The Specific Warm-up: Adding Quality Reps to the Lifetime Rep Bank

By September 6, 2017Box Development

A few weeks ago we launched a blog series on the Importance of a Consistent Class Framework. Over the past few weeks, we’ve dropped posts on each component of a class that individually contribute to a great product for your affiliate (you can view them here and here).

In this post, we’ll talk about what is known as the specific warm-up.

The specific warm-up is the portion of the class that warms up the movements specific to the workout at hand. It sounds simple enough; you take athletes through some exercises that are in the workout. Not so fast. The specific warm-up is possibly the most critical part of a group class as it defines the potential for each athlete's success in the workout.

The specific warm-up portion of the group class serves to:

  • Warm the specific movements in the workout.
  • Provide structured time for athletes to practice and further understand movement patterns as well as accumulate good movements for their “lifetime rep bank” in an environment void of intensity.
  • Enable the coach to assess movement ability and use this visual as a mental benchmark for acceptable movement degradation in the workout.
  • Provide the coach time to coach and cue athletes to drive their ongoing development.
  • Utilize progressions to teach and refine the movement while simultaneously setting options for scaling.
  • Converse with athletes to check-in on desired scaling or work options and decide if appropriate given intended stimulus and athletic abilities.

Continuing with our workout example from the previous post, we’ll talk about elements that make for an effective warm-up using that workout as our point of reference.

12 minute AMRAP:
35 air squats
15 handstand push-ups
10 deadlifts (225/155)

Warm-up the Workout-Specific Movements

It should be evident that the specific warm-up should provide a thorough warm-up for the movements in the workout. This can take on a variety of formats depending on the movement. This portion of the class should be just as structured, organized, and detailed as the general warm-up. Athletes should be given a specific plan and then led through and held accountable for the execution of the specified warm-up.

Structured Practice and the Lifetime Rep Bank

CrossFit Roots has always held close the idea of “focused practice of basic skills.” The movements used in CrossFit should be learned, developed, and refined over time. While the workout provides one mechanism to improve, there are at least a solid 15 minutes in every class hour to provide a thorough, specific warm-up that prepares the athlete for the workout and drives long-term development.

We talk about long-term development a lot at Roots as we believe it drives health and longevity. We want to enable athletes to add quality reps to their “lifetime rep bank” within the course of every class. We believe this development needs to be structured and done under the watchful eye of a coach who will tweak, modify, and correct their movement. Left to their own devices, many athletes won’t put in the time here without a coach to guide them.

We want to enable athletes to add quality reps to their “lifetime rep bank” within the course of every class. We believe this development needs to be structured and done under the watchful eye of a coach who will tweak, modify, and correct their movement.

Part of the job of a coach is to help athletes do the things that they would otherwise skip over. An excellent example of this is specific warm-up sets. It’s easy for an athlete to throw some weight on the bar and “go for it” under intensity in the workout. Being held to working better positions and movement patterns is less fun - but done in the correct environment athletes will buy into this portion of the class as much as the workout as they see the athletes around them who have benefitted from their dedication to this time.

Compare the two examples below:

Example 1: Non-Structured Specific Warm-up

Coach: "We’re doing thrusters, take a few minutes to warm-up to the weight you want."
Athlete: Athlete throws some weight on the bar, often close to or at their workout weight, does 1-2 sets on their own and done - ready to workout coach!

In this example, the athlete has accumulated 5-10 reps of the movement.

Example 2: Structured and Coached Specific Warm-up

Coach: “Everyone grab a PVC pipe and an empty barbell.” Coach then cues athletes, rep by rep, through 1 set of 10 reps with PVC pipe and 2 sets of 10 reps with an empty barbell. Along the way, the coach is correcting athletes, modifying movement patterns, and ensuring that all athletes will have worked through 30 reps to practice and work hard in the positions.

Coach: “Let’s gather at the bumpers.” Coach then tells athletes how many sets and reps they will do to get to their working weight. It might sound like “Right now, take the next 8 minutes to work through 4 sets of 5 reps increasing to your working weight. As a guide, remember that you should be able to get 10 reps at a good clip and in a row, to do that weight in the workout.”

In the second example, the coach gives athletes a structure and additional guidelines to arrive at the right weight for them for the workout. By the end of example two, the athlete will have done 50 reps of the movement.

In this example, the athletes will have done 50 reps of the movement, compared to 5-10 reps in the first example.

Over the course of a year, if every time an athlete comes to the gym, they are getting 50 reps of structured practice and development of each movement, opposed to 10 reps, that amounts to a significant difference in athletic development!

For an athlete attending class 4 days per week, that makes for 10,400 reps compared to 2,080!

