Evolved Personal Training: Warming Up

How my perspective on designing warm ups in my own training and clients training has changed.

I wanted to continue this series on ways that I have worked to establish a more evolved personal training business.

I feel writing this will help me knock the dust off of the site and it might be useful for you to know how a personal trainer thinks through a routine.

Today's writing is on warming up.

I won't be getting into the science of why you need to warm up, that's for another day.

Evolved Personal Training: Warming Up

Warming up for a workout or warm-ups is a topic that many take varying approaches to.

In Strength Training for Beginners, I talked about the three most common approaches to warming up that I've personally used in addition to a few others;

  1. Walking on a treadmill for a few minutes until you feel you've broke a sweat
  2. Dynamic exercises that progressively move your body through a full range of motion
  3. Absolutely nothing

In addition to those approaches you'll see people holding static "sit and reach" stretches, foam rolling, performing lighter sets of exercises that they're about to do and some will skip warming up altogether.

Think of your flexibility existing on a spectrum. Some of us are super mobile and can touch our toes or even the ground. When you’re young and limber (OK I’ve never been flexible) you roll straight out of bed and bust out a set of bodyweight squats with no aches or pains

Some of us, myself included, stretch for a long time and have to work to maintain flexibility.

If you feel ready to go when you get to the gym-spend a few minutes warming your core body temperature with exercises or treadmill walking and then get under the weights.

My approach to warm-ups for my own training is where I've done the most experimenting.

Let's talk about my own background with warming up before diving into how I've approached teaching my clients to warm up. In sharing my thought process, I will talk to you about why I made the decisions I did and how my interpretation of warming up has changed.

My Introduction to Exercising

Before high school there was nothing. They called me cousin pudgy. I did not exercise one bit.

As a high school athlete, I did not have much say over my warm ups until I started training with my coaches. Most of those days we did a few dynamic stretches based on what we were lifting (squat, bench, and deadlift most likely). That worked well at the time.

In college at The University of Missouri warm-ups took 35-40 minutes to complete. If you didn't know better, you felt like that was going to be the workout itself. Surprise, it wasn't.

After college, I completely stopped exercising for 6 months, that felt terrible. I was ironically still training clients and helping them exercise.

When I started back up lifting, I did my old college warm ups then I started learning more and came up with my own.

At some point I realized that my body had changed. After knee surgery, repeated injury, and playing sports there is all sorts of stiffness everywhere in my body. My warm-ups needed to get more specific.

I settled on a few core movements and recently evolved to include more "pre-exercise screening" if you will. I've noticed marked improvements in the way that I move and feel from that.

Ex. How is my foot doing? What does my ankle move like today? Is there anywhere that I need to spend a little more time on or can I reach acceptable ranges of motion?

Not having the ability to move freely is potentially dangerous. It's a new challenge for me to be able to work on things like mobility and cardio.

How My Own Experience has Led to More Evolved Personal Training

I've grown to teach people to move more freely. In the same way that my own warm ups have taken a progressive path towards growth, so has the way I've approached training.

When I first started, I gave everyone a generic warm-up. You came in and got warm doing a few key movement patterns for three specific areas:

  • Your thoracic spine (your spine from about your mid back up through your rib cage)
  • Your ankle
  • Your hip

The movements were:

  • Triplanar ankle wall mobility drill
  • Leg swings
  • Split squats
  • Lateral lunges
  • A thoracic spine mobility drill
  • Cat cow pose

This warm up doesn't do any harm (none of the ways I've approached it do) it just gets boring for everyone involved-Yes, coaches and trainers get bored too.

I still use this actually for most clients as a ground zero and it's quite effective. In hindsight this works and most would be satisfied here. There are however cases like myself that come in and need a little extra to get ready.

This is what led me to the next step, changing warm ups to teach people to move in various ways (We actually did this at Mizzou and it's where I started over after reading Are you Useful? By Chip Conrad).

While people need to repeat exercises to get good at them, they can still perform similar movement patterns while changing things up a little bit.

For example:

  • Progressing a lunge from a split squat, to a reverse lunge to lunging across a room forward and backward.
  • Starting with a lateral squat before moving onto a lateral lunge.
  • Beginning with a bird dog and plank before progressing to a bear crawl (forward/backward).

I've noticed a marked improvement in the way that several of my clients move when taking this approach. I made the decision because I want people to feel freed in their bodies by exercise. There have been more good laughs here as well.

This leads me to something that occasionally pops up in no particular order, too many exercises.

I think I'm very self aware. My natural tendency as an athlete or someone who enjoys lifting is to try and do all of the exercises that I think are important in every session.

When I first started lifting in high school, this led to me writing my own routines with 9-10 exercises in a session. Even in training clients, which has an individual response, this can creep in. I've written warm ups that have too many exercises or take too long to complete.

This can leave me trying to squeeze too many exercises in to 60 minutes and it also makes achieving progressive overload harder.

When I say every client has their own "individual response"-what I mean is that we all have our own "goldilocks zone" if you will;

  • Too little training - you don't get the result you're looking for.
  • A range of the right amount of training - results.
  • Too much training - maybe initially results then, you don't get the results you're looking for long term.

Let's put some hypothetical numbers on this.

Say for example you needed to perform 3-4 sets to make improvements in your hip thrust for glute gains. 1-2 sets wouldn't lose you progress in the short term but, you might start to lose gains over time. 3-4 sets would result in progress. 5-6 sets in the short term might be beneficial in an attempt to overreach (a term for another time) but, long term it would leave to overtraining.

For some clients, the warm-ups work well, for others, it's a lot at first.

There are rules to this but, their more guardrails. Science can't tell you exactly how many sets to perform to make gains. It can just put you in the ballpark.

On the other side of it, no one is “ too advanced” for the basics including bodyweight exercises (like I mentioned in the first evolved post).

The last step in how I've evolved personal training warm-ups has been to include screening.

When someone first comes into the studio, they go through a series of test to answer a few questions in my head including:

  • What is your ankle mobility like?
  • Do your hips move well?
  • Where should your feet be for your squat? (everyone has different hips)
  • Can you safely get your arms overhead?
  • Can you perform a push-up?
  • Can you perform a chin up?
  • Where do your feet need to be for hip thrusts and glute bridges to feel the exercise most in your glutes?
  • What glute exercise do you feel the most?

I'm able to take action on the information I gather in this initial session.

For example, if you have pretty mobile ankles, we don't need to spend extra time trying to get them ready besides the wall drill. If you don't however and are limited by tight calves, we'll start there before you test your ankles for the day to see if we notice any improvement.

Warming up does not have to be complicated but, I think it should not be skipped because it is important. That's all for now, thanks for reading!

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