If you’re like me, many of your learning experiences as an athlete or coach come, not when doing the same routine means and methods, but when doing something new and exciting that makes you reconsider everything you’ve been doing prior.
I often get these moments when working with Paul Cater down in Salinas, California. Paul has been the originator of quite a few ideas that I’ve taken into my own training fold. You may have read the article I wrote some time ago, “The Art of the Trail Run”, which talked about how taking a somewhat “ordinary” exercise experience and adding fun, challenge and a high reactionary demand could engage the nervous system to the point where power output is dramatically enhanced.
My latest trip to “The Alpha Project” didn’t disappoint at all in that regard. I walked in, a slightly weary traveler on the front end of my long weekend with my wife and 8 month old baby, and within 20 minutes of working out, had boosted my vertical a solid 5 inches, and ended by getting a really amazing workout in.
If only every day was like this!
I’ll admit, the older I get, the longer it takes me to warm up, but also, the older I get, the more I understand what it really means to warm up for maximal performance!
It’s funny, and I talk about this all the time, is that 99% of athletes out there will tell you that the best warmup for jumping (and I’ll just assume sprinting or similar feats of power) is playing pickup games of basketball.
Over the years, I’ve really enjoyed dissecting the game of basketball (or any other sport that relies on quickness, reaction and explosiveness… my personal PR in the standing vertical jump, 35.4” via the Just Jump, came right after a few games of racquetball), and what properties of play allow for such great potentiation for powerful movement.
Seeing just how well a sport, or a warmup with the qualities of a sport, gets you moving also helps us to gain a greater understanding of the human body, what makes it tick, and how “just getting stronger” (and warming up primarily with canned preparatory activities aimed at grooving movement patterns of barbell lifts) sells athletes far short of what they are capable on so many levels.
Many of these properties were engaged in when training with Paul a month ago. I’ll describe them to you today, in this piece on warming up and potentiation for maximal explosive power. Here are the warmup and potentiation qualities:
- Intensity, Presence, and “Vibe”
- Rhythmic Movements
- High Velocity Element
- High Recruitment Element
- Explosive Coordination Elements
1. Intensity – Presence – Vibe
The first thing you notice if you ever work out with Paul is the utter importance of the workout. You could call it intensity, but in reality, the workout is simply all there is in that moment. No conjuring of intensity required. There is no chatter about anything else in life, and the workout consumes what you are now doing.
“In the ultimate warmup (and workout), you are consumed by the process (the opposite of this would be sitting on the seated adductor machine while texting)”
By being fully present in the workout, with no cell phones, and outside distractions, or the virus-like chit-chat that pervades many a warm up and workout, you can fully realize what your body has to offer you. Music also helps here (but isn’t always a necessity), and we’ll get to this in just a bit.
If you asked Paul, he would probably just call this “vibe”. Csikszentmihalyi would call it FLOW. Whatever your background and vernacular, finding a gateway to complete engagement in the task at hand is a necessity.
2. Rhythmic movements
The next element of a truly powerful warm up is that of rhythm.
Watch the approach of an Olympic high, long, or triple jumper if you want to see rhythm and momentum in action. Sprints also rely heavily on rhythm, and when you fall out of the proper rhythm, such as through faulty acceleration patterns, it’s near impossible get it back later, in the top-end phase of the race (Ken Clark JFPP Episode 39).
Even endurance movements have a huge importance on rhythm. Dan Pfaff once told me an anecdote of a distance runner who PR’ed because she was running with a competitor who led her into an optimal rhythm.
Some of the best non-team sport warmups I’ve ever done have been with track and field hurdles, going through sequences of various rhythms. The explosive hurdle movements combines the crossed extensor reflex (hip extension with contralateral hip flexion) with rhythm… a deadly combination!
Below is an extremely simple, but effective “freestyle” hurdle drill I found that only requires one barrier, for those of you who don’t have full track hurdle access.
Perhaps even more important than rhythm’s effect on mechanics from a physical, biodynamic perspective (in terms of one stride’s in relation to another stride) is its effect on the brain. The brain “likes” rhythm and external “guidance” to movement, and research validates this.
According to a literature review by Rio(1) “Studies that have used external pacing, for example, with a metronome where the individual would contract concentrically and eccentrically to the sound of the metronome and complete these phases exactly as prescribed or follow a visual cue to match the pace of the contraction phases, have demonstrated increases in excitability in both skill (visuomotor tracking), or short-term resistance training”
Not only does this last statement describe the benefits of warming up (or training) to a beat, but also describes the fact that vision is a beneficial stimulus to the brain.
The team sport puzzle and its link to performance slowly unravels….
An easy way to add a rhythmic component to any warmup drill is to perform it to a metronome, or the beat of whatever music might be on (as long as that rhythm is appropriate to the speed of the exercise).
If I need more focus out of a group, I’ll throw a metronome in for their preparatory medicine ball work, or give them drills where they have to react to their partner’s movements. This also decreases conscious/volitional willpower.
Head to a track meet and watch athletes warm up while the music is on. Invariably, their sprint drills and basic movements tend to fall in line with the beat of whatever music is playing. This component, although easy to write off, helps sync the brain for performance.
You can even do this with light barbells, as was the direction Paul took our workout together (see video below). After all, who wants to do the same Javorek complex over and over in tedious fashion? That, and what are we warming up for? Optimally grooving that power-hang snatch we’re going to hit, or fully potentiating the athletic machine?
Granted, doing anything resembling “dancing” (since this is done to a rhythm) in the weightroom might be very off-putting to some, but (as Stuart McMillan recently spoke about) isn’t sprinting and jumping closer to dancing than weightlifting?
