You’ve likely heard it’s important to warm up before a workout—and it is—but why? What exactly should your warm up look like? How long should a warm up last? What are the best movements to do? Should you run, sweat, get your heart rate up? Should you walk, stretch, or work on joint mobility?
Anatomy of an effective warm up
As with most things in fitness, the topic of how to best warm up is hotly debated among experts. In the midst of varying opinions and endless anecdotal evidence, this article will help decipher some basic guidelines to follow, offering a simple roadmap to structuring your pre-workout warm ups.
Why warm up in the first place?
Warming up before working out serves to prepare your body (and mind) for what’s to come. It helps prevent injuries by raising your core body temperature and increasing blood flow to your muscles, and it even enhances your metabolism so your body’s energy systems can work more efficiently. Going into an intense workout without first properly preparing the body can be dangerous and put you at risk for soft tissue injuries. A proper warm up may even help mitigate post-workout soreness and stiff muscles.
Warm ups = literally warming up the body
A central goal of warming up is to raise the core temperature of the body, which includes elevating the heart rate and getting more blood circulating to your muscles in preparation for exercise. Your warm up might cause you to start to sweat, which is a good indication you’re getting prepared for what’s to come. However, make sure you’re saving some energy stores for the rest of your workout. In other words, don’t go too hard during your warm up. Getting in a few minutes of brisk walking, rowing, or cycling are a few ways to raise your core body temperature, but also shouldn’t make up the entirety of your warm up.
Static vs dynamic stretching
Traditionally, warm ups have also included lots of stretching. This conjures up flashbacks of junior high PE classes that started with lengthy stretches to all the major muscle groups before kids were made to run endless loops on the track. Stretching just seems like the thing you’re supposed to do before exercising, but does the research agree with this notion?
Before wading into a little bit of science, it’s important to make the distinction between static and dynamic stretching. Holding a stretch for a length of time is referred to as static stretching, whereas dynamic stretching refers to active movements that bring joints and muscles through a full range of motion (3). Looking at the science, there are some studies showing that static stretching can result in neural inhibition, causing muscles to relax and lengthen, thus decreasing their ability to produce force. Why is this important? Particularly when lifting weights, efficient force output from muscles increases performance, ultimately offering better strength and muscle gains. This means that static stretching before lifting weights can potentially cause a decrease in the ability to lift as heavy, therefore decreasing the ability to get stronger. Though there are many factors that can affect these outcomes, it’s safe to assume that before weight training sticking to dynamic stretches—rather than static stretches—may be a smarter training approach.
Most experts agree that it makes sense to warm up in ways that are similar to the movements you plan to execute during your workout. In other words, if you plan to squat, warming up with repetitions of light-weight or bodyweight squats is a good approach to getting the muscles ready for heavier loads or higher intensity. Essentially, engaging and “waking up” the major muscles you’ll be using during your workout is an efficient way to prime the body for movement without inflicting unnecessary fatigue (2). If your workout will focus on movements of the lower body (i.e. deadlifts or squats), warm up with dynamic stretches that activate the major muscles involved with those movements. Examples of dynamic stretches that target the lower body include: squats, lunges, glute bridges, hip circles, banded side steps, and monster walks, among many others.
Don’t forget to wake up your brain
Arguably, the most important reason to perform warm ups in the first place is to activate your central nervous system (CNS). This powerful system has a significant impact on the quality of your movements and your ability to recruit muscle fibers, so it’s a key player in performance in every activity (4). An activated CNS means a body has a better chance of performing movements with correct muscle recruitment patterns, decreasing the risk of injury and post-exercise soreness, and increasing the potential to get stronger. Explosive movements are a great way to activate the CNS, and include things like medicine ball slams or throws, kettlebell swings, or box jumps.
Bringing it all together
Now that you know some of the reasons to warm up, as well as some of the elements that should be included in your warm up, you might be wondering what an effective warm up actually looks like. Most people would benefit from implementing a warm up that looks something like the following:
A warm up should last about 10 minutes; long enough to raise your core temperature and allow time for a few dynamic and explosive movements, but not long enough to cause any unnecessary fatigue. Start your warm up with a few minutes of a general-movement activity, like brisk walking or rowing, to raise your heart rate and get your blood flowing. Once you’ve started to break a sweat, do some muscle-specific dynamic stretches to prime your body for the day’s workout. Depending on the movements you’re doing, perform several reps (8-12, for example) of each, for 2-3 rounds total. End your warm up with a couple of sets of explosive movements, like medicine ball slams, to activate your central nervous system. Once you’re warmed up, move on to your workout with the confidence that your body and mind are ready to go!
It’s imperative to note that every person has individual needs and limitations, and warming up doesn’t have a one-size-fits-all approach. Assuming you don’t have any major physical limitations or injuries, a warm up structured like the example above should be a sufficient approach to getting your body ready to workout. For a tailored warm up that suits your specific needs and goals, talk to your trainer for more information.
Author Elana Witt is a personal trainer at Hyatt Training. She believes all people possess the ability to get stronger and feel better, no matter where they’re starting from. Through learning correct, functional movements, she wants each of her clients to better understand their body and their capabilities while feeling empowered to achieve their goals. Elana is a NASM certified. Learn more about Elana, or get in touch with her by emailing us at Go@HyattTraining.com.
Hyatt Training is a collective of certified, enthusiastic and innovative personal trainers in Portland, Oregon. To read more fitness related posts like this one, follow this link.