You’re committed to a workout program, even though you have to squeeze exercise into a busy schedule. To save time, you skip the warm-up portion of your workout – the main set is more important anyway, right? Or perhaps you’re late to an exercise class, so you jump right in with what everyone is doing once you arrive. Is a warm-up really necessary? Absolutely…and here are some important reasons why – plus some suggestions for what constitutes a good warm-up.
A warm-up serves three basic purposes:
- To improve your performance during the primary activity
- To prevent injuries
- To prepare you mentally for the upcoming activity
When you’re relaxed, sitting in a chair or in your car, only about 15 to 20% of your total blood flow is going to your skeletal muscles. The tiny blood vessels within those muscles (called capillaries) are closed up tight at this point. But after 10 minutes or so of total body exercise during a warm-up, blood flow to your muscles revs up to 70% or more, and the capillaries open up.
As blood flow increases, so does muscle temperature. When muscles are warmer, the hemoglobin in your blood releases more oxygen. More oxygen available to working muscles means more energy production. Warmer muscles also contract and relax more quickly, so they work more efficiently. The result is better performance in any physical activity – from an abs workout to Zumba.
While scientific studies linking warming up with injury prevention are difficult to administer (who wants to be a test subject for what it takes to tear a muscle? Not me, thank you!) there are older studies on animals that determined that it takes much more force to injure a muscle that has gone through a warm-up than one that hasn’t. Anecdotally, it’s been commonly observed that serious muscle tears happen more often when muscles are cold, i.e. not warmed up. Warm muscles, with their greater blood flow and improved contraction/relaxation response, are simply less likely to tear or strain, especially when the primary exercise activity begins.
It’s important to “get your head in the game” before exercise – no matter what you are planning to do. Mental preparation can improve technique, skill, and coordination by getting you focused on what you’re about to do. Performing warm-up activities signals your brain that it’s time to get going. Especially when preparing for a challenging interval workout, or even a race, a mental warm-up gets your mind ready to endure discomfort. When the mind is ready, the body will follow. But if the mind is unwilling, physical performance will also be limited.
What Constitutes a Good Warm-up?
While there are no hard and fast rules for warming up, it’s recommended that the warm-up activities be correlated with the upcoming primary exercises. A time range of 10 to 20 minutes is commonly suggested, but it’s important to take into consideration your own fitness level and ability as well.
Interestingly, those with high fitness levels often need more time to warm up before high intensity workouts or short races. Those who are less conditioned may need less time, because heart rate increases more rapidly in response to activity.
An effective warm-up should begin with movements that slowly raise the heart rate to a rate of perceived exertion (RPE) of 5 or 6 out of 10. This could be brisk walking, knee lifts, jumping jacks, jump rope, etc. for about 5 minutes. Then perform muscle movements at lower intensities that mimic the upcoming activity. For example, a strength training warm-up could include some body weight squats, pushups from the knees, overhead side reaches, and diagonal lunges. A beginner runner warming up for a 3 mile run could perform form drills such as skips, butt-kicks and walking lunges, then start with run/walk intervals of 30 seconds to 1 minute.
If you arrive late to an exercise class already in progress, follow along with the group but keep the intensity down until your body is fully warmed up and prepared for the activity. Honestly, no one’s paying attention to what you’re doing…and if they are, they’ll respect you for your exercise savvy!
So be sure to include a warm-up before every exercise session, no matter what you plan to do, and you’ll get a more effective workout with a lower risk of injury.
Laurie Kelly, CPT, CES, is a Certified Personal Trainer and Corrective Exercise Specialist accredited by the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM). She works with clients one-on-one at their location to help them live healthy and active lives, and achieve their unique fitness goals. Contact her here or follow her blog at www.dragonfly-fitness.com.