Coach’s Corner: Elements of a Group Class Warmup

📷:Thomasville CrossFit

Now that I’m a card carrying member of the “can’t roll out of bed and Fran” crowd (also known as the Master’s division), I have begun to value warmups more and more. While there’s definitely days when a few swings of the arms and legs will do it, warmups can be a valuable time for athletes to prep, learn & practice new skills, and receive coaching before the bar is heavy and/or the clock is ticking. Here are some elements I utilize, or at least consider, in every warmup.

Increase Body Temperature

First, you actually need to get people warm. This does a lot of things- it allows muscles and tendons to become more extensible, makes stretching muscles and tendons easier and more effective, decreases the incidence of muscle strains, increases blood flow/oxygen to muscle tissue, increases enzyme and metabolic activity, improves the efficiency of muscle contraction and activation of neural pathways.

This can be done in lots of ways- monostructural work is obviously good (rowing, running, etc.) but, as long as people are moving consistently, they will get warm. The classic “CrossFit Warmup” works great, or my favorite, a group of 3-5 movements for a few rounds. I like to brief those movements and then send athletes on their way for a set time period to do them, but they can be coach-led as well. The big thing to make sure if you are leading them is that you keep the tempo up- it’s easy as a coach to fill space with talking, announcements, etc, which actually blunts the efficacy of the warmup.

Joint Prep and/or Pattern Grooving

Warmups don’t have to be just doing the movements in a workout with no weight or an empty barbell. I base my warmups on the demands of the work my class is doing that day, paying special attention to movements that are high skill, challenging, or heavy. With those in mind, I will incorporate warmup movements that prep that joint, generally in a less extreme position.

I like to use movements that simplify complex movements or focus attention on the most important piece. For example, using kettlebell romanian deadlifts to warm up a deadlift by grooving the “hinge” pattern. Think of this as “same same but different”- the movement does not have to be exactly the same to help people get the salient points of things (in fact it’s generally helpful for it not to be.)

Adding in tempo or holds can help people really “feel” correct and safe positions, so I put that in a lot. The best guys in the game at this are ActiveLifeRX, give em a follow.

Movement/Skill/Strength Practice

A warmup can also be a valuable time to get some practice or strength development in. Larger sets of empty barbell overhead squats can help people practice the balance and position needed (and open up their shoulders and ankles!) Peppering in sets of strict push-ups or pull-ups can be a great strength developed for newer athletes and is still a good warmup and tendon health developed for more advanced athletes. Higher skill gymnastics movements, especially strict variants, benefit from consistent practice, so handstand holds, strict toes to bar, etc. all work well in a warmup segment.

Proportional to Workout

Warmups should be proportional to the workout following it, using the following adage: “A short workout needs a long warmup, a long workout needs a short warmup.” This makes sense to most coaches and works great for the hour long class template. For example, if Fran (short, ideally 8 minutes or less) is on the menu, spend a bunch of time getting warm, prepping wrists, shoulders, hips, and ankles, practicing thrusters and getting to the working weight, going over kipping pull-ups, etc. 3, 2, 1, Go should probably happen around the 30-40 minute mark of class!

Conversely, if the workout is Murph, maybe a bit of shoulder prep, an abbreviated round or two of the bodyweight movements, heck, the workout starts with a mile run- that’s not a bad warmup right there!

Keep that rule in mind when designing your warmups, and don’t be afraid to purposefully over or under program them.

Fun and Varied

It can be tough to not fall in the rut of running through the same warmup or variations on a theme every time. Try and mix up movements or templates to keep things fun and interesting- people will warm up with more intention if they are excited about it and it doesn’t feel like home work. Partner warmups, games, doing them EMOM or Tabata style, or even the dreaded “Bring Sally Up/Down” fiasco can all add a little teaspoon of sugar to the medicine. (I guess that means you are a jacked Mary Poppins?)

Where’s the Stretching and Foam Rolling?

You may have noticed I haven’t spend a lot of time on “mobz,” stretching, foam rolling, etc. I talked about it at length in our previous What, When, Why article, but soft tissue and mobility work tends to be very individual/specific, and prior to a workout can have detrimental effect. There is plenty of research about the downside of static stretching pre-workout, you can ask Mr. Google about it.

Further, the shoulder stretch that is just what MuscleBro Bob needs may actually create over-laxity and instability for someone who is already adequately mobile overhead. I save static stretching for post-workout, and if something seems especially useful for someone I tell them to remember it and do it pre-class. Same goes for foam rolling, etc.- in general people can handle that themselves and the benefits are debatable at best, so I empower people to do some self prep before class, and save valuable class time for what is going to have the biggest and broadest impact. That doesn’t mean I don’t do any stretchy type stuff- I love flow sequences, hip openers, etc. but I try and make sure people stay active and moving and not holding or relaxing in end-range- what Kelly Starrett calls “Dynamic Freestyling.”

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