At Roots, our newest and most advanced athletes are bought into this because they have seen it work for their peers over the years. Athletes who once did not have handstand push-ups accumulated 1,000s of structured reps over a few years and voila! - they get their first handstand push-up during a specific warm-up.

Assess Movement Ability and Make Mental Benchmark for Workout

The specific warm-up provides the opportunity for the coach to watch athletes and assess movement. Continuing with our PVC pipe and empty barbell examples, the time spent here sets the standard for how the athlete is capable of moving.

If, with an empty barbell, an athlete can perform a front squat with a decidedly good front rack position and the weight in the heels, but by the 4th warm-up set with weight, the athlete’s front rack is falling apart and they are shifting to the toes out of the bottom, this is a clear signal that they need to go down in weight for the workout!

For the coach, setting a mental benchmark for how each athlete can move, helps to avoid an implosion in the workout in which the athlete, under intensity, exhibits a movement pattern that does not further athletic development.

Utilize Progressions

A good specific warm-up uses progression for movements to further understanding and development as well as provide structured teaching for scaled options. In many instances, especially for gymnastics movements, a detailed progression will entail the scaled options that some athletes will then use in the workout. For athletes who will not need to scale the movement this time is instrumental in their development as they are working to better their movement patterns.

Take our handstand push-up component of the workout.

The scaled options for this workout were:

  • Half the reps per round (7)
  • Piked from a box*
  • On knees on a box*

*Both options 2 and 3 can be done to a deficit if that specific option is easy and the next scaled option is not yet attainable.

Here’s the handstand push-up specific warm-up for this workout:
  • 3x:30 wall-facing handstand hold, rest 1 minute or less between. Bias to a good hollow position by lowering the vertical on the wall. For those not yet comfortable on wall, perform on a box.
  • 2x5 box handstand push-ups. To make more challenging, perform a 3 second lower. Coaches look for control on neck in lowers (i.e. no necks as pogo sticks)
  • 2x5 pike handstand push-ups on a box. Work with a spotter if needed or scale back to knees on a box with no pause if needed.
  • 2x5 as each athlete will do in the workout - if box or pike was easy but the next option is too difficult, add plates below hands and make a deficit.

In this example, all athletes will do each component of the warm-up. The level of difficulty is modified for each athlete but all are taken through the progression. For athletes that have handstand push-ups, this gives them the opportunity to develop and practice improved positioning and efficiency, and for athletes who do not yet have a handstand push-up, it allows them to accumulate more practice reps to one day be able to attain the skill.

Along the way, athletes are determining which scaling option they may use for the workout. At the end of this example, athletes will have spent 1:30 upside down as well as accumulated 30 reps of a handstand push-up.

While athletes are doing this, the coach has the time to assess movement patterns and gauge whether, based on what they see in the warm-up, the athlete will be able to accomplish their desired option in the workout.

Check-in on Scaling Options

The specific warm-up is a time for the coach to check-in and ask athletes which option they will pursue in the workout. It’s not uncommon for our coaches to walk around and ask each athlete which RX or scaled option they intend to do.

The progressions often help athletes identify the correct scaling option for them all on their own. By having to do many reps of a movement, they have information to decide if they will or will not be able to do the movement with the intended stimulus and time domain in the workout.

I often get the question - “what do you do if an athlete doesn’t want to scale and you know they should.” I honestly believe that the reason we rarely have this conversation is because of the common understanding of the goal of each workout paired with the “evidence” we collect in the movement-specific warm-ups. Whether it be ego-driven or an athlete who does not yet understand their limits, a structured progression is a highly useful tool to temper athletes.

If after 30 reps of handstand push-up practice an athlete cannot perform 5 on the wall, then it is clear that for this workout, they need to do them on the box. As a coach, you want to acknowledge that it’s great they can do a few, but for this workout, to get at the intended stimulus, they need to be able to do 7 in a row to do them on the wall in the workout.

All of this enables the coach to coach better during the workout. Their time is spent cuing better movement, directing pacing, pushing and pulling back - and not trying to find a new scaled option for athletes when they go after an overambitious movement option. Remember, the total intensity of an athlete staring at the handstand push-up wall after failing the last three reps is very low.

The big takeaway is that an adequate specific warm-up gives athletes more reps for their lifetime rep bank and provides a platform for coaches to improve their coaching capabilities. In the specific warm-up examples above, athletes will have worked through 80 reps of movement practice and development within the course of preparing for the workout. This number, over time, adds up to athletes who develop high-level skills simply by attending group class on a consistent basis. The 80 reps performed by the athlete are structured in a way that allows the coach to watch, cue, and correct their athletes while gaining detailed experience in coaching. The result is a win/win for both athlete and coach in this portion of the group class.

Download the full "Lessons for the Coaches at the Gym" eBook here.

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