CrossFit is evolving. A few years ago, an hour of CrossFit meant a bodyweight-based warm-up followed by the Workout of the Day. Rinse and repeat. Today, most forward-thinking boxes include mobility, movement skills, strength work and metabolic conditioning in a single session. Forget “Cindy,” “Karen” and “Grace.” A modern CrossFit class taxes different energy systems and muscle-fiber types across multiple dynamic challenges in the same workout. What used to be a fun game of checkers has become a serious game of physical chess.
The metabolic, muscular and biomechanical demands of the average CrossFit class have escalated, but in many boxes and garage gyms, the warm-up has remained the same. An old-fashioned warm-up of three rounds of bodyweight exercises interspersed with some 400-meter jogs is the equivalent of the musclehead’s arm swing before hitting six sets of cable crossovers. It does little for the body and even less for the mind when it comes to preparing for intense training.
“I need my students to be prepared for whatever we’re going to be doing that day,” says Scott Paltos, CSCS, NASM-CPT, USAW, a former NFL player, competitive strongman athlete, a Regionals competitor and owner of Pump CrossFit & Performance in East Hanover, New Jersey. “I want them to get acclimated to our culture and get the attitude necessary to train. It’s not just about preparing them physically but preparing them mentally for what they have to do.”
A fully optimized warm-up increases the temperature of your muscles, alerts the central nervous system that certain movement patterns are in its near future, and puts your gray matter in a mode to focus on effort and achievement. It’s a holistic process of preparation that significantly increases your chance of hitting a strength PR or landing at the top of the whiteboard for the day.
Fix Your Approach
At Pump CrossFit & Performance, the preworkout ritual begins before the class even starts. Paltos has implemented a burpee penalty for anyone who isn’t early. If a member walks in at the very top of the hour for a 6 p.m. class, he owes 20 burpees — and five more for every minute after. Once the class begins, Paltos doesn’t even like to use the phrase “warm-up.”
“‘Preparing’ has that mental capacity,” Paltos says. “It’s what I need my people to be able to do. In my mind, ‘warming up’ is going through the motions.”
Get Your Head on Straight
For many athletes, a CrossFit class is a violent shift in mindset and scenery from the previous 30 minutes, which might involve sitting at a desk or — when it comes to a 6 a.m. workout — even being sound asleep. Recognize that it takes some effort to shake off the mental cobwebs and flip that intensity switch.
“The minute you enter the gym you need to be in a different mindset, and the warm-up is a great way to do that,” says Allison Truscheit, USAW, a nationally ranked weightlifter, Regionals competitor and co-owner of CrossFit Synapse in North Hollywood, California. “I really enjoy warm-ups that make you think a little bit, that are mentally stimulating.”
In order to get the bodies and brains of her athletes in sync, Truscheit likes to program agility skills into warm-ups. Obstacle courses, hurdles, speed ladders and box-jump variations keep her athletes focused and in the moment. They also warm up the ankles, which are often overlooked in preworkout preparation.
Use the Time Wisely
The ever-increasing demands of CrossFit are constantly pushing against the 60-minute constraint of the traditional class format. (Paltos and Truscheit say that their classes tend to run 75 minutes or more.) If improvement is the ultimate goal, there can be no wasted moments during a workout. A warm-up can’t be 20 minutes of mindless busywork if weaknesses are to be addressed. One solution is to combine skill work with the warm-up.
“We do a lot of the foundational components of gymnastics work, which begins with the core,” Truscheit says. “That means strict ring rows, strict ring dips, strict toes-to-bars. We do a lot of holds and negatives — handstand holds, kicking up into a handstand and balancing. We will do all the foundational components, as well: scap pulls, lat pulls and working on using the core in a lat pull in order to transition into the kip.”
Here’s an example: Instead of doing a sit-up as a warm-up or as your core work, perform hollow rocks instead. Holding that hollow-body position is good for handstands as well as extension and balance in any sort of gymnastics movement.
While many boxes claim to program with a strength bias, Pump CrossFit & Performance places an emphasis on strength development that is rarely matched by other affiliates. Their devotion to moving massive loads can be seen in the gear that’s stacked around the perimeter of the gym: 12 logs, 10 sets of farmer’s handles, 20 axles, eight prowlers, eight yokes and a monolift. Barbell-based strength work is the meat and potatoes of the class. Even the metabolic conditioning is designed as an accessory to the big lifts. For Paltos, who has competed in strongman and powerlifting, nothing prepares the body for a barbell like a barbell.
“In my mind, it’s all about practice reps,” Paltos says. “If we know our strength workout is going to be cleans, our guys begin by loading the bar with 135 pounds and the girls are putting 75 or 85 pounds on the bar. They’re going through their movement prep and movement skill with a load. One, that is the only thing that gets the nervous system ready, and two, it builds conditioning much faster than using an unloaded bar or a PVC pipe.”
If the crux of your workout is a met-con — say you’re doing a benchmark WOD — then a certain amount of specificity to the movements in the workout is required, as well. A dynamic warm-up should prepare the joints for anything that is to come, but the duration and intensity will depend on the WOD.
“For a sprint met-con like ‘Fran,’ you want to make sure your heart rate is up for a while so that it’s not a shock when you get there,” Truscheit says. “And you shouldn’t be cooled down before you start that workout. For a workout like ‘Murph,’ mobilization and dynamic stretching are more important. If you’re building up to a lift, you don’t want to do too much stretching. You want to keep everything dynamic and explosive. Your heart rate needs to be up slightly, but it doesn’t need to be sustained and elevated.”
In just the way the warm-up shouldn’t be mindless busywork for the athlete, that precious time shouldn’t be an opportunity for the coach to check emails either. The best coaches use the warm-up phase of the class to observe, interact and possibly pivot the training.
“As a coach, my job is to notice imbalances or holes in the programming and what my athletes are struggling with,” Truscheit says. “I use a lot of my warm-ups to focus on those weaknesses. If I notice they need more core work, I’ll add some core exercises to the warm-up. If they need more mobility, I’ll put some mobility in the warm-up. It’s my time to force them to do the things they need to do that they’re not doing on their own.”
Paltos has trained at more than 50 CrossFit affiliates and claims to have seen the very best and worst the community has to offer. He describes the worst coaches as the ones who state the exercises, start a timer and then come back in 10 minutes. The best ones are constantly engaging in one-on-one interactions. “I’m doing the warm-up with them, I’m talking to them, walking with them,” he says. “I’m trying to find where their mental range is for that day. I manipulate where they are every minute of their training. If I see that a person is feeling great and I think they can hit something heavy that day, I’ll ramp them up. Or if a person is not going to hit something heavy, I’ll tell them to back off and hit it a little smarter.”