Optimizing Your Pre-Training Routine: The Five Stages of PTR

TAGS: RNT, reactive neuromuscular training, Proprioceptors, Creating Space, PTR, Pre-Training Routine, Jason Colley, tension, Core Stabilization, stress


Often overlooked, underutilized, and beyond powerful, the warm-up and pre-habilitation phase can be a mighty tool — or be a destructive one depending on how you use it. Pretty much like anything else, what you put into it is what you get out of it. It’s not fun, quite boring, and often becomes the first thing that is removed when crunched for time. The fact of the matter is it should never be removed. When emphasized and closely scrutinized, it makes a difference if you know how to use it. Let me tell you how.


Your training should be divided into phases. If it’s not, please start reading the articles on elitefts.com and understand the importance of it. This is no difference when developing and implementing your pre-training routine. For the remainder of this article, we will refer to the warm-up and pre-habilitation phase as your Pre-Training Routine or “PTR” for short, solely because I don't want to type the damn words out a million times. The sequencing and staging of your PTR is key. The exercises work synergistically, and their individual effectiveness is secondary to their combined effect. In the first article of this series, we will discuss the stages of your PTR, their individual and combined importance, and how to structure them for optimal training. The next article will dive into exercise selection, progression and regression, and modifications when pressed for time or injured.

Stage 1: Switching the Nervous System

Stress is a killer. It is beyond the scope of this article to go into the specifics of what stress does to the human body but here are just a few highlights and how they affect training. Increased cortisol levels...

  • increase protein-mobilizing (breakdown of protein into amino acids).
  • promote fat synthesis and storage.
  • increase appetite (cravings for carbohydrates).
  • disrupt normal hormone production.
  • alter immune system responses.
  • suppress the digestive system.
  • alter regions of the brain that affect mood and motivation.
  • lead to weight gain, memory, and concentration problems.

High levels of stress are predominantly common when your nervous system is constantly in a “fight or flight” response, also known as a sympathetic state. Powerlifting and bodybuilding are largely sympathetic due to their anaerobic state. The sympathetic state is part of the autonomic nervous system (ANS), which acts largely on an unconscious level and regulates bodily functions. The parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) is the second half of the autonomic nervous system, and it regulates your “rest and digest” mode. The PNS regulates muscle relaxation as well heart rate.

WATCH: Fixing Dave Tate — Programming the Six-Phase Dynamic Warm-Up Sequence

Ideally, we want to be in a dominant parasympathetic state pre-training. Unfortunately, as we walk into the gym we cannot consciously turn this part of our ANS on but we can decrease our sympathetic state creating a higher state of PNS activation. How do we do this? We breathe optimally with the diaphragmatic breathing techniques. Diaphragmatic breathing (or belly breathing) is the new craze. However, it has been around and taught for centuries. Only recently, (the last 10 to 20 years) have we discovered how this translates to optimal human performance and function. Diaphragmatic breathing is a technique that uses the diaphragm to increase space for the chest cavity to enlarge inferiorly (down), reducing the pressure in the lungs and chest. When the diaphragm relaxes and shifts back up, it pushes the air out of the lungs. Essentially, it is breathing that keeps your chest and upper extremities from rising. Chronic chest breathing can lead to a host of problems.

The diaphragm is not just a breathing muscle; it is also a core stabilizer that connects the obliques and abdominals. These muscles are essential to stabilizing your core under heavy loads. If this muscle is tight and chronically weakened or fatigued, there is no core stabilization. Belly breathing increases the strength of the diaphragm (over time), allows for optimal position of the rib cage when breathing, and helps connect the lower body to the upper body when working properly. When you’re under heavy loads, it is my opinion that trying to breath in your chest with a loaded bar leaves you in a poor position for upper body stabilization.

It is important to use this technique when progressing through the remainder of your PTR. This teaches the body that the movements being performed are not a threat and should be accepted, despite their difficulty level. Prescription of belly breathing should be done anywhere from three to five minutes pre-training and three to 10 minutes post-training.

Stage 2: Creating Space

Now that the nervous system is in a less stressed internal environment, we should be in a better physical position to alter joint range of motion (ROM) and increase our mobility. Muscles produce force by voluntary contraction. They are attached to bones via tendons and bone-to-bone via ligaments and are encased in fascia. When there is a decreased amount of space between joints there will be less force production. Proprioceptors are sensory receptors found predominantly in muscle, tendon, fascia, and joints. Using muscular contractions in certain positions will allow us to increase proprioception, allowing our body to make space between joints. As a result, movement capabilities increase and essentially lead to an easier squat, bench, or deadlift.

