. Prone Lateral Ball Roll

4. Push-Up (Hands on Ball)

5. Forward Ball Roll

6. Push-Up (Feet on Ball)

7. Supine Bridge + Leg Curl

8. Kneel on Ball

Neck Bridge

Activating the long cervical extensors can help reposition C5 and C6 (two vertebrae in your neck) which enervate the biceps. This will increase curling and pulling strength (it may increase biceps strength by as much as 10% according to Poliquin), so try this technique just before back and biceps exercises.

Sit on a Swiss ball. Walk forward until only the back of your head is supported on the ball. Keep the hips up and make sure to accentuate the rib cage. Now try to hold that position for up to a minute. (Although you may not reach that duration the first time, just work up to it gradually over sessions.)

To make the exercise easier, lean the back of the head against a wall. Use a rolled up towel or pillow for comfort. To make the exercise more difficult, try it on the Swiss ball but hold a plate or dumbbell on the chest to increase resistance.

Holding a plate on the chest will make the exercise more difficult. Do this only after you've accomplished a full 60 second hold with your bodyweight only.

Push-Up Position

You'll need some help for this one. Start off in a push-up position with your hands on a Swiss ball, arms extended (elbows locked), neutral spine, abs braced, and balancing on your toes (see the photos below.)

Now close your eyes and get your partner to start kicking the ball! It's that simple, or so it seems. Closing the eyes will heighten proprioceptors, revving up the nervous system. This activity is useful before pressing exercises (assuming the kicks don't send you flying!). Make sure your partner varies the position and speed while kicking for better effect. Perform this technique before chest, delts, and triceps exercises.

Vary the position and speed while kicking for better effect.

Swiss Ball Hold

Again, a partner is necessary for this drill. Just hold a Swiss ball out directly in front of you with both hands on either side of the ball and your arms fully extended. Tighten the body and prepare for battle!

Your partner will then smack the Swiss ball while varying the position, speed, and force for optimal effect. The Swiss ball hold can be performed with the eyes open or closed. It's useful for whole body stabilization.

Stretching Dynamics

Dynamic stretching as part of a warm-up can be useful to decrease muscle damage and improve performance. Nosaka and Clarkson reported that an active warm-up or 100 concentric contractions performed just before an eccentric exercise bout decreased indicators of muscle damage.

Also, warm-ups involving calisthenics increase performance. A warm-up consisting of a ten-exercise bodyweight circuit (where each exercise is performed for only 20 seconds) produced a higher vertical jump compared to a warm-up with static or PNF stretching. And as you know, the vertical jump is practical and a good index of leg power.

Church states: "In designing warm-up routines for activities involving movements that require the generation of large amounts of power, such as sprinting and jumping, one should minimize the amount of stretching performed before the activity. Instead, one should rely on a warm-up consisting of easy movements that gradually move the joints to the appropriate ROM for that activity. Exercises designed to enhance flexibility, such as vigorous static or PNF stretching, should not be performed before practice or competition but rather following it so that flexibility can be enhanced without compromising performance."

I get into much more detail on this subject in my "Stretching For Strengthening" articles (Part 1 and Part 2), but with regards to stretching and warm-up, respect the following rules:

1. Dynamic stretching is useful to simulate the velocity of your training (unless, of course, you plan to only perform isometrics, then by all means perform static stretching) and will help rev up the nervous system in preparation for activity. Just remember to use the pendulum method.

Gradually increase speed and range with each rep.

2. Proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF) stretching is particularly useful to correct a muscle imbalance. For instance, if you plan to start with good mornings and your torso tends to pull to the right as you descend and/or your right hamstrings feel tight compared to your left, perform some PNF stretching on the right hamstrings to even things out.

3. Only use static stretching if you have some really tight muscles that, in essence, need to be turned off. The law of facilitation is often recited when referring to these tonic muscles as they tend to rob the neural message during movement.

For instance, if you experience rounded shoulders and you plan to work your back, it may be a good idea to stretch out your chest to liberate greater ROM when rowing or pulling. Since static stretching will disrupt the optimum contraction length and temporarily weaken the fibers, it would be wise to use this form of stretching on antagonistic muscles (such as the chest) prior to working the agonists (which is the back in this case.)

Static stretching prior to weight training is a big no-no! There are certain applications for its use, but in general, static stretching will sedate your nervous system and make you weaker: two things you don't want before pushing some serious weight.

