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Warming up before a sporting event or tough workout has important benefits, including performance and injury prevention. There is a lot of debate about what makes a warm-up effective, though. Not all warm-up routines are created equal. Some are ineffective, while others might actually be a detriment to performance.
Before your next event, or a client’s, understand why you’re doing a warm-up and how to do it right to optimize performance.
The concept of warming up before a workout or athletic event is pretty simple. It becomes more complicated when you discuss the benefits, whether it’s really necessary, and how to do it.
Warming up simply means getting blood flowing to the muscles you’re about to engage. By doing so, you literally warm them up, elevating the muscle temperature, loosening them, and increasing range of motion. A warm-up period is typically 5 to 15 minutes of light activity before the main event.
For athletes, anything that can enhance performance before an event is important. But this isn’t the only reason you should be warming up, whether it’s before just another gym workout or a PR-busting 5k.
Going from zero to sprinting isn’t easy, but why? Because your muscles, joints, and other tissues simply aren’t ready for it. The primary, underlying goal of a warm-up is to prepare your body to run, jump, swim, lift, cycle, or do any other rigorous activity.
An effective warm-up raises the body temperature, increases range of motion in joints and muscles, encourages metabolic changes necessary for activity, and reduces stiffness in muscles. All of this gets you ready to engage in a sport or workout.
All of this preparation serves to help you perform better. Getting the oxygen flowing to your muscles, eliminating stiffness, and raising the temperature all make it easier for your body to get right into the exercise and to do it more effectively and efficiently.
Many studies have proven this, including one that found warm-ups improve nearly 80% of performance measurements. Another study of baseball players looked at upper body warm-ups and at-bat performance. The researchers found that warm-up swings and other dynamic movement patterns improved power and speed.
All the preparation of the body for activity improves performance, but it also reduces the risk of sports injuries. A paper that reviewed studies of warm-ups found that several strategies used together can prevent injury in athletes:
Sports-specific agility drills
Jumping into physical activity, especially rigorous, difficult activity, can lead to painfully stretched or torn ligaments, tendons, or muscles. A warm-up session essentially increase the stretching threshold of these tissues before they get damaged.
Will your performance suffer? It might. Essentially, you won’t be preparing your body for the event. The worst case scenario is that going directly into intense exercise will cause an injury. The best case scenario is that you won’t fulfill your potential.
Imagine you’re running a 10k race. You have been training to get a personal best time and feel really well prepared for it. Would you use the first mile of that competitive race to warm up your muscles? Of course not. You would be wasting that first mile. Warm up before the race so you’re ready to perform every mile of the 10k at your best.
What you do after a workout or event matters too. Here’s a good plan for your post-workout routine.
That warming up is important and beneficial is not often debated. What exercise scientists, athletes, coaches, and amateurs often debate endlessly is how best to warm up before an event or workout.
One of the more settled debates in warm-up strategies is about stretching. Gone are the days of doing a static stretch session before a workout or event. It’s not helpful, as it turns out.
Static stretching is when you stretch to the furthest point you can reach—touching your toes, for instance—and holding it there for a period of time.
Dynamic stretches are where it's at. A dynamic stretch is when you stretch the muscles while also going through a range of motion, like a twisting lunge or hip circles.
For a pre-event or workout warm-up, choose dynamic stretching. Static stretching might have some benefits post workout or at other times, but before getting active, it’s much more beneficial to get moving. In fact, static stretches before an event can actually decrease athletic performance.
Your dynamic warm up stretches should mimic the type of activity you’re about to do for the best results. If you’re getting ready for a race, warm up your hips, glutes, and legs with moving stretches. If you’re about to do some upper body strength training, focus on the arms, shoulders, chest, and back for your dynamic stretching routine.
Here’s an interesting strategy to try:
Perform a 10 to 15 minute warm-up targeted to your event or workout
Rest for a few minutes
Perform a higher-intensity two minute warm-up just before the event begins
According to a study of several warm-up strategies, this one produced the most explosive power for the athletes during their event.
Just as you wouldn’t jump right into your athletic event cold, you wouldn’t start out a