Joint angle, muscle length, and muscle tension are the most important factors when trying to signal information to the receptors. If this is done in a threatened state, the body will recognize that signal and keep you from a positive outcome. It is essential to use the breathing technique from above to normalize your body’s state and create a “nice” environment for changeCreating voluntary contractions in the shortened and lengthened positions of a joints ROM will have the greatest impact on your mobility and stability. Through active contract and relax contractions we can teach our joints to create space, therefore allowing easier movement.

The intensity of the contraction is essential. The more tension the better the signal. For this, 80% to 100% voluntary isometric muscle contractions will be used. Because the muscle contractions will most often be in a fully shortened or lengthened state, we will stick to isometric contractions. Isometric contractions offer high amounts of proprioception because we can elicit a high amount of tension without the fear of injury.

The skeletal muscle refractory period is extremely short (one to two milliseconds) which is why it is important to complete multiple rounds of the contract/relax contractions. It will take a higher number of contractions rather than length to increase joint ROM. You will eventually reach a wall in which you can no longer elicit an increase in joint ROM. At this point, it is now time to take that newly acquired ROM and own it. There are multiple ways in which we can do this, but the most effective way is full range of motion rotations.

Stage 3: The Suck Phase

If you are like 99.9% of powerlifters, bodybuilders, and dedicated strength enthusiasts, mobility and stability do not come easy, mainly because we tend to neglect it. The same holds true for your PTR that does for your main training: the more consistent you are, the better the results. That is why this portion of your PTR is something that you will do daily and not only on your training days. The reason for this is that the nervous system loves repetition. It feeds off consistency. The more it tolerates something in a controlled manner (i.e. your training) the more it will accept and adapt to it.

The purpose of Stage 3 is to own and express your new ROM via rotational movements. This means using your joints in a circumduction (circular) fashion. I’ve written about the importance of torque and how it is essential to producing force and power. More torque means more power which means more strength. Torque is most expressed through rotational force, not linear force. If you look at all the strongest joints in the body, not individual muscles, they are rotational joints or offer rotational forces. Power comes from the transverse plane (the rotating plane). We ineffectively lose the ability to produce force when we decrease our use of rotation (torque) at joints.

Each movement will consist of clockwise and counterclockwise rotations. Your goal is to own every inch of your newly acquired ROM acquired from Stage 1 and Stage 2. This is a feedback system, meaning if you send quality signals to the body via perfectly controlled movements and proper breathing, you will be able to increase your ROM. If not, you won't get the benefit. You must remember your long-term goals. That should be sustaining healthy long-term training. It’s for that reason you will do this every day like brushing your teeth, eating, and so forth. The difficulty with this stage will be different for each person, so you should regress and progress as needed. The more advanced you get, the more you need to challenge the rotational movement. You train it like you train anything else.

Bracing during these movements is essential. We need to ensure that our movement is coming from the joints we want, not elsewhere. So, in each exercise, depending on your progression, you will need to create a “block” to ensure you are not moving other body parts. This can be a wall if you're standing, a foam roller if you are on the ground, or even the ground itself depending on the movement. The point is, be creative in your use and understand the concept and you will make improvements.

Stage 4: Tension

To recap, in Stage 1 we started globally working with the nervous system by down-regulating the bad to up-regulate the good. Then we moved more locally down the chain to our joints in Stage 2. In Stage 3 we combined the two for a synergistic response. In Stage 4 we will focus on engaging the muscles through exercises via dynamic stability exercises. In addition, we are going to add external feedback techniques via band, chain, or external force. This will be used to ready our nervous system by forcing our muscles to work against force. This is also known as reactive neuromuscular training (RNT). It is used often in the rehabilitation of injured joints. In this case, it will be used to reinforce good loaded movement patterns with added stability regardless of injury. The external feedback produced will provide a response via mechanoreception (touch) that reinforces good patterns.

