Warm-ups: Are they needed? If so, what are the best options?
An effective warm-up is a window of opportunity to not only prevent injury but also enhance performance, and understanding what a proper warm-up looks like can help you maximise your full potential.
Why warm up before exercise?
“If you don’t have time to warm-up, you don’t have time to train.”
This is an adage I’ve used for years when student-athletes head into extended winter or summer break periods and train on their own. Whether it’s because of procrastination or poor planning, the warm-up is often the first thing to be neglected when a coach is not there to take the lead.
Other times, the warm-up is arguably the hardest part of a workout. When soreness, fatigue, or even boredom is high, and motivation is low, taking the time to properly warm up can be the last thing someone wants to do. However, the dedication to a well-executed warm-up provides a return on investment that is well worth the effort. An effective warm-up is a window of opportunity to not only prevent injury but also enhance performance, and understanding what a proper warm-up looks like can help you maximise your full potential.
Why it is important to warm up before exercise
The warm-up period is the time (15-30 minutes) prior to a training session or competition that is used to mentally and physically prepare an individual for the expected demands. Just as advancements in training, research and technology have occurred over the last 50 years, the warm-up and its possibilities are no exception – gone are the days of a simple ‘jog and stretch.’ For a coach, athlete, or general fitness enthusiast, the warm-up is part of the training process and provides a chance to reap the rewards from some very beneficial activity.
So, what are the benefits of warming up?
A warm-up primes and prepares the muscles and cardiovascular system for activity. Blood flow and core temperature increase, which allows for stronger, faster, and better coordinated muscular contraction. This improves strength, power, reaction time, and reduces injury risk. The increased circulation of blood allows for better oxygen delivery throughout the body, improving performance and recovery between bouts of work. These physical adjustments also lend themselves to improving mental awareness and emotional self-control – to where the brain is more responsive and alert, improving performance and reducing injury risk.
Ultimately, the warm-up can be viewed as a performance-enhancing process, making the body a higher-functioning and more efficient system by providing a better delivery of signals and oxygen to the brain and body for a faster return for their demands.
How to warm up
Dr. Ian Jeffreys, the undisputed godfather of the warm-up, designed and created the well-known and widely accepted ‘RAMP’ method, which is an acronym for:
The RAMP method provides a framework to classify activities based on the progressive and sequential targets of a well-structured warm-up, allowing it to be designed specifically to the individual and their needs.
A warm-up following such a framework provides athletes and weekend warriors alike with the opportunity to prepare for any upcoming session and take advantage of several long-term benefits (e.g., increased mobility, flexibility, balance, coordination, fitness, explosiveness) that come with consistent adherence.
Principles to consider
Before we get into building a RAMP warm-up, there are some important overarching themes that we need to keep in mind. Alongside the four words above, the following three should be etched into your memory:
Dynamic, specific, and variable – these are the foundational aspects that need to be considered when designing any warm-up at any level.
Performing dynamic movements, as opposed to static stretches or extended holds, is generally the most appropriate method to improve muscle function and athletic performance. Encouraging individuals to be active, promoting more repetitions of movements, and only holding stretches for a few seconds, at most, is best. This helps to not only increase core temperature but also maintain muscle elasticity while exposing joints and tissues to their full range of motion.
Coordinating your breathing with these dynamic movements can prove to be quite helpful – I generally suggest it. For example, when performing a pigeon stretch – pressing into the stretch while exhaling and changing position upon inhaling. Or, with leg swings – relaxing the leg to swing and move freely at the hip, and lengthen the hamstring or adductor (inner thigh muscle) while exhaling. This also encourages focus and improves mental readiness with more purposeful breaths. We will cover this in more detail and specifics; but when looking at static versus dynamic warm-ups, controlled dynamic stretching (not rapid, bouncing movements, aka ballistic) is the superior option.
Specificity is also critical for an effective warm-up. This refers to the individual, the circumstance, and the task-specific exposure (e.g. graded low-level jumping to prepare for more explosive jumps or sprinting).
Modifying the warm-up to meet the individual’s needs and abilities is important. Tasks should be basic and simple to perform. The organisation and progression of activity should be gradual, introducing general movement patterns (squatting, lunging, skipping, shuffling, etc.) initially and slowly incorporating more complex and intense drills that promote confidence and build on both strengths and weaknesses in movement capacity (flexibility, mobility, coordination, and control).