3. Fun, Challenging, Novel
Although rhythm may not dominate the pickup basketball game that offers high levels of potentiation, fun and challenge does.
Activities that offer challenge (and are therefore “fun” to athletes) will allow for both greater presence of mind in the workout, as well as a factor of excitement.
This excitement and fun helps to boost levels of dopamine in the brain, which in turn improves an athlete’s ability to express powerful movement. That feeling you get when you just “have no pop” on a given workout day? This is often due to lowered dopamine levels.
Fun can also involve an element of creativity. For our workout, Paul and I did a variety of “jump to throw” movements that went far beyond the typical battery common in track and field lore. As I hadn’t done these before, and was able to come up with some fun versions on the spot, it added to the total effect of the training.
Regarding creative or novel movement in physical preparation, Paul says “Physical preparation is filled with robots. A big part of the warmup is dismantling autopilot robotic controls.”
Finally, realize that new training exercises and environments also stimulate dopamine. In many models of training arrangement, it is deemed unwise to swap out training exercises regularly, since you won’t adapt strongly, and in the process you’ll make it difficult to see how an athlete reacts to training.
I would say that the warmup process is different, since it is simply being used to prepare the athlete for the “prime” training means. Thus, the warmup may be the best place for more diversity and exploration in the realm of exercise.
According to Paul, “Worksets are the unchanging 20% measurement of peak force and velocity”. In other words, only a small portion of the workout is the routine, measured and heavy-hitting barbell training.
Paul goes on to say “The rest of prep is varied, fun, rhythmic, creative, challenging. The cognitive function of adjusting to stress and stimulus, problem solving, and reordering are primary focuses are done quicker and with more far reaching effect, rather than the classical sports psyche of unchanging order.”
Of course, how novel you go depends on your need…. There are genetic markers predisposing some to higher needs for change than others. (My higher genetic need for novelty would make me a high responder to this training ideal).
4. Music – Vibe
If I’ve learned anything through working out with Paul, it’s that music can make a big difference in the overall effect of the workout. It offers massive assistance in being more present in the workout, improves energy, as well as having a great neurochemical effect on the brain, particularly the release of dopamine in the striatal system.
There are definitely sessions where music is contraindicated, particularly when the need for instruction and execution is of the highest importance, so music isn’t always the warmup/workout “go-to”, but it definitely helps.
Being mindful of the music that is highly stimulating to you or your athletes is an important factor of training.
5. High Recruitment
If you checked out my podcast with Boo Schexnayder (Just Fly Performance Podcast, Episode #17), you may have remembered him talking about how having volleyball players perform maximal sprints where they got up to top end speed, which potentiated and improved their vertical jump by several inches.
Boo also talked about how he would potentiate the “most important movement of the day” through plyometric means, specifically saying: “(In specific preparation) Whatever is the most critical training element of the day, I try to use other elements to set up potentiation for that”
If speed is the top priority in the workout, you can use plyometrics to “warm up” the athlete for sprinting.
Warming up is not just playing around with dynamic stretches and routine track-coach drills, but has many layers and levels, and is always done with the primary objective of the day in mind!
Maximal sprints, as well as plyometrics such as bounding, multi-jumps and various forms of hurdle hops, offer different forms of this “high recruitment”, which aids in subsequent training.
Heavy strength work or Olympic lifts also meets this demand on a slightly lower velocity end of things, but the reward is an access to a greater percentage of the motor pool (more fast-twitch fibers).
Know that the old “order” of fast to slow in a workout, in light of using potentiation, although effective, will eventually stall gains. This is why elite track coaches will swap the order of exercises: Speed > Plyo > Strength to Strength > Plyo > Speed, when gains from the traditional setup start to stall.
6. High Velocity and Coordination Demand
The final aspect of a great warmup combines several of the elements above, particularly that of recruitment and challenge. It is probably the closest you might get to “team sports” in the course of a warmup, without actually playing the sport (since track coaches everywhere are wary of the sprained ankle they are sure to get by continually warming their teams up with games…. I loved warming my team up with a quick game of ultimate Frisbee back in the day, but did eventually suffer a sprained ankle of my star high jumper in November.
Even so, I would still use games to warm up in off-season periods, and the methods listed in this article for training periods with competitions of consequence).
For those times where games might not be so prudent (which is many times, such as when you don’t want to get hurt, or when people are paying you to train their kids and you can’t validate just handing everyone a football and telling them to have at it), the utilization of high velocity work, such as throwing games, comes in handy.
There is a spectrum of human speeds, and for some reason, we tend to focus very heavily on the low end of things. Granted, the ability to apply coordinated forces against heavy resistances is key, but there are strong advantages to whipping light medicine balls, or even basketballs at a partner at lightning speed.
The following video gives an example of that type of speed (just not at a partner). Bonus points for grunting.
So there you have some ideas as to the framework of what makes a truly great warmup, or perhaps better termed: “creative movement and potentiation session”.
For some reason, with the filtering of “injury prevention” based warmups, the idea of getting potentiated for some hellacious feats of power and explosiveness got swept by the wayside. This article is designed to move the needle in the other direction, if even by only a small amount.
You clearly don’t have to use every idea in here to build a great warmup, and achieve higher performances, but just having a general knowledge of principles that dictate performance should give you a new level of awareness in turning out better athletes.
- Ebonie Rio, Tendon neuroplastic training: changing the way we think about tendon rehabilitation: a narrative review. British Journal of Sports Medicine Feb 2016
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