Okay, so we all know that we should warm up before exercise, right? Remember the 10 minutes before kick-off at school or little league sports. When we all stood around and stretched our hamstrings, quads, and calf muscles? Maybe kicked or threw a ball a little and then got straight into it.
Or maybe the first time we went to the gym? We walked 5 minutes on the treadmill, swung our arms round our shoulders as we went. Then got stuck into our work out?
Most people have moved on from this as their fitness routines have progressed. But did you know there are still many people that work out regularly, that are still not making the most of their warm ups. Therefore not making the best of their work outs.
Hopefully on reading this we can help you understand if, why, and how your warm up needs to be adapted. Or maybe it doesn’t and you have it down already!
Why warm up before exercise?
Let’s start by laying out why we warm up before exercise. What are the benefits that we are gaining from not just diving straight into full-on exercise?
If we strip it back to the absolute basics there are 2 major reasons for preparing the body by warming up:
- Enhance our performance while we exercise
- Lower the risk of injury during our work out
How does a warm up do this, what does it do to our bodies?
Increases heart rate (steadily)
Have you dived straight into a physical activity and found within a short time you are out of breath and your heart is beating fast? Then after 5 to 10 minutes your breathing and heart rate have dropped although you have not reduced the intensity? This is because you started straight from resting heart rate. Therefore your body needed time to catch up.
It is better to place less stress on your heart with a pre exercise warm up. Get it ready by raising your heart rate gradually. Thereby giving your body time to adjust to the increased need for oxygen that you experience as you exercise.
5 to 10 minutes of light cardiovascular exercise will increase your heart rate gently. It will get the blood pumping around your body. Letting it adjust to the increased oxygen requirement.
Improves blood circulation
When you are sedentary the amount of blood that is flowing through your skeletal muscles is relatively low. With with many of the small blood vessels (capillaries) closed. It makes sense, why would your body be sending blood to muscles that are not working?
When you exercise the blood flow to your muscles increases and the capillaries open sending the blood deep into the tissues. This process takes around 10 minutes of exercise to get the maximum amount of blood flowing. Therefore increasing the level of oxygen and nutrients getting to your muscles, promoting improved performance.
As blood flow increases muscle temperature rises. At a higher temperature, the haemoglobin in your blood is able to release oxygen more readily. Not only do you benefit from more of the muscle receiving oxygenated blood, the oxygen in the blood is absorbed more readily. Again contributing to increased performance.
Lubricating the ligaments and tendons in your joints works a lot like oiling a hinge! When the level of blood flowing through them increases it has the effect of bringing the fluid that surrounds them to the correct consistency. This allows them to move more freely. Moving more freely allows for a greater range of motion as you exercise.
Part of the increased flexibility comes from the lubrication of joints mentioned above. But flexibility is also reliant on muscles as well as joints. A good warm up (we will discuss what makes warm up good later) will take muscles through the full range of motion gently. Before doing so under stress and/or loading. This stretches the muscle to the required length in anticipation of the movements that will be carried out later. Albeit later they will be carried out more quickly or with greater weight bearing, when you’re into the swing of your exercise routine.
Prepares body/brain for movements to come
Getting your brain and muscles ready for movements you are going to be making is very important. It will mean when you come to make the movements under the stress of weight bearing or intensity you have a greater ability to perfect technique and coordination. This in turn helps you reach your full potential. Whilst also decreasing the risk of injury that comes with poor technique.
What are the common mistakes that many people make?
Okay then, any of these sound familiar, do you, or do you see many people, do the following as part of an exercise warm up?!
- Static stretches
- Ballistic stretches
- Not preparing the entire body
- Failing to prepare the mind
- No warm up at all
Let’s look at these one by one
Stretching a muscle and holding it in position for 20-30 seconds. A static stretch has benefits, but these are benefits after a work out as part of a cool down, not a warm up. A static stretch lengthens a muscle but at the same time it relaxes it instead of activating it. Relaxing a muscle in preparation will not help performance, it can hinder it.
“Bouncing” movements in a stretched position trying to force a greater range of motion. Similar issues to static stretches, not suitable on cold muscles. Can force muscles to stretch further than they are ready to and actually increase occurrence of injuries.
Not preparing the entire body
So your going to carry out an exercise that focuses on your legs, you don’t warm up your upper body then? Lots of people do this, they think if they are focusing on one part of the body the other part can be left. However think about it, how many exercises really focus on just one body part and are not supported by other parts? For example, you are going to a spinning class, that’s just your legs, right? Wrong! There will be times when you will be using your upper body to bare some of your weight. Therefore you need to warm up and loosen wrists, neck, back and shoulders.
Not preparing the mind
There are two things in play here. Not having the concentration or self-discipline to push yourself to achieve your best. Also being distracted and using poor technique because you are not thinking. Mental preparation and visualising techniques can help you go that extra mile. To lift that extra 10 kg’s or push that final sprint at the end of your bike ride. If you are distracted because your mind is elsewhere it is easy to lose concentration. Leading to poor technique and injuring yourself.
No exercise warm up at all
It can be tempting not to warm up, especially if you are pressed for time. That is time that could be used to actually work out and achieve your goals, right? Well not warming up means not taking advantage of the benefits described above, heart rate, blood circulation, joint lubrication, flexibility, and mental preparedness. Remember if you are unable to exercise to your maximum, or an injury prevents you from exercise at all, then those goals are even further away.
Okay so now we know what not to do, what should we be doing?!
In a nutshell, your exercise warm up should be tailored to the specifics of the activity you are about to undertake. Therefore, we can’t give you a one size fits all answer to that question. We can give you the basic principles that will enable you to design your own warm up routine though. Specific to your exercises.
A proper warm up before exercise should include:
- Gentle cardio that brings the heart rate up steadily
- Dynamic stretches that increase blood flow to the muscles and lubricate the joints
- Simulation of specific movements you are going to make but at lower intensity
- Last 10 minutes, longer in a cold environment
Gentle cardio could be using something like an exercise bike or rowing machine at a low intensity, or a slow jog. Enough to get your heart beating, and breathing heavier, but not pushing yourself.
A dynamic stretching exercise warm up is basically moving your joints through a full range of motion with zero resistance. You use your muscles as you move and do not hold them in a steady (static) position. Examples of dynamic stretches include arm or leg swings, ankle or wrist rolls, and lunges.
Simulation of specific movements help prepare the brain to fire those same signals again. You will need to give it less thought once you start exercising. They also take muscles and joints through the range they will be going through in your work out (albeit at lower intensity). So you ensure they have the flexibility to carry out these movements safely and to your maximum.
Warm up before exercise for 10 minutes as a guide. You should be happy that you are feeling the benefits of the warm up before you finish. Such as increased heart rate and warm muscles. Don’t finish after 10 minutes if you are not ready. This time period is arbitrary, so don’t finish your warm up just because the time is up!
The wrap up…
We hope you have made it to the end of our guide. That reading it may have helped you in some small way to get the most from your exercise!
To recap the key takeaways are:
A good warm up before exercise helps you to achieve your best performance and lowers the risk of injury.
There are better ways than others to warm up before exercise. By avoiding common mistakes and following a few basic principles you can get the most from your warm up.