It is essential to warm up before exercise, but there is a lot of disagreement about what should be included in a warm-up. Fortunately, research done over the last 10 to 15 years, has provided new insight into warming up. At this point, the specific physiological effects of different types of warm-ups are becoming clear and this article discusses recent findings and explains what you need to do to get all the benefits associated with warming up.
It is important to note that different people have different goals, exercise routines, etc., so they require different things in a warm-up. For instance, warming up for a challenging and high impact workout or athletic competition requires a more complete warm-up than going outside for a leisurely walk. This article focuses on demanding workouts or activities, but also provides suggestions for other situations.
This topic is inspired by a study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research1, where the authors examined numerous well-designed research studies and looked for similarities between the warm-ups that were most effective for preparing the body for activity and improving performance. Towards the end of the study, they nicely summed up the design of an effective warm-up by saying:
“Physical activity participants should therefore be encouraged to perform a period of aerobic exercise, followed by stretching, and ending with a period of activity similar to the event they are to perform before beginning any activity. These activities should focus on the body segments that will be used in the subsequent performance and should not be too intense in nature so as to fatigue the participant.1”
This study, points out the 3 different stages of a warm-up, which each play a specific role in preparing the body for the upcoming activity. Again, you may not need to incorporate all 3 stages, depending on your situation, but it’s worth knowing how each stage gets your body ready for activity.
The first stage of warm-up should be aerobic exercise (cardio) or any activity that elevates your heart rate and increases your body temperature without causing significant fatigue. This stage literally warms up your body and makes your muscles more elastic, increases blood flow, lubricates your joints, and reduces the risk of injury. It should always be the first stage, because it gets your body ready for the following stages.
The second stage is stretching and this stage is often the source of debate. The disagreements center on static stretching, which is the basic type of stretching, involving holding a muscle in a stretched position for a specific amount of time (typically 15-30 seconds). The main issue is whether or not static stretching decreases performance and should even be included in warm-ups.
Many studies have found that static stretching causes decreases in performance, especially when the stretches are held a long time or they are performed right before exercise or competition. However, studies have also shown that performing exercises after static stretching causes most or all of the performance decrements to disappear.
Therefore, stretching should always be the second stage. The first stage loosens your muscles so they stretch better and exercises in the third stage should get rid of performance problems that could result from static stretching.
It is important to note that static stretching is not the only type of stretching that can be used. Most knowledgeable fitness professionals now believe that dynamic stretching is a better form of stretching to use during warm-ups. Dynamic stretching involves performing exercises that move your muscles through their entire range of motion. This stretching is considered active as opposed to static stretching, which is considered passive.
Studies have found that active stretching before exercise either has no effect on performance or it may improve performance. On the other hand, static stretching has either has no effect on performance or can decrease in performance. This has led many fitness professionals to replace the static stretches with dynamic stretching during warm-up. However, static stretches are still a preferred method of stretching after exercise.
The final stage of warm-up is often referred to as specific or sport-specific exercises. This is where you perform movements or exercises that are technically similar to those used during your upcoming activity. Some examples include baseball players who perform throwing or bat swinging motions or powerlifters who perform light to moderate bench presses, squats, and deadlifts. The closer the movements are to those of the actual activity, the better effect they should have on performance.
One reason these exercises are the third stage is to negate any performance declines caused by static stretching, but that is not the only reason. The other primary reason is to increase neurological drive. In other words, performing exercises similar to those in your workout or competition better prepares the body to perform those specific movements and should improve performance from a neurological standpoint.
This information provides a good general description about what should be included in a comprehensive warm-up, but specific recommendations are more elusive. Factors like the ideal intensity and duration of each stage of warm-up have not been determined and they probably never will, because the ideal warm-up varies from person to person and activity to activity.
While there is not one specific warm-up to use in every situation, there are some general rules to help figure out the best warm-up for you. First, when your workout is challenging or you are going all out, such as during an athletic competition, you should spend more time warming up. Also, if your environment is cold, warm-up should be longer (particularly the first stage), because it takes your muscles longer to loosen up.
When it comes to stretching, you have different opinions, but if you have a routine that works for you, there is not much reason to change it. However, if you have aches, pain, or stiffness in specific muscles or joints, then you should spend more time stretching those areas both before and after your workout/competition. Regardless of the type of stretching you use. The most important thing is for your muscles to feel loose and easily moveable through their full range of motion.
As far as the specific exercises are concerned, they really depend on the activity you will perform. For example, a sprinter could include exercises/drills to help prepare for getting out of the blocks quickly or transitioning from a horizontal to vertical running position. You can also use specific exercises to work on technical aspects of the activity that need improvement.
When it comes to warming up, my best advice is to listen to your body and figure out what type of warm-up routine works best for you. Personally, I found that my performance during resistance training workouts always suffered when I did cardio during my warm-up, so I took it out. Instead, I perform more light weight resistance training exercises and various stretches, depending on how my muscles and joints feel.
The most important thing is to make sure you include some type of warm-up, because it will help you feel better and probably improve your performance as well. Skipping a warm-up will almost certainly increase your chance of injury and increase your post exercise aches and pains as well.
1. Fradkin, AJ, Zazyn, TR, and Smoliga, JM. Effects of Warming-up on Physical Performance: A Systematic Review With Meta-Analysis. J Strength Cond Res 24(1): 140-148, 2010.
Other source: 14 years of experience and education in health and fitness