The Importance of a Proper Warm-Up

12 March 2013

When I first started Crossfit I hated  the warm-ups because I felt like it ate up time that could be better spent lifting heavy weights or doing a hard WOD, and to be honest, I still don’t like warming-up (I get bored) and am often tempted to just jump right in. However, I also know that if I want to get the most out of my training and reduce my chances of getting injured I need to suck it up and warm-up.

Photo Credit: Blonyx Biosciences

Photo Credit: Blonyx Biosciences

Why we need to Warm-Up

1. A Warm-Up enables you to dial in your mind, put any other issues on hold and resolve to focus on the task at hand.

We live in a world where we’re constantly on the go and the amount of information our brains process each day is pretty impressive. In an attempt to handle all this info and get as much done in a day as possible most people (myself included) have a tendency to constantly multi-task…

e.g. trying to text and read at the same time (guilty), mentally making a grocery checklist while conversing with a coworker etc…

**n.b. Multi-tasking actually decreases efficiency (despite what we think) and we can’t perform two tasks simultaneously. When we ‘multi-task’ what we’re really doing is switching our attention rapidly between tasks but with every switch a little time and efficiency is lost (I’ll touch more on that in another post)**

Sometimes this isn’t too big of a deal; however, when we come into the gym to train our mind should be 100% focused on whatever it is we’re working on. at the moment This is especially important for highly technical skills (e.g. the olympic lifts) and if we want to get maximum results with minimal risk of injury it’s in our best interests to focus on the loaded barbell right over our heads NOT on what we’re going to make for dinner.

2. Proper Warm-Ups Decrease the Risk of Injuries and help minimize the effects of Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS)

When we haven’t used all day (e.g. sitting at a desk from 9-5) our range of motion (ROM), flexibility and resilience to stress is decreased and as a result the possibility of muscle tears (minor or major) significantly increases.

Major muscle tears (i.e. the serious ones) can have an effect on our performance for days, weeks, or even months which is why, even though it may be tempting to ‘jump right into the WOD’ we’re running late ….don’t. Don’t risk sustaining a long-lasting injury because you didn’t want to take an extra 5 minutes injured to warm-up.

Minor muscle tears, (also known as DOMS) are responsible for the inflammation, soreness and stiffness we typically feel after a hard training session and are usually its more common when the workout included new/unfamiliar movements or eccentric exercises (e.g.running down-hill, the lowering portion of a squat, push-ups etc).

Front Squat

DOMS typically peaks 48-72 hours post-workout (i.e. why the day after a hard WOD we might feel ok, but two days later be unable to get out of bed) and then gradually decreases. In itself DOMs isn’t necesarrily a bad thing (as it usually means we’re training hard), but excessive soreness can affect our ability to train consistently and slow progress/gains.

There no ‘magic way’ to avoid DOMS altogether (if we workout hard, we’re going to stress the body and stressing the body will cause tears), BUT  incorporating a proper warm-up can decrease the number/severity of micro-tears, which means we can train harder and not be as ‘wrecked’ afterwards.

3. A Warm-Up Decreases The Negative Effects of Lactic Acid

Lactic Acid (LA) During Anaerobic Exercise

It’s not uncommon for DOMs to be attributed to Lactic Acid (a byproduct of anaerobic exercise) build-up; however, while it does contribute to DOMs it plays a much bigger part in the burning sensation we experience during and immediately after a high intensity workout/

Lactic Acid

When we exercise anaerobically (i.e. without sufficient oxygen) LA begins to accumulate faster than our body’s can remove it and as a result of this build-up our performance begins to drop (or stops altogether). fortunately, the reaction responsible for creating LA is easily reversible once we get enough oxygen to the muscles; which means that if we ‘slow down’ and ‘catch our breath’ the amount LA built-up will diminish and once it has we can increase intensity again (e.g. Tabata Intervals, Hill Sprints and all those other fun exercises)

Sooooo Lactic acid is a bad thing?

Yes and no. When lactic acid builds up faster than our bodies can get rid of it (i.e. anaerobic exercise) its a bad thing and definitely has a negative impact on our performance; however during aerobic exercise it’s actually a good thing because it can be used as fuel. When we exercise at high intensities (e.g. crossfit) our bodies rely largely on glucose for fuel and a byproduct of this is lactic acid; which, interestingly enough, is an even better fuel source than glucose (easier to process) as long as there is enough oxygen at our muscles

Ever noticed that the first few minutes of a workout are often the worst


Photo Credit: Caragh Camera

 e.g. “What do you mean I have to all-out for 3minutes?! I’m dieing and I’m 45seconds in!”

but gets easier as the workout continues? This is because there is an initial rapid increase in the lactic acid but once the body realizes what’s going on it adjusts and begins to remove/use the lactic acid as quickly as it is being produced (provided we pace correctly)….

n.b. this is more applicable steady state cardio workouts, not something like Fran

And This is where the warm-up comes in.

