By: Emily Beers
2015 CrossFit Games athlete Joe Scali is anything but run-of-the-mill. From rocking purple spandex to posting dance videos, even his thoughts about warming-up are uncharacteristic.
“Don’t warm up too much because it doesn’t simulate real life. For instance, if I had to move a couch I wouldn’t go to my neighbors house to ask if I can warm up with their lighter couch,” Scali joked.
Scali's warm-up: Throw weight on the bar, let's bench!
Scali’s comment was obviously said tongue-in-cheek (or at least we hope so) because the truth is the science behind warming-up consistently points to evidence that suggests warming up improves performance and helps prevent injuries. A 2012 study published in the Journal of Human Kinetics even suggested warming-up might mitigate delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS).
Further, a 2010 review article published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning tackled the subject of how much a warm-up improves performance. The review analyzed a host of existing human studies that investigated warm-up activities beyond just static stretching. The collective data found that a proper warm-up improved no less than 79% of all performance measurements.
Got your attention yet? If not, I repeat: If you warm up properly, you will improve your performance 8 out of 10 times!
Why the warm-up gets neglected
Brandon Peterson is the owner of CrossFit Free and the founder of Complete Athletic Performance. He coaches and programs for three Blonyx athletes heading to Regionals—Tasia Percevecz, Chase Smith and Tiffany Szemplinski.
Blonyx athlete Chase Smith sits 16th in the world after the CrossFit Games Open.
To say Peterson is a big believer in a good warm-up is an understatement.
“I truly believe the difference between folks who are great in this sport and those who get injured all the time is a lot about warm ups and cool downs,” Peterson said.
The biggest mistake he sees athletes make is simply not warming-up enough to realize the benefits.
“The idea of CrossFit causes this,” he said. “Warm-up isn’t sexy. You don’t get brownie points for a cool warm-up. People want to get to the sexy stuff—the fun. They want the clock to go ‘3,2, 1 Go’ so they can try to beat the person next to them. It’s the same at the (Globo) gym. The guy walks in and puts on his headphones and then 135-lb. on the bar and starts benching before he even does a push-up.”
The other problem is people thinking they’ll burn out before the workout starts, Peterson explained.
“I often see people who say they don’t want to do a certain movement beforehand because they don’t want to use up the reps they have,” Peterson said. “This doesn’t make any sense, though. It’s not the way it works.”
Peterson has done his best to train the athletes at his gym out of this way of thinking. Those who have bought into the idea of a good long warm-up move more efficiently, stay injury-free, and best of all, they perform better, Peterson insisted.
“We’ve proven it. Maybe not scientifically with an academic study yet, but I have given people Fran then told them to rest 10 minutes, and then go work up to a 1RM back squat, and people PR,” Peterson said. “And they say, ‘I don’t understand, my legs are fried.’ And I say, ‘Yeah, but you’re finally warmed up.’”
Well, he’s right 8 out of 10 times, at least.
Peterson judging one of his star pupils—Percevecz—during 16.4
So what is the ideal warm-up anyway?
Peterson said in an ideal world, athletes would warm-up for a full 45 minutes.
He recognizes this is unrealistic for most people, especially lifestyle athletes who want to be in and out of the gym in 1 hour, so during his group classes he keeps warm-ups to 20 minutes.
Whether you’re an elite or a lifestyle athlete, Peterson believes warm-up should always begin with dynamic movement to get the blood flowing.
“Ideally during this time, you want to open and close (all the big joints) in your body. This should be done at the intensity level of a talking pace,” he said.
The second step is to do something monostructural to get the heartrate up a bit, he said. This can include something like rowing, running or biking, he explained.
“I always recommend 10 minutes of constant movement,” he said. “That’s just the time frame I have found seems to work well.”
After this, it’s time to get into the workout-specific warm-up.
Open Warm-up with Peterson
During the Open, Peterson had all his competitive athletes show up to the gym in the morning to go through what was essentially a long pre-warm-up session.
“Then they went to work for the day and came back after work to do the actual Open workout,” he said.