As outlined in the Sports Performance Bulletin (Jan. 2005), two benefits of a dynamic warm-up include saving time and freeing up more specific training hours as well as being better prepared mentally:

"Training five times a week for 250 days a year, warming up and stretching traditionally for 30 minutes at a time, takes up 125 hours. That is virtually five days of continuous training time that could be put to more specific use. You'll also be better prepared mentally. A slow warm-up with a sustained period of stretching can switch your mind away from the dynamics of the task ahead. This may be particularly detrimental before a race or competition, when you'll want to maintain your focus and stay sharp. More subtly, your neuromuscular system may not be optimally prepared if you pursue a slower style of warm-up with lots of stretching. The more focused (dynamic) approach will heighten the ability of your muscles to contract."

Perform the following routine before every workout. It takes 10-15 seconds of contractions to raise the body temperature by 1ºC and a proper warm-up should raise body temperature by 1-2ºC (1.4-2.8ºF) to cause sweating; therefore, 5-10 reps per movement is all you need.

When performing dynamic stretches, think "SS" to "FF." In other words, start Slow & Shallow and the goal is to go Further & Faster. (If you don't like my acronyms, then "FU!")

Dynamic Stretching Routine

1. Squat

2. Split Squat

3. Toe Touches

4. Waiter's Bow

5. Side Bends

6. Trunk Twists

7. Arms Horizontal

8. Arms Vertical

9. Arms Vertical Alternating


10. PNF Pattern

11. Arm Circles

12. Wrist Flexion/Extension

13. Wrist Circles

14. Shoulder Shrugs

15. Head Tilt

16. Head Rotation

For a dynamic demonstration of part of this routine, visit

Balance Drills

Try these drills prior to unilateral movements or activities that require a great deal of balance and coordination.

First, stand on one leg on the floor with the eyes closed. Do 1-3 reps for no longer than 30-60 seconds. (You may want to start with both eyes open for the first rep, close one eye for the second, and then close both eyes for the third.)

According to Chek, this process will activate survival reflexes and momentarily reduce pain in and around joints (due to the endorphin release and activation of stabilizer muscles throughout the kinetic chain) as well as improve performance. A number of different balance challenges (Swiss ball or rocker/wobble board balancing) can be used depending on the level of the athlete. Perform these drills as close to a set as possible and even in between sets to increase performance, but don't fatigue yourself in the process.

I began testing this method with all of my clients who demonstrated motor inhibition (lazy muscles) and found that in most cases the previously dormant muscle remained active after a survival challenge (balance challenge), the only variation being the duration of activity. My next natural progression for the application of survival reflex activation of dormant muscles was to see if this method could improve lifting strength. Not surprisingly, it did!

To date, I haven't found anyone who didn't feel at least a sense of improved ease with regard to applied intensity for a given lift. Most people notice their legs and trunk are more stable when performing squats, deadlifts, or any exercise requiring high force output in a functional (standing), unsupported position.

The explanation for this seems to be built into the survival reflex override system that activates any and every muscle needed to improve the probability of survival. After all, simply falling and breaking a tibia, fibula, or femur could've been the end of you 10,000 years ago, so having stabilizer muscles fire when they were supposed to was a matter of survival!

An extension of the single leg stance includes moving the opposite leg (not the one you're standing on) out to the front, side and back (the airplane stance) as well as performing circles in a clockwise and counterclockwise directions. Again, try it first with both eyes open, then one eye closed, and finally both eyes closed. Not only is this great for ankle rehabilitation, but it also serves well as a lower body warm-up. You can even play catch standing on one leg with a medicine ball either solo against a wall or with a partner. I'd highly recommend that you keep both eyes open on this one, though!

Next, try this movement coined the Anterior/Lateral Reach by fitness advisor, Stephen Holt:

1) Stand on one leg.

2) With the opposite hand, reach down and touch just outside the little toe of the foot that's on the ground.

3) Then come all the way back up with your hand in the "hitchhiker" position. Advanced clients can even reach backward (i.e. hip and spinal extension) once they reach the top position.

As Holt explains, "Reaching down toward your little toe activates the gluteus maximus (butt) in its function as a decelerator of rotation of the leg. It also works the muscles of the low back. Coming up to the hitchhiker position works the rotator cuff muscles while reaching backward into extension strengthens the abs as decelerators. Standing on one leg inherently works the hip ab- and adductors to help stabilize your leg. So, this seemingly simple exercise works many of the commonly weak muscles – glutes, low back, rotator cuff, abs, and hip ab- and adductors. Plus it helps increase your balance and coordination."

That's a lot of benefits. Give it a try.

In Part 2, Catanzaro will cover Olympic hybrid circuits, Plyometrics, and a whole lot more. Stay tuned!