The warm-up should also be context-specific, based on fatigue levels, the time of day, and most importantly, the amount of time available to dedicate to properly warming up. When someone is more sore coming into a session, things should move slower and progress more gradually. The same is to be said for a session earlier in the morning – allowing the individual a little longer to simply ‘wake up’ is quite beneficial. Likewise, if someone is pressed for time, being selective and purposeful with the warm-up can ensure that it is both efficient and effective.
Finally, the SAID (Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demands) principle rings true with warm-up exercises as well, in that the exercises performed during a warm-up should prepare the athlete for the specific activities planned. If the individual is preparing to sprint at full speed within the session, there need to be various locomotive drills, progressive accelerations, and top speed mechanics included in the warm-up. This will prepare them for the cognitive skill and coordination demands of the task, as well as the high-velocity contractions their tissues will undergo. Similarly, when getting mentally and physically ready to perform maximal or explosive lifts, priming the nervous system with jumps, engaging the hips with bands, and building force-producing capabilities in the lower body with isometrics are sure to boost outputs for the primary lifts of the day.
Ultimately, a warm-up must be flexible, specific and individualised, providing the participant with what they need to perform in an effective and efficient manner.
They say that variety is the spice of life, and when approaching the concept of warming up, this is very much the case – it helps keep things fresh, fun, and productive in the long term. This means we should look to do as much movement as possible in all directions of motion – forward, backward, lateral, and rotating – and of all types (squatting, lunging, crawling, bracing, rolling, etc.). Turning to resources on teaching gymnastics and calisthenics for beginners, or youth athletes, can be extremely helpful when trying to keep things fresh.
The more movement we can promote, the better prepared we will be – not to mention more athletic in the long run. So, look to literally add a twist to the simple lunge you have been doing, or find ways to incorporate a band, ball, or cone to provide an external distraction of focus. This may look chaotic at times (especially with a large group), but with the proper application and oversight, you should see reactivity, agility, and most of all, enjoyment flowing through to start a workout.
RAMP-ing it up
With a solid foundation in place, we can now use the above principles and apply them to the RAMP outline Jeffreys has created.
To this point, although we have made a warm-up fairly complex, the most important aspect is that it simply raises body temperature (hence the name warm-up). To get the increased heart rate, breathing, and blood flow that improves the way we move and feel, we need to get to work.
This is where the ‘jog a lap,’ the most boring and basic activity, has its merit. There are, however, so many more opportunities to include the variety and specificity we are after – where any form of locomotion (moving from one point to another) has its place.
So rather than simply jogging, we can skip, shuffle, cycle, lunge, crawl, and roll – get moving! The only limit is space and creativity. This is where we can be supportive of the enjoyment and ‘play’ side of exercise as well. Not making it work, but instead, making it fun – get started by doing anything and everything imaginable.
Boost athleticism by creating new ways to move, dodge, or recover – falling, shifting, and twisting are all great options. Promote movement, energy, and positive vibes through freedom of movement. In a group setting, this could be in the form of a low-intensity game. For an individual, this could be simply setting a timer and doing random movements that come to mind, changing up every 20-30 seconds.
Ultimately, this initial part is very broad, and as long as we raise the body temperature and keep things safe and appropriate from an intensity and experience standpoint – mission accomplished.
I generally hate the term ‘activate’ as it signifies that muscles have an on/off switch that needs to be flipped – but that’s beside the point. The target here is to ‘engage’ the primary muscles that are going to be used during training. Many times, this involves the hips, mainly glutes, as well as muscles in the trunk or posterior shoulder.
The muscles that are used in jumping, throwing, and sprinting – those that are seemingly inactive while we sit at our desks all day – need to be ‘activated’ and engaged (or contracted) before they are used at full speed and potential. This promotes the critical mind-muscle connection, as well as improves performance and reduces injury risk.
We are now progressing from the wide-ranging options into the specifics of the session and the individual. Now is the time to find what works best. Involve additional equipment, like bands, that help to challenge a joint and muscle differently, isolate contractions, and prepare them for more intense work or use. This ‘Band Glute Series’ from ‘the Glute Guy,’ Bret Contreras, is a great example.
With body temperature raised and muscles engaged, we now need to ensure that our primary joints have exposure to the full range of motion needed for safe execution of high-intensity movements – continuing with the concept of starting general and working toward specific activities.
Primary areas that typically need to be addressed are ankle, hip, thoracic spine (upper back) and overhead shoulder mobility – a wide mountain climber with rotation is a great go-to exercise for this. You’re welcome.
