The Basics of Warming Up

OnTheDouble Dutch at Golden Gardens

Jumping rope can be an effective cardio warm up. Double Dutch style optional.

Whether you’re lifting, doing endurance work or a little bit of everything, warming up before an intense exercise session is extremely important. Just a very basic warm up can cut your risk of injury by more than half, and they generally only take a few extra moments to complete.

Most people tend to understand that, and try to incorporate some kind of warm up into their routine. The problem is, most people never learn how to properly warm up. I often see people doing way too much, doing warm ups that prepare the wrong body parts for their routine or even doing things that just have no effect like sitting on a heater. In an effort to fix that, here are some of the basics of warming up properly.

The Goals of Warming Up

To understand how to warm up properly, you have to understand what you’re really trying to accomplish during the warm up. Despite its name, the goal of a warm up is not just to elevate your body temperature. Sure increasing temperature will provide a small increase in muscle elasticity but you’re still not going to be fully prepared for the exercise.

The real goals of warming up are increasing joint mobility and also preparing the necessary muscles for the specific exercise about to be performed. Both of these goals are in and of themselves directed at the single goal of maximizing performance on specific exercises.

Proper joint mobility can mean the difference between good form on a lift and bad, can save you from joint injuries and can even increase power output in lifts. The benefits of having the muscles prepped for the specific exercise are the same, more potential power output so you can lift heavier or run faster with less chance of injury.

How to Warm Up

A good warm up should hit both of these areas. Usually, because of the structure of most workouts, its best to begin with increasing joint mobility. How do we do that?

Dynamic Stretches

Dynamic stretches are stretches that are performed in a continuous controlled motion, not quick or bouncy. Some examples would be forward leg lefts, side leg lifts, arm rotations or side bends. The goal for the war up isn’t to do so much that you’re fatigued, but enough to work up to your full range of motion (ROM). A good general guideline is to do about four sets of twenty of repetitions for each stretch.

If you have a dynamic stretch routine that you perform every morning, then you probably won’t need quite as much and can get away with one or two sets of twenty as long as you’re hitting your full ROM. I like to do a quick full body dynamic stretch routine before each workout, both because I tend to prefer full body workouts and because I enjoy the flexibility benefits, however if you are focusing on one particular muscle group you can focus your stretching accordingly.

So why not static stretches?

Frequently you will see well-intentioned people doing only static stretches before a workout. If you don’t know the difference, a static stretch is what most people think of when you say stretching. Touching your toes and holding that position for 10 to 30 seconds is a good example, or sitting in a butterfly stretch. Static stretches are great, if you’re not about to exercise.

Static stretches, while they do increase range of motion, also decrease the potential force output of muscles – by up to 30% according to some studies. If you’re trying to get stronger or run longer you need your muscles at 100%, not 70%. Additionally going overboard on the static stretching pre-workout can push your joints past your normal ROM making them temporarily weaker and more susceptible to sprains and tears.

Muscle Preparation

Once you’ve completed your dynamic stretches, you can get down into the exercise specific portion of the warm up. The biggest mistakes I see here are people who think that any kind of moderate intensity physical activity is suitable for a warm up. It doesn’t work that way. It’ll definitely help a little, but not nearly as much as a proper warm up.

Your warm up movements must resemble your exercise movements.

The idea here is to prepare the specific muscles you’ll be needing. Twenty minutes jogging on the treadmill will warm up your cardiovascular system, but if you’re doing bench presses today it won’t help. For most strength training the solution is simple. Start with a set using just the bar, or the lightest available dumbbells / weight, then a set at around 30% your working weight, then a half set at 80%, then move on to do your prescribed number of sets at your total working weight.

Going running, warm up your legs with some bodyweight squats, lunges and calf raises – enough to feel it but not so much that it wears you out – then get your heart going with some moderate intensity cardio, maybe jumping jacks or light running. Depending on your fitness level, a circuit of 10 squats 10 lunges and 10 calf raises with no rest in-between might be intense enough to accomplish both.

Whatever you do, make sure to warm up the specific muscles you’ll be using in the workout.

Putting it Together

So with everything combined you’ll have a few rounds of dynamic stretches, followed by either a full body prep warm up if you’re going running or playing a sport, or individual warm up sets worked into each individual lift. In total, this shouldn’t add more than ten minutes to your workout, likely less. I think that’s a very small price to pay in order to not only perform substantially better, but to have a significantly lower risk of injury.

Do you have any other suggestions you’d like to add for people to incorporate into their warm ups? Share them with us in the comments!

Photo Credit: Bananajr

Adam is a former English teacher turned personal trainer and writer. He’s addicted to learning, parkour and martial arts. In addition to being a voracious bibliophile Adam’s fascinated by anything related to health, fitness and language. When not studying or training he can usually be found curled up with a good piece of fiction. You can e-mail Adam at Adam@RoadtoEpic.com