The idea that you should warm up before exercise is common knowledge. Even if you don’t always warm up before a workout, you probably know that you should. What is less well understood is why a warm up is so important and how you should warm up before your next exercise session. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.
The main purpose of warm-up is to increase muscle temperature to enhance the activity of enzymes that produce energy during exercise, so your muscles are ready to go. Also, pre-exercise activity will increase blood flow to the muscles so more oxygen and other nutrients needed to make energy can be delivered. The elevated blood flow also removed wastes from the muscle, including lactate, a by-product of energy production during intense exercise that can contribute to fatigue.
It’s not all about performance, though. Warming up also increases blood flow to the heart which can help reduce the chance of developing chest pain or having a heart attack at the onset of strenuous exercise. This is especially important for people who may have heart disease.
A good warm up should include the muscle groups that will be used during exercise, so focusing on legs for walking, running, or cycling and arms for rowing or other upper body exercise. In sports, the warm-up should be specific to the movements in the game. For example, a basketball player may warm up by doing some running and jumping as well as practicing passing and shooting. For most of us, simply walking or jogging for 5-10 minutes at a light-to-moderate intensity is a good general warm up for most activities.
While some athletes can spend an hour or more preparing for a game or event, the warm-up shouldn’t be so long and strenuous that it depletes stored energy or causes fatigue. It should also be done shortly before an event so the benefits of the warmup are still present at the start. Athletes who warm up too long before an event can get “cold” and may need to warm up again before they compete.
Two controversial topics related to warm-up include stretching and injury prevention. First, despite what your high school gym teacher or coach told you, stretching alone is not a sufficient warm-up. Increasing range of motion through stretching and other exercises can be part of a warm up, but they should not be the only activity. Furthermore, stretching to improve muscle and joint flexibility should be done after the muscles are warm, either after a good warm-up or exercise session.
It is also widely believed that warming up can reduce the risk of injury during exercise. While that makes sense intuitively, there is no consensus in the research. This is likely because many injuries result from extreme muscle and joint overloading or contact with the ground or other athletes that no amount of stretching can prevent. The bottom line is that warming up probably does reduce the risk of injury at least a little, so it is still worth doing.
The benefits of warming up go beyond the physical. Recreational and competitive athletes get psychological benefits from warm up, including improved focus, motivation, and confidence. For team sports, warming up together can enhance team dynamics. Warming up can put you in the right mindset for your typical workout, whether that is a challenging session in the gym or a walk around your neighborhood.