Rather than have those first few minutes of ‘suckiness’ happen during the workout, if we do a proper warm-up and we get them over and done with can go 100% when it really matters. This means for a warm-up to be effective it should be…

1. long enough for the body to realize whats going on adapt accordingly, and

2.  should be done only a little before the actual workout (too far in advance and we will cool down again and then it will have been pointless)

So What is a Warm-Up Anyways?

Maybe I should have started with this, but oh well.

A warm-up should be relatively short and consist of light-moderate intensity exercises (and mobility) that are specific to the workout ahead. Remember this is a WARM-UP (not a workout) and the whole point of a warm-up to prepare your body to work hard with minimal risk of injury or DOMS.

What Does a Warm-Up Entail?

There is no ‘correct’ warm-up that works 100% of the time because an appropriate warmup for “Workout A” may not be suitable for “Workout B”.

Do you warm-up before a heavy lifting session the same way you do for an intense cardio or body-movement workout? No (At least I hope not).

When programming a warm-up its important to ensure it targets the appropriate structures and gets the relevant muscles moving and prepares them for the upcoming physical demands.

Is your workout going to focus on upper body or lower body? Will there be cardio or is it going to be a strength session?

In addition to being workout dependent (Heavy Squats or Sprints?) warm-ups can also vary based on the individual. Past injuries or specific structural weaknesses need to be addressed during the warm-up by incorporating the appropriate stretches/exercises.

If you have a lower back issues (*couch* me *cough*), make sure you get it properly warmed and loosened up, and if your hips are notoriously tight (me again), stretch them out! (Did I mention I hate Stretching?)

Turkish Get-Ups

Turkish Get-Ups

This can be challenging if you are at a Crossfit (or any type of fitness) class and not in charge of the warm-up. However, if you know there are specific exercises you need to do then its up to you to take the initiative and make sure you get them done. How?

    • Come in 5-10 minutes early to work on it
    • OR ask your instructor for their permission to modify/add to the warm-up

If you are worried about ‘being an inconvenience” or ‘insulting your coach/trainer’, stop it. In order to avoid injury and be the best athlete you can be, it is your responsibility to do what you need to and it is a coaches job to help you.

However, be considerate and don’t use this as an excuse to ignore what your coach prescribes;  if you have a weakness you know you need to address let them know.

It may seem like ‘too much of a hassle’ or unrealistic for a busy schedule, but in the end if it prevents injury and enables you to keep doing what you love, its worth it. 

What A Warm-Up Isn’t

The warm-up is not a mini-workout and it definitely it shouldn’t be “for time”, include max effort sprints, heavy lifts or any highly technical skills. Save that for the Workout!

We all want results (why else would we be in the gym), and it can be tempting up the intensity of the warm-up (or skip it all together) to get them. After all we’ve all been told the importance of “high intensity” workouts and know that significant results aren’t born from ‘gentle’ exercises.

While this is true (“if you want results you have to train like it”…) it is not a reason to turn the warm-up into something it isn’t. The workout should be intense but in order to properly prepare yourself for it (and decrease risk of injury/DOMS) you need to WARM-UP properly.

References/Useful Links (If You Feel The Need To Geek Out And Read More on Warm-ups, Lactic Acid Build-Up or DOMS)

ACSM information on Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS). American College of Sports Medicine. 2011. Retrieved March 12, 2013 from http://www.acsm.org/docs/brochures/delayed-onset-muscle-soreness-(doms).pdf

Derbyshire, K. Does Aerobic Exercise Help Get Rid of DOMS? Breaking Muscle. Retrieved March 9, 2013 from http://breakingmuscle.com/mobility-recovery/does-aerobic-exercise-help-get-rid-doms

Fahey, T. 10 Things You should Know About Lactic Acid: Old Myths and New Realities. Delano Public Schools. 2013. Retrieved March 10, 2013 From http://www.delano.k12.mn.us/high-school/academic-departments/science/mr-b-wiesner/cross-country/10-things-you-should-know-about-lactic-acid

Lobby, M. Why Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness is a Good Thing. Running Times. January 18, 2011. Retrieved from http://www.runnersworld.com/race-training/why-delayed-onset-muscle-soreness-good-thing

Roth, S. M. Why Does Lactic Acid Build Up In Muscles? And Why Does it Cause Soreness?. Scientific American. January 23, 2006. Retrieved March 12, 2013 From http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=why-does-lactic-acid-buil

Sarnatoro, B. R. Sore Muscles? Don’t Stop Exercising. MedicineNet.com. October 18, 2006. Retrieved March 10, 2013 from http://www.medicinenet.com/script/main/art.asp?articlekey=52151&page=2

Quinn, E. Muscle Pain and Soreness After Exercise: Tips for Dealing with Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness After Exercise. About.com Sports Medicine. November 12, 2011. Retrieved March 9, 2013 from http://sportsmedicine.about.com/cs/injuries/a/doms.htm

Author: Taryn Haggerstone

Taryn is one of the lead coaches at Raincity Athletics. She regularly competes in both CrossFit and Olympic Weightlifting (at Regional and National levels) when she's not blogging, or helping our RAthletes Find their Fit. Checkout her full bio for more.

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