Below is an example of an RNT exercise used for teaching single-leg torque with a band. It teaches balance and stability on the single foot and leg, external torque at the hip, and good stability at the knee. The external force is the band driving into the knee. We want to resist the force by controlling the knee outward into the band. The added stability and neurological feedback from the band have a compound and synergistic effect. We will kill multiple birds with one stone.

With some movements the added use of stability (balance) negates the effectiveness because we lose tension. The exercises where you can create the most internal (IAP, torque) and external (band, chain, balance) tension while adding a small stability component will yield the best results. These exercises can be regressed and progressed based on need and performance. The point of these exercises is to prime unilateral movement and muscular activation. If we can be strong and stable on one limb we sure as shit can be strong(er) using two limbs.

These exercises should have some close resemblance of the main exercises (i.e. squat, bench, and deadlift). Fatigue is not the goal; stimulation is the goal. Sets and reps aren’t essential but aim to keep the repetitions low and the overall volume medium to high. This ensures that we limit the fatigue factor pre-training, that we ensure strong and efficient movement patterns, and that we can reproduce the training effect to produce long-term results. For bodybuilding or general strength training purposes, these will be broken down via movement defaults. Here is a list of common movement and training defaults:

General Strength Training MVMNT Movement Defaults

  • Knees caving in on a squat
  • Foot over-pronation in a single-leg stance (SLS)
  • Knee valgus in SLS
  • Elbow flare in bench press
  • Lateral side bending (opposite side) in overhead press
  • Hyperextension (in everything)

These are a few movement defaults that can be associated with neurological compensations, meaning the brain has sensed a threat of instability somewhere and has now added compensatory tightness to certain muscles or joints. Stage 4 of your PTR fixes that. It would be advisable to record and break down your training. For powerlifters, don't just focus on the big three. Your overall volume is low (in most phases) for the competition lifts, so technique and efficiency should be high. When you reach higher percentage training loads then the big three will reveal MVMNT defaults. Look at where most of your training volume is (supplemental and accessory exercises, five to eight reps) and look for training issues there. For all other individuals, the areas of improvement will be found at weak movements, exercises, or lagging body parts. Start there and work your way to finding defaults.

Stage 5: Clinger (Neural Correspondence) 

Sorry, every time I hear the term “Stage 5” it reminds me of Wedding Crashers. Stage 5 isn’t actually called the clinger stage, though it very well could be. Stage 5 is our neural correspondence phase. This phase allows us to combine high neural output similar to the main movement of the day. This has several physiological effects that benefit power output:

  • Stimulates neural contractile output (fast twitch fiber excitement)
  • Increases neural delivery (priming the nervous system)
  • Increases stretch reflex response (initiates motor unit recruitment)

These exercises will involve very low loads (10% to 30% of max) voluntary contraction for low repetitions over multiple sets (three to five). Think of it as 10% to 30% of your max weight for the day if attempting a max effort type movement. If you are not using some type of conjugate or concurrent type of training and have reps, take it based on your percentages for the day. These exercises will be high velocity, explosive-based movements. Plyometrics work best but not everyone will be able to complete them.

These movements will depend on several current training factors, including:

  • Age
  • Training age
  • Current injuries
  • General physical preparedness
  • Recovery capabilities

For example, a squatter on a max effort lower day working up to a 500-pound squat would use anywhere from 50 to 150 pounds. I would always recommend starting as low as possible to not elicit fatigue. If this is new, keep the volume low so you can progress and build up over time. The more neural drive you can create without fatigue the better. You can group the exercises into categories as well: push versus pull, vertical versus horizontal, triple extension lower body, triple extension upper body, neural corresponding core movements, etc. Whatever grouping you decide, be sure that it corresponds to the "main work” and power or strength portion of your training. This is different for powerlifting than for general strength training and bodybuilding.

So, there you have it, the five essential stages of an effective PTR. This by no means is how everyone should do it. However, for most of the training population, this will be plenty. Once you are accustomed to having a PTR it should take no more than 20 minutes. This general outline of a PTR does not consider individual rehabilitation needs. If you have an injury that needs mobilization, neural work, or stability and balance work, you can build that into the first four phases. Joint and neural work would go in phases one and two, and stability, balance, or muscle work in phase three and four. The next article in this series will go over exercise selection, progressions and regressions, and injury considerations for powerlifters, bodybuilders, and general strength training athletes. For any additional information, please contact JasonColley@PRSystemstherapy.com.


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