Warm-Ups: Make Them Broadly-Specific

warm ups stretching

Warm-ups aren’t really a contentious topic in the fitness industry, but most coaches I know approach warm-ups in various ways. If you take ten coaches and ask them how they warm their clients up, you will get ten different answers. 

Some coaches have their clients foam roll their achy body parts, some will put their clients on a piece of cardio equipment, and others will do dynamic or static stretching; all of that has a time and place, but you can markedly improve your warm-up by following a few basic principles.

Doing Anything Is Better Than Nothing.

The reason why most warm-ups work is because they are generally centered around movement. Even something as simple as walking on a treadmill could be advantageous because it burns energy (creates heat) and prepares the body to move.

Foam rolling, or self-massage, works for the same reasons: it can improve blood flow and physically improve muscle viscosity. (1)

Does that mean these practices make for the best use of your time?

I can’t answer that question for you; like everything in life, context is key.

What Is The Goal?

The human body responds best to movement when muscle and connective tissues are warm and when global circulation increases. In fact, if you research warm-ups, you’ll find that several changes occur when you begin moving (2):

  • Vasodilation – blood vessels expand in size to allow better blood flow.
  • Improved Nerve Response – when tissues are warm, your nerve signaling improves, which improves force production and reaction times.
  • Improved Muscle Viscosity – simply put, muscle becomes less “stiff’ and allows for more range of motion.

Knowing this, your goal should be to move to create heat, which will lead to better movement, performance, and overall output.

Where Can You Move?

The problem with most warm-ups is that they don’t address what you and your body need. Instead, you will find warm-ups that address patterns (e.g., hinge, squat, push, pull) to ensure you’re prepared for said movements. For instance, you might do banded face pulls in your warm-up to prepare your shoulders for pressing and pulling.

Do you know if you have the prerequisite joint capabilities to press and pull, or do you just know that you need to do banded face pulls to warm up before you press and pull?

When is the last time you tried to figure out what your body is fully capable of?

Enter: Controlled Articular Rotations (CARs).

CARs are joint circles that allow you to explore a given joint’s workspace. CARs can be done in pretty much every joint in the body, from the cervical spine down to the toes.

Take the shoulder CAR, for example. Using this movement, we can address most functions of the shoulder (glenohumeral joint): internal rotation, external rotation, flexion, extension, adduction, abduction, etc.

We use CARs to see what a joint is capable of, but we also use them to warm up your joints. 

The videos below walks you through a shoulder and hip CAR from beginning to end.

Start Broad, Then Specifically Target Tissues.

CARs are global movements that warm tissues and improve motor control because they encourage the full exploration of a joint’s ability to move. By definition, CARs are perfect for broadly warming up the body.

They can also elucidate areas you need to work on, making them an excellent diagnostic practice before you begin your workout.

For instance, if you’re having trouble rotating your shoulder or hip during CARs, it might be useful to transition from CARs into exercises that specifically work on the joint’s rotational capacity, like infinitys, scarecrows, or axial rotations.

Sequencing your warm-up from CARs to joint or range of motion specific work is a much better use of your time because it prepares your joints for movement and forces you to address the areas you need to work on. 

Face pulls might be a good secondary movement after scapular CARs if you find that you’re struggling to engage the protractors/retractors during CARs. However, just doing face pulls for the sake of doing face pulls seems like a misuse of time.

The Ideal Warm-Up

Here is what we recommend our clients do before they exercise:

  1. Identify the major joints you’ll be working on during your routine and perform CARs accordingly. For example, if you’re doing an upper body workout, it will be beneficial to do CARs for the shoulders, scapula, elbows, and spine.
  2. Pay attention to areas that aren’t moving well and make them your secondary focus. If you can’t articulate your shoulders very well during flexion, what is a good next step?
  3. Now is a good time to tie-in bigger or more generic movements (e.g., squats, hinges, pushing, pulling, etc.) This is done to further create heat and keep the body physically warm.

You’ll notice I didn’t try to give you specific warm-ups for your body outside of doing CARs, and the reason is simple: I don’t know what YOU need to work on. CARs are universal, but everything else should be catered to you and what your body needs.

If you’re uncertain what to work on, I strongly consider doing our Functional Range Assessment (FRA®).

We use the FRA to assess how you move on a joint by joint basis. We will explore everything from your neck all the way down to your toes. Doing so helps us measure and create movement baselines for your unique body, taking the guesswork out of where you need help the most.

If you’re interested, click the link and let us know if we can do anything to help. In the meantime, check out our YouTube channel for more information on CARs and how to integrate them into your warm-up or daily routine.

Brian Murray, FRCms, FRA
Owner of Motive Training