Performance vs. Health: Do We Even Need to Warm Up?

Performance vs. Health: Do We Even Need to Warm Up?

James FitzGerald on Warming Up

Chances are, if you’re a coach, you spend a good chunk of time helping your clients warm up before their training session. Sometimes, the warm-up even takes longer than the workout, right?

Have you ever thought critically about why?

OPEX Founder, James FitzGerald, explained warming up wasn’t always a human priority, and questions whether it’s as necessary as we think for lifestyle clients. 

“There was once a time, believe it or not, where there were no personal trainers, fitness coaches, strength coaches etc…that provided instruction on movement and direction for it. Humans simply moved because they had to. …Due to survival and reproduction and hunting and gathering, movement was required,” he said.  

However, as we have shifted from survival to deliberately performing movements for the sake of health and fitness, we became more interested in best practices for preparing for these various activities. 

That being said, as FitzGerald explained, most of the research on the topic has been about athletes warming up for performance, not for the general health folks who are just looking to be able to do life a little easier.  

As a result, FitzGerald questions whether we’re placing too much of an emphasis on warm-up for the general health people specifically.

If one wants to learn how to move for life through exercise, they most likely should be doing things that are just in front of their abilities and should require no warm-up, per se,” he said. “It would make sense if the goal of the exercise session was to possibly reach further than expected in the session, as does happen in sport performance, but for fitness, it simply does not make sense.”

Despite the above, we have been told all our lives, starting in PE class in grade school, that we must warm up! We’re not safe if we don’t.

Should One Actually Warm Up?

FitzGerald asks coaches to consider this:

Do we warm up before we go up the stairs at home? Do moms warm up before picking their child up from the ground? Do construction workers warm up before packing around lumber? You get the point.

The reason athletes warm up is so they’re better able to push themselves to reach new performance heights. But this isn’t usually the goal of the lifestyle exercise.

In other words, if the lifestyle person requires a warm up is, it’s probably because they’re about to embark in an inappropriate training program that’s outside of the scope of their current capabilities. On the other hand, if that person was following appropriate programming for their abilities, they shouldn’t actually require a warm-up.

Or as FitzGerald said: “The constant song that should be playing in the head of the coach when prescribing exercise is ensuring the person is being challenged just in front of their capabilities, like just in front of them.”

So what does this look like in practice?

If you’re following the OPEX assessment model, for example, then it means: 

If a new client comes in who is overweight, has movement limitation and scored 60 cals on the 10 min max calories on the Airbike test because they weren’t able to complete the test, they shouldn’t be doing a whole lot more than this on their following session.

Their next session would probably include some repetitive, regressed patterns of the various movements you assessed in the previous session, and maybe a little bit of conditioning that is easier than the pace they held during their Airbike test. Learn the OPEX assessment for yourself here.

FitzGerald explained he would prescribe something like:

A. Hip Extension DB Floor Press – (bend and core and upper)

B. Wall Squat Holds – (squat pattern)

C. Iso Lunge with DB Curls – (lunge and core and upper)

D. Floor Iso Planks – (core)

E. Airbike – 15 min @ EASY, conversational pace – record avg. pace 

(Coach’s Resource: Learn the seven basic patterns of movement here.)

In the above case, there is little reason to put the person through a warm-up prior to beginning with A.

Beyond the above, FitzGerald asks coaches to consider another reason a warm-up, or at least a lengthy warm-up, might not be appropriate: If you’re looking to assess someone, you want to see how the person responds to a stimulus as an act of assessment. If the person needs to warm up beforehand, they “most likely should not be performing the test,” he said.

Reasons for exercisers to warm up

With all that being said, there are some reasons warm-ups can be useful for the lifestyle person, including:

  • To physically warm up body temperature to increase core temperature, which improves muscle proprioception
  • To increase learning if there are certain movement patterns that will arise in the exercise session
  • To wake up the nervous system

In the latter case, FitzGerald offered an example of a warm-up and a training session.

Warm-up:

A. Row 5 min @ EASY pace – focus on talking to friends

B. 5 Rounds Not For Time of 3 perfect push up, 6 lunges and 9 back extensions 

C. Empty Bar Standing Press 

Exercise session:

A. Standing Barbell Press @ 32X1; 4-6 x 5 – across loads; RAN

B. Strict Pull Up (pronated) – BWT only – AMRAP (-2)/set x 3 sets; rest 90 sec

C. Airbike – 20 sec HARD; rest walk 5:40 x 5

Why fitness participants think they need to warm up for 30 minutes

Clients might be confused if you suddenly stop warming them up for 30 minutes prior to their session. They think they need it because:

  • their joints are sore from poor daily movements/ergonomics in their lives
  • their joints or muscles are sore from dehydration, their diet or inflammation in their bodies
  • their muscles are sore from inappropriate training session (i.e. overreaching)
  • blood sugar fluctuations leaving them with low energy and feeling like they need to warm up
  • their body is physically cold because the air is cold

Let’s address the temperature argument for a moment. In some cases, this makes sense. Nobody wants to be cold when they’re working out. That being said, FitzGerald asks: “Does someone warm up for mowing the lawn or plowing the snow in freezing weather?”

Further, the temperature argument is, once again, based on performance measures, he explained. 

“There is no doubt that in evidence, that temperature increases prior to movement is effective for enhancing activation properties, but again, one has to question how this warming up carries over to life for this person,” he said. “When performance is not the main proxy inside of all training sessions for fitness for life, one can see how this reasoning on temperature falls short.”

What about the person who says he needs to warm up his elbows or else they flare up during pull-ups?

Simple: If they need a 20-minute elbow warm-up then they probably shouldn’t be doing pull-ups, FitzGerald said. And it’s your job as a coach to reprogram the way your clients think, so they understand what’s appropriate for them. So their joints aren’t so sore the next day. And so they’re not dehydrated and inflamed. And so their muscles recover. And on and on. 

In short, coaches need to educate their clients, so they understand and embrace the importance of training in an appropriate way for their current capabilities. And often doing this doesn’t require a lengthy warm up. 

“Ask (yourself) if they need to warm up to go paddle-boarding, to throw a ball with their kid, to go for a run, walk up a large hill, go for a hike, or cross-country skiing, sit in a car for three hours driving, or rough house with their 5-year-old. All of these are examples where, what a person learns in the gym through movement and exercise helps them learn how to live through fitness outside of the gym,” FitzGerald said. 

Three final recap takeaways:

1. Prescribe training sessions that your client is capable of performing, that include slight challenges just in front of their abilities.

2. Use warm-ups for obvious temperature irregularities in the environments where the person is exercising. 

3. Warm-ups for performance are not the same as warm-ups for lifelong fitness.

As mentioned in the article coaches need to keep exercise just outside of the client’s abilities. But how does one determine a client’s current abilities? The assessment. Learn the OPEX Assessment and how to transition for assessing to writing exercise programs in our free coaching course, The Coach’s Toolkit.

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