No warmup, no workout

warmupI’ve been having all sorts epiphanial moments of late, especially about my physical state and general approach to working out.

Epiphanial? Oh, I made that word up in a recent post; it’s a new adjective to describe those gut-wrenching pangs that accompany moments of sudden insight. (Hey, if Muggle and Blamestorming can make it in to the Oxford dictionary, so can epiphanial!)

One such moment followed a recent reading of an article on the The Most Common Workout Mistakes by Adam Bornstein:

“Five years ago if you looked at me you would have thought I was doing everything right in the gym. I was lean, you could see my abs, and I was a pretty strong guy for someone weighing 170-ish pounds.

But I was a mess. More accurately, I was a hurt, achy, mess—which is not a good combination when you’re still in your mid-to-late twenties.

When I look back, it’s easy to see the workout mistakes I was making. About every three months I would suffer some sort of injury or setback. And while I was training hard, the sessions were painful. My joints hurt. My strength increases were fewer and farther between, and in all honesty, my body just wasn’t changing that much.” — Adam Bornstein

The article goes on to talk of Adam’s own epiphanial moment when he took part in a pre-workout warm-up that left his heart pumping, face flushed, and body lathered in sweat! Most importantly, that same day, Adam went on to have one his best workouts in years, pain free, with no uncomfortable range of motion; he even set new PRs on lifts! Since that day, Adam has made the warmup an absolute priority in his workouts, and those of his clients:

“Just like that, my understanding of why warmups need to be performed was crystallized. The analogy I commonly use is to compare your unprepared muscles to a cold, frozen, rubber band. What happens to a frozen rubber band? It doesn’t work all that well and it can snap very easily. The same concept applies to your muscles” — Adam Bornstein

Until a week or so ago, this was me.

Oh sure, I’d jump on the treadmill for 5 mins occasionally, and I’d certainly flap and rotate my arms briskly… you know, to warm-up the shoulders. And fully warmed-up, I’d pile into a killer-hard work out… often in pain, and frequently leaving with an injury of one sort or another. This was a pattern I’d been following for 20+ years; no wonder I felt like hell!

Yet, on the outside, I look pretty good. I carry a little muscle, I am lean, I look … athletic even. But if ever looks could be deceiving…

I am sore; permanently sore. And not that good soreness from a workout prior or hard days labor; it’s that painful sore, where your body says, enough already. I hobble out of bed as if I were 70 years old in the morning, both achilles expressing their distain for my early rising. I open doors exclusively with my right arm at the moment, as my left elbow and forearm are in constant discomfort, assumedly from the repetitive pushing and pulling in the gym. I can’t cross my legs due to inflexibility in my hips, and my back ties-up constantly due to the misalignment of my lower spine. I have an epigastric hernia (from birth) that should really be fixed, if only to stop the aching reminder that leg-raises and weighted chins are probably not a great idea when you have a hole in your abdominal wall.

Could skipping a proper warmup be the problem?

Put it like this, the answer is almost certainly a resounding YES. But even if skipping a warmup is not THE problem, it’s certainly a huge contributing factor. Regardless, turn the question around; what bad thing happens if I DO warmup? Nothing. Nil. Nada. No bad thing can possibly happen, only good can come from warming up consistently before every workout.

If you still think warmups are pointless, think harder. For me, I’d simply been playing down the importance for all sorts of reasons.

The first of these was effectiveness. I wanted to get maximum results from my workouts, and that of course meant getting on with the prescribed exercises. The more time I could spend pushing hard on the workout, the better my results would be. Unfortunately, this is wrong on multiple levels.

For one, it’s incredibly shortsighted; focusing on each individual workout as being critical to results is a recipe for disaster. Improving any aspect of your health, fitness or well-being is a marathon, not a sprint, and requires a balanced, well-rounded and holistic approach to your training. One workout does not make the difference; being able to workout every week for a year makes the difference — something you can’t do when you are constantly injured!

Second, the warmup induces many physical changes in your body that prepare you for workout out, including:

  1. Increased blood flow to your muscles to prepare them for work
  2. Increased delivery of oxygen and nutrients to your muscles
  3. Increases your heart-rate gradually, avoiding a rapid increase in blood pressure
  4. Increased range of motion, minimizing the risk of soft tissue damage
  5. Increased blood/body temperature and sweating, priming the cooling system
  6. Opens neural pathways and prepares your body for [complex] movements
  7. Improved coordination and reaction times

… and the full list is longer than that!

The second reason I was skipping workouts was time, or more accurately, lack of time. Quite often, I would have literally just enough time to complete my workout before skipping a shower, throwing on my clothes and running for the bus to start the commute home. Again, when you factor in my [misguided] thoughts on effectiveness, there was clearly no room for a warmup — the benefits were in the working out. Wrong.

Working on the assumption of a 10 minute warmup (yes, that’s all it takes, folks), here’s a simple way to think about your time in the gym and how to apportion your time:

  • NEVER skip the warmup.
  • If you only have 10 minutes to workout, the warmup IS your workout.
  • If you only have 40 minutes to complete a 40 minute workout, you need to workout in 30 minutes.

To be clear, in case you missed it, never skip your warmup. If you really only have 15 minutes to hit the gym, make the warmup your workout. Your body will thank you for it and you’ll still be able to workout tomorrow — something you can’t be assured of if you walk into the gym and throw yourself into 15 minutes of hard activity. Also, if you can’t add the extra 10 minutes to your workout to cover the warmup, you need to make the time by reducing your prescribed sets and reps for the workout you had planned. It’s better to drop a set from each exercise than to skip the warmup.

Last week, I made a commitment to myself never to workout again without a proper warmup; something I stuck to in all four of my workouts this week. I am very black and white in my approach to decision making; I don’t say things like, “I’ll try a couple of warmups and see how it goes”. I make firm, binding decisions; contracts with myself.

If you don’t find it easy to make decisions this way, don’t fret, my good friend James Clear has all sorts of advice about how to make decisions that stick, forming new habits and inching out incremental improvements. Apologies in advance if you thought you had an excuse not to change your behavior. I also apologize if you find yourself spending hours reading James’ excellent blog. Actually, scratch both apologies. If you aren’t warming up, you need a behavior change, and any time spent reading James’ articles can only help make you a better person. In fact, you should be thanking me! You’re welcome.

Oh, and in case you didn’t actually click through to Adam’s article — you should; that’s where the warmup he recommends is detailed. I won’t list it here so that you HAVE to click through and discover the world according to Bornstein, a man very much committed to helping people live long, fulfilling and healthy lives.

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