As we focus on each problem area, use a ‘tri-planar’ approach – moving in all three planes of motion (forward-backward, side-to-side, and rotational). Rather than simply up, down, forward and back, we may also work at a 45-degree angle, lateral, or add in a rotational component to how an individual moves, ensuring control while doing so – this leg circuit is a great way to hit all planes and angles.
Regarding specificity, this can easily be individualised to focus on either a particular problem area or simply allow for freedom and autonomy based on personal preference – continuing to be time efficient and effective throughout. It’s important to consider both the needs of the individual(s) involved and their activity or sport while constantly getting feedback on any preferences they may have. This will promote the mental engagement we are after, as well as encourage commitment to the opportunities to improve flexibility and mobility – something that is a common weak point for many of us (if you can’t touch your toes, you know what I’m talking about!).
Spending time to warm up before the session can be a long-term investment to becoming a better and more efficient mover – this has great potential to boost performance and prevent injury.
With essential mobility, flexibility, and muscle function ready to go, exposure to high and specific intensity is our final step. The focus here is on exposure to explosive and aggressive actions (high rates of force development) to engage the brain and body connection. This could be considered a dress rehearsal of sorts, priming the brain and body for activity and ensuring optimal performance.
Here is where we finish our warm-up with full-speed, 100 percent focused and purposeful actions (e.g., single repetitions of 5-10m sprints, flying sprints, or plyometrics at a ‘working set’ load), possibly getting even more sport-specific with a drill that involves a ball or collision pad – creating a reactive game-like experience for athletes. Remember, performance does not always hinge on force and velocity outputs, it sometimes depends on quick decision-making. So, involving some sort of quick, coordinative, and responsive activity can challenge the athlete in a way that prepares them to perform at their full potential.
Immediately following the warm-up, there is a window to execute high-quality work. We must value this time and opportunity and look to micro-dose (perform at low quantities) these full-speed activities when individuals are in their most ‘ready’ state. From an adaptation standpoint, this can help someone maintain and even develop higher outputs with minimal volume. This is something that is incredibly important for team-sport athletes that are busy with in season skill-based practices and competitions.
And one final thing – don’t forget to monitor!
I know what you’re thinking, and yes, it is RAMP, not RAMPM – but, although slightly beyond the scope of this article, I wanted to briefly touch on monitoring and how it can fit into the warm-up.
The opportunity to monitor athletes is an important consideration with training prescription, and the warm-up provides the perfect time to gain either an objective (number-driven) or subjective (feeling-driven) insight. This would occur in and around the ‘Potentiate’ phase, either by checking in with yourself or the individual to see how they feel. After the Raise, Activate, and Mobilise phases, if you aren’t feeling and moving better than when you started, chances are it’s not the time to push a high-intensity session or activity.
Understanding that tomorrow will always come around, and operating with the mentality of ‘training to train another day’ is important for long-term development and adaptation. If soreness and fatigue are high, the risk of injury, poor performance, and maladaptation are too – not a good combo at all.
This can further be supported by collecting an objective measure of the ‘Potentiate’ action. So, if there is a way to measure a jump, time a sprint, or get barbell velocity with a given load, it can benefit the training process as these are objective measures that can showcase level of performance. If performance is down, it may be an indication that athlete readiness is not where it should be. Pair the subjective report with the objective measure and use that to make decisions based on volume and intensity of training.
No matter how good the warm-up is, it cannot save poor recovery. Train smart and allow for high quality work to be performed – this promotes performance, confidence, and a safe training experience.
Failing to prepare is preparing to fail
When it comes down to it, the warm-up is all about preparation – both short and long term. The RAMP protocol provides an almost fool-proof method to support performance and prevent injury in the short term. This blueprint then further supports a cumulative long-term approach through progression, individualisation and consistency.
So, have a plan, keep it simple, and adapt it to fit the needs of the individual. A warm-up is such a small but significant window of opportunity that is a mini workout in and of itself, and requires similar considerations to training:
Remember to also include regressions and progressions for warm-up movements to prevent monotony and provide a productive experience that creates the necessary change over time. We not only want to prepare for and perform in a given session, but we also want to feel and train at a consistently high level.
A planned and purposeful warm-up is the gateway to optimal performance. Commit to it with creativity, possibility, and consistency, and it will pay you back tenfold on the investment.