Warming up: Structure, purpose and priotrity

When I suggest to my clients that they should jump on the rollers or do some activation work while I’m setting up at the beginning of a session I can bet my bottom dollar that nine times out of ten the following inevitably happens; they all go straight to foam rolling the Calves.
What’s wrong with that I hear you ask?
Well, nothing really. It kind of makes sense, starting from near the ground up.
The question you have to ask though is this; can it be that every one of those clients has issues with mobility in their ankles, bound up tight calves and an Achilles heel to match? Do they all have the same movement and mobility issues? Almost definitely not.
That’s not to say however that we wouldn’t all benefit from regularly rolling, stretching and massaging those tissues, far from it however when time is of the essence one must learn to prioritise.
Now, I am in no way slating my client’s efforts, I’m very proud of my clients and the progress they continue to make on a weekly basis. We’re seeing numbers on all their lifts heading north as well as movement quality improvements. Yeah, there’s the occasional minor niggle or set back but that’s all part of the learning process, right? You fall down, you get right back up again.
That’s what we try to do here, give our clients an education they can use for the rest of their lives, and that’s the motivation behind this article; to educate not only my clients but anyone and everyone who engages in physical activity confused about how to warm up.
Emphasising priority in your warm up:
This takes us back to my earlier point about rolling out the calves; Is it a priority with regards to the training you’re about to partake in? Is rolling out your calves essential to a session based around the deadlift and other pulling movements?
When it comes to foam rolling prior to training my personal opinion is that it should be used as a quick and vigorous roll out to increase blood flow, loosen you up and raise core temperature a bit.
If you have tissue or mobility issues they need to be addressed during specific recovery sessions, separate from your lifting sessions.
If you are addressing mobility issues during your recovery time but you still require some additional work pre-workout there are ways to bias some range of motion during your warm up.
For example, someone with shortened/tight heel cords may experience difficulty when trying to perform the squat and so spending some time mobilising the ankle joint (working it through its range of motion under light load such as body weight, ideally mimicking the position you’re about to train i.e. the squat position) prior to squatting could prove to be a valuable endeavour.
Structure and purpose:
Like I said earlier, your warm up should reflect the work you’re about to do during the main part of your training session. By implementing structure and purpose into your warm up you can drastically reduce the amount of time spent on your warm up and significantly increase its effectiveness.
Here’s how...

General dynamic/ Activation:
This part of your warm up need not last too long, it is after all, general. Meaning that the idea is to increase core temperature, ‘wake up’ or activate the muscles of the whole body and to promote synovial joint lubrication; synovial fluid is secreted into the joint space to reduce friction around the moving parts of the joint; The better lubricated your joints, the more efficient your movement will be and the less risk of damage to your joints.   
Example general dynamic warm up prior to deadlift/ push pull session

Specific /movement prep/build up:
In terms of importance, this part of the warm up could be considered the most important, that’s not to say that the other steps pale in significance but skipping a specific warm up could land you deep in it. Building up involves performing a certain number of sets of a given exercise (generally speaking this would be your first compound exercise) in preparation for your working sets. These sets would be performed with an increase in load with each set and a decrease in repetitions...
For example, let’s say I wanted to build up to 3 sets of 5 reps @140kg in the squat, my ‘build up’ might look like this;

The reason this portion of your warm up is so important is that it serves multiple purposes.
Firstly, including up to 8 ‘build up’ sets increases the amount of time you spend practicing your chosen lift, this means that your nervous system and musculature become more adept at performing their task which will result in increased performance output.
Secondly, these build up sets go a step further to stimulating synovial joint lubrication, importantly, in the specific area it is needed... in the above example, ankle, knee and hip joints.
Thirdly, moving explosively under relatively light loads allows you to activate and prime your neuromuscular system. Your neuromuscular system is a combination of the muscles of the body and the nerves supplying them.
And lastly but certainly not least, building up to your working set load has a far greater psychological effect than just jumping into a heavy set from zero.   
Sum up:

  • Think about what your priorities are within your warm up, with regards to the work you’re about to do as well as your individual movement/ mobility limitations.

  • Utilise recovery work outside of your workouts to get the maximum benefit from them and to reduce time spent before your workout.

  • Make sure your warm up has structure, purpose in relation to the lifts you intend to train.

  • Use ‘build up’ sets to prime your nervous system, enhance technique and give you a psychological edge when the load gets heavy.

I hope this goes some way to helping you out or clearing up some of the questions regarding warming up.
Note that this is the way I like to warm up; I find that organising my warm ups in this manner makes for an effective, efficient and safe training session. However it is by no means the be all and end all in terms of how to warm up, simply one suggestion.
Go lift stuff,