Peterson came up with the idea of his morning pre-warm-up from a Division I track and field coach he used to work with. On race day, the track coach had his athletes run five to seven 400 meter sprints at varying intensities many hours before the race just to prep their bodies.
Below is a template of what Peterson’s athletes did before each Open workout of the 2016 CrossFit Games season:
Energy Systems with Cam Birtwell
Cam Birtwell is the owner of CrossFit Vic City in Victoria, B.C. He studied Exercise Physiology at the University of Victoria, has been working with varsity sports teams since 1999 and coaching CrossFit since 2009. He recently had four athletes qualify to the West Regional, including five-time CrossFit Games athlete Lucas Parker, Adam Davidson, who was 12th at the East Regional in 2015, and sisters Caileigh and Meghan McDade.
Lucas Parker is known to foam roll for 45-minutes before even starting his dynamic warm-up
Birtwell believes warming up is more of an art than a science:
“Ask any five coaches how to warm-up for an event, (and) you’ll likely get five answers,” he said. “Some will suggest that strict guidelines need to be followed, while others will say that it depends on each individual athlete.”
No matter where you fall on the spectrum, Birtwell believes one of the biggest determining factors when it comes to warming up for a competition, comes down to the length of the workout—i.e. What energy system you’re preparing for.
“The general rule here is that the shorter the workout, the more aggressive and intense your warm-up needs to be,” Birtwell said. When it comes to CrossFit, he breaks this into sprint workouts, versus medium-length workouts, versus long workouts.
A Blonyx lover, too? Birtwell is a wise man!
A). Sprint Workouts
“Sprint workouts of approx. 6 min or less require fast anaerobic energy supply...The muscular contractions are usually more forceful and rapid. We need to expose the body to those types of actions and metabolic conditions prior to the start of the workout so that the athlete is prepared to deal with them in larger doses at ‘3-2-1-Go,’” Birtwell said.
He has found the best way to prepare for this is to do 3 to 6 bursts of the workout movement sequence, lasting 30-40 seconds each and where the athlete should focus on being fast and smooth. Each interval should be followed by three minutes of recovery, he said.
“The last of these bursts should be no sooner than 5 minutes before the workout starts,” Birtwell added.
B). Medium-length Workouts
Medium length workouts of 8 to 15 minutes tend to rely on a balance between anaerobic and aerobic work, Birtwell explained.
“In this circumstance, we want a bit more focus on the actual movement tempo (the athlete is planning to follow) in the workout,” Birtwell said. “Using 45 seconds of monostructural work right into some pulses through the movement sequence of the workout is an easy way to go. Three or four times through a sequence like that will get all of the systems running.”
Again, rest 3 minutes or so between intervals, with the final interval being at least five minutes before the workout, Birtwell suggested.
C). Long workouts
“Long workouts are all about setting your specific pacing and getting your aerobic system up to speed. If we rehearse the type and intensity of work the athlete will experience during the workout, we can make sure they are up and running at the start (of the workout),” Birtwell said.
If you don’t warm-up the aerobic system effectively, it will cause a “speed bump,” Birtwell explained at around the two minute mark of the workout as the athlete tries to catch up to the pace of the workout.
“60 to 90 seconds of rowing, Airdyne or running followed by some ‘at pace’ reps of the workout movements is a good way to go. Three to 4 cycles through and your athlete will be ready,” he added.
Listen up even if you're not a Regional-level athlete....
While most people aren’t Regionals athletes, everyone should understand why warming up is important, Birtwell said.
This is why during the Open this year, he held discussions on Thursday nights to help his members understand the challenges of the workout, and how to best prepare.
“This helps them go and get themselves ready with a bit more info than just showing up and doing the workout,” he said.
I wish Birtwell was around to explain to one of the members of my gym—whose warm-up method of choice is to “caffeinate and dominate”—the importance of warming-up during 16.3.
Instead, I watched him walk into the gym, chug a mid-afternoon coffee, do a few half-hearted arm swings, five empty bar snatches and two struggled muscle-ups before throwing weight onto his bar and announcing he was, “Ready to go!”