A Brief Science of Warm-Ups

The call to warm-up is usually half-listened to by athletes, and nearly everyone on the receiving end of the advice, really. Coaches, trainers, doctors, physical therapists, parents-- anyone who has supervision over a group of athletes or active individuals are usually evangelists for warming up. Some do this because they learned the hard way- they were injured and now realize they HAVE to warm up.  Others gained wisdom through age, realizing a little priming of the old meat-wagon (your body) never hurt.  Others advocate for the warm-up because they feel the benefits of it. But does anyone really KNOW why warm-ups are important?

Maybe it’s a poor choice of naming. Coaches and high level trainers will often use terms like “postural reset” or “priming the nervous system” in place of warm ups.  I prefer these terms because that’s exactly what a warm up is.

Why Warm Up?

If you consider that many drive or take public transportation to a gym, strength facility, the field, rink or court, and that we are typically sitting during transit with our hips nicely flexed, spinal posture compromised, and shoulders internally rotated, then you may begin to see why this description of your body does not vibe with the position of your sport (ie: standing! sprinting, skating, jumping).

The longer you stay in these positions, the more “familiar” your muscles become with the position, and subsequently, adapt to support what they do most. The body unfortunately does not always adapt in ways that are “good” for it- it just does what it feels is necessary at the time to get you through whatever you’re demanding of it. This is a very simple, layman’s way of explaining why it is we get stuck and glued in these bad positions so many are guilty of (forward head, internally rotated shoulders, pelvic tilts, etc). 

One of these parts of the body that gets “glued” and stuck are connective tissues, ie: tendons, joints, ligaments. The elasticity and integrity of these muscles are extremely important to performance. They’re like the wheels on a muscle car. A big engine (your skeletal muscle) can’t be put on top of a Scion 14” tire and chassis (your tendons and connective tissue).  So if you jump right into your big box squat or deadlift day without a warm-up, your body may not be ready for the demands placed on it by the muscles and start to create strange compensations, or worse, tear and cause injury. 

To avoid injury, you need to promote the elasticity and durability of this tissue. These are areas that are significantly underserved in terms of blood flow as compared to muscles or your organs, so they take some extra time to get going. 

That’s where the warm-up comes in. This is an extra 10-15 minutes that helps these parts of your body become accustomed to the demands you’ll be placing on it. It gives you a chance to increase your HR a little and get a little more blood-flow going in anticipation of the exercise or sport that’s coming.

If you choose not to warm up, the best case scenario is that your connective tissue is playing catch up to the rest of your body- and you don’t get hurt. However, your performance will suffer. If you can’t get into full hip extension, your sprint will be compromised and you may be slower to the ball down field, or slower off the line.

The second part of the equation is the nervous system. A sudden movement is the work of our sympathetic nervous system, which many associate with the term “fight or flight.” If there were ever such a thing as a gradual transition into such a state, this would be it. The more control you can exhibit over all functions of your body, the more successful you’ll ultimately be.

The Confusion

Now, knowing all that, imagine you try to get up from your desk to set a 40-yard dash PR after you’ve spent most your day sitting or in some other awkward position. It’s not going to happen.

The confusion lies in the fact that we have the ability to go from sitting to sprinting quickly as humans, but it doesn’t mean our bodies are ready to do it. Our ability is more of a primal, survival mechanism that’s made possible bio energetically through our ability to switch quickly between anaerobic and glycolytic energy systems, to oxidative and aerobic systems. However, this just explains how we fuel that action- it doesn’t even touch or explain the physiological demands we’ve already discussed.

I saw a great talk/seminar once by a strength coach & physical therapist named Curtiss Cramblett. He said one of the most true things I’ve ever heard about our bodies- “our bodies are cement waiting to harden, and movement is the lubricant.”

Your cement wagon ain’t going to break any land-speed records! Start performing like a performance vehicle and warm up!