It’s tempting to skip the warm-up when you’re short on time and in a hurry to get to the “meat” of the workout. Don’t be so quick to jump into a workout without doing at least a brief warm-up. Warming up serves a number of useful purposes. Here’s why a good warm-up is important for your performance.
Warming Up May Reduce the Risk of Injury
Warming up may reduce your risk for a joint or muscle injury. Research in animals shows it takes more force to injure a “warmed up” muscle than one that wasn’t. Some, but not all, studies show that warming up before a workout prevents injury in humans too. Doing a warm-up before more intense exercise increases the length of the muscle. This enables it to accept more force without injury. It also enhances the elasticity of the muscles and tendons.
There seems to be more evidence that an active or aerobic-style warm-up, jogging in place, toe touches, etc., prevents more injuries than static stretching. Static stretching actually reduces the power output of the muscle for a period of time afterward. Stretching is best once the muscles are already warm – not before.
It Increases Oxygen Delivery to Muscles
When you do a warm-up, it sends blood flow to muscles. At the same time, your core body temperature rises. Because hemoglobin releases greater amounts of oxygen to muscle at higher core body temperatures, this sends more oxygen to muscles. This means your muscles can use aerobic metabolism to produce energy more quickly.
It Preps Your Nervous System for Exercise
When you do an active warm-up and your core body temperature rises, all body processes speed up including nerve impulses that stimulate muscle fibers to contract. This boosts communication between nerves and the muscle fibers they’re connecting too and prepares your muscles for more intense exercise. Warming up revs up your nervous system too.
It Preps Your Cardiovascular System
It may not be an issue for young people with a healthy heart, but sudden, intense exertion in people with undiagnosed heart disease increases the risk for irregular heart rhythms and heart attack. In one study, men who had no symptoms of heart disease did a 15 second intense run on a treadmill without warming up. Despite the fact that some of these men were physically fit, seven out of ten showed ECG changes suggestive of inadequate oxygen delivery to the heart. When the men with abnormal ECG tracings warmed up before the same run by jogging in place, most of them had normal ECG tracings. Based on this study, even a two-minute warm-up has benefits from a cardiovascular standpoint. Warming up allows blood flow to the heart to gradually increase and adjust to the demands of exercise. This improves blood pressure to exercise as well.
Warming Up Has Psychological Benefits
Let’s face it. It doesn’t FEEL good to exercise intensely with cold muscles. Warming up boosts blood flow so your muscles and joints are more pliable. Plus, warming up gives you a chance to adjust your mindset so you can focus on the task at hand. Doesn’t it feel better to transition into more intense exercise than to jump up off the couch and go full force?
What’s the Best Way to Warm Up?
Never start with static stretches. Dynamic warm-ups are the best. Do light aerobic exercise for five to ten minutes. Adjust your warm-up to the type of exercise you’ll be doing in your workout. If you’ll be doing a spin DVD, cycle at a low intensity during your warm-up. Jogging in place at an easy pace, lightly skipping rope, arm circles, walking lunges and leg kicks are all good dynamic moves to get you prepared for more intense exercise.
The type of warm-up you do should be somewhat sports specific – it should mimic some of the movements you’ll be doing in your workout. Once you’ve done a dynamic warm-up and your muscles are warm, it’s okay to do slow, relaxed static stretching – but avoid bouncing.
The Bottom Line?
A warm-up prepares you for the task ahead – mentally and physically. It may also reduce the risk of injury. Take time to do a dynamic warm-up. It’ll increase your core temperature, send more oxygen to your muscles, increase muscle pliability, wake up your nervous system and help you focus on the harder exercise to come.
Indian J Physiol Pharmacol. 1997 Apr;41(2):159-63.
J Strength Cond Res. 2010 Jan;24(1):140-8.
Sports Med. 2007;37(12):1089-99.
Exercise Physiology: Energy, Nutrition, and Human Performance. Fifth ed. McArdle, Katch, and Katch