How much attention do you pay to warming up before you exercise? If your honest answer is, “probably not enough” then you’re in good company. Many don’t warm-up at all. Those who do, often ride a bike for a few minutes and/or do a few quick stretches. This bare minimum approach to warming up does not sufficiently prepare the mind and body for the rigors of exercise. And, because cold muscles are more prone to injury when stretched, such a “warm-up” may actually cause an injury!
“I don’t have time,” “I don’t want to tire myself out for my workout,” “It’s boring,” and “I’m not really sure what to do” are many clients’ common reasons for not giving sufficient attention to their warm-up. Warming up is so important that if you don’t have time to do it properly, you don’t have time to work out that day, period. Just as the intensity of any exercise (weight, reps, sets, speed, distance, etc.) can and should be scaled to your level of fitness, so too should your warm-up. Your warm-up should increase your motivation, focus, and physical preparedness. If it leaves you too tired for your workout, it needs to be scaled back, but not omitted. Any routine can get boring, and a warm-up is no different. Alternating between two or three warm-ups on daily, weekly, or monthly basis will provide enough variety to maintain your motivation to incorporate it regularly into your training. Not sure what to do? Seek the help of a qualified fitness professional who can show you exactly how to create safe and effective warm-ups, tailored to your level of fitness.
Understanding some of the physiological and psychological effects of warming up will leave little doubt as to its benefits. A proper warm-up increases your body and tissue temperature, increases blood flow and oxygen to your muscles, elevates your heart rate, and improves the efficiency of your cardiovascular system to deliver nutrients and carry away waste products. It sharpens the ability of your nervous system to send, receive, and read nerve impulses. Your connective tissue and muscles will be more pliable, and you will be primed for action from the stimulation of enzymes and chemical reactions critical to the proper functioning of your body’s energy systems. Warming up will increase your work capacity, and decrease your chances of injury. It will improve your coordination, agility, balance, and reaction time. And, you will feel more focused, motivated, and determined. All from warming up properly!
So, that’s the why. Now for the what and how.
The nature of your warm-up will depend on your individual needs. Factors such as the temperature outside and the temperature of your workout environment, your age, the time of day, the amount of time since your last workout, and your level of soreness are all important considerations. The colder it is, the older you are, the earlier in the day it is, the longer it’s been since you last exercised, or the more stiff/sore you are, the more time you will need to spend warming up.
Your warm-up should consist of two parts: a general warm-up and a specific warm-up. A general warm-up uses a wide variety of actions to prepare the body as a whole for exercise, to increase muscle temperature, and to stimulate the right pre-exercise mood. This may include use of a stationary bike or elliptical machine, and exercises such as body weight squats, sit-ups, push-ups, dips, pull-ups, jumping jacks, jumping rope, dynamic stretching movements, and agility and balance drills, to name a few.
A specific warm-up relies on the actual exercises of the training session, performed at a reduced level of intensity initially, and progressing incrementally toward the intensity prescribed for the workout. For example, let’s say you were going to perform four sets of five repetitions of a standing dumbbell press with 20lb dumbbells. You could start with 5lb dumbbells and do one set of five repetitions, then increase to 8lb dumbbells and do 3 repetitions, than a set of 2 repetitions with 12lb dumbbells, and another set of 2 repetitions with 15lb dumbbells. This will not fatigue you, and your muscles will be ready to handle the prescribed amount of weight.
Perhaps you’re thinking that some of these warm-up exercises are beyond your capability. Keep in mind that every single exercise is scalable to your level of skill and fitness. Not able to do a push-up? Start with wall push-ups, progress to push-ups off the back of a sturdy chair, then to the floor on your knees, and finally to a regular unmodified push-up. The point here is that rather than forgoing certain exercises, learn the basic progressions (or work with a fitness professional willing and able to teach them to you) that will allow you to preserve the stimulus of a movement, but in modified form. Access to a wide variety of exercises will keep your workouts fresh and fun, which will help you to stay interested, motivated, and consistent with your training.
Alter, M.J. 2004. Science of Flexibility, 3rd Edition.
Patel, G. March, 2011. Crossfit Journal. Stretch for Optimum Performance – Before the WOD.
Starr, B. October, 2010. Crossfit Journal. Warming Up and Stretching: The Neglected Disciplines.