“Do you guys feel your core body temperature elevating?” Amanda Wheeler chucked to herself at the last MFF team meeting, as our trainers learned the newest r0und of classes that she designed. I laughed with her, thinking, “Well, that is the definition of a warm-up.”
By definition, a warm-up is the routine that you use to elevate your body temperature in preparation for a workout.
That definition is simple, sweet, and provides absolutely no other information to increase your knowledge of how to improve your warm-up. Great, so you’re physically warmer. How do we know that’s done anything beneficial than to warm you up?
Let’s use that definition as a starting point: By the end of your warm-up, aim to be breathing a bit harder than when you started, and a bit sweaty. Glistening, damp, or moist; if you’re on the verge of sweaty, you’re doing it right.
Okay, so we know that you’re going to become physically warmer during your warm-up. What else is going on?
During a warm-up we’re going to move the joints of our body through the ranges of motion that will best prepare them for the upcoming workout. We want to experience the mobility, stability, and motor control that’s coming our way a few minutes later. Let’s use the Joint by Joint approach as a simple guideline for which joints would benefit from a greater focus on mobility or stability.
While each joint requires a blend or balance of both, these labels can help us figure out a starting point. The ankle, hip, and thoracic spine are the three key areas to focus your mobility drills, while the lumbar spine is the most practical space to start focusing on stability. How do we do that? With breathing.
We’re going to look at the joints in our body starting from the lumbar spine and move out from there. The lumbar spine is where we’re often looking to minimize excessive movement than can stress our intervertebral discs and spinal ligaments, and there’s something else we’re looking at that attaches to our lumbar spine. That’s one of the most important muscles in your body, the diaphragm.
The diaphragm is the major player in breathing, and that means it’s a major player in every movement, rep, and set that you do during your workout. When we breath in a way that lets our diaphragm move into it’s most favorable position, we’ll preparing to keep our lumbar spine more stabile, allowing the other joints to move more freely. Let’s call that position the Zone of Apposition.
A breathing reset like the crocodile breathing above, or belly lift breathing can help us find that ZOA, and prepare for what’s next.
Remember that first diagram of the Joint by Joint approach? We’re going to move to the joints adjacent to the lumbar spine. That is, the thoracic spine and the hips. These are both joints where we’re seeking to improve mobility. If we can move them through all three ranges of motion, we’ll be better prepared for the movement that comes next.
Considering that most of our day is spent looking down in front of us, it serves us to focusing on being able to move our thoracic spine through extension and rotation during our warm-up. An exercise like this quadruped thoracic rotation, which we call a “Sad Doggy-Style Rotation” at MFF, could help with that movement.
We can also approach our hips, a ball-and-socket joint with a huge potential for movement, by focusing on how they move together as well as separately. For example, this Cook Squat with alternating reach, in the current class warm-ups at MFF, allows us to pull both hips deeper into flexion at the same time:
In contrast, this Spiderman Lunge with downward Dog, allows us to flex one hip while extending the other, which can better prepare us for the single leg work coming later in the workout. You might consider this movement foreplay for exercises like split squats, single leg deadlifts, and skater squats. Perhaps you’re planning on including an exercise like this lateral lunge somewhere later in the workout:
If that’s the case, a warm-up movement like the Adductor Rockback can allow you to open your hips with a similar, albeit less intense, movement:
Now that we’ve helped stabilized our lumbar spine with a dedicated breathing drill, and we’ve opened up our thoracic spine and hips a bit more, it’s time to talk about stability and the knee and the shoulder. Considering all of the powerful tools I’ve learned, my favorite definition of “stability” is as simple as “motor control.” Stability is simply how well you can control your spine and limbs in space. That may be easier said than done, which is why we love focusing on it at MFF.
An exercise like the deadbug can allow you to really focus on connecting your hips to your rib cage, stabilizing the lumbar spine that’s between them. This serves as another refresher on spinal stability, and reinforces what Shirley Sahrrman calls “relative stiffness.” If you’re stiffer in your midsection than you are in your hips, the movement will come from your hips rather than your midsection. This is the balance between mobility and stability that I alluded to earlier.
If you’re currently pressed for time, or aren’t interested in creating your own warm-up series, these are currently my favorite exercises to include. Practice each movement for 3-5 breaths per side, and tie them together at the end with some powerful skipping to get ready to nail your workout, whether you’re inside the gym or exploring the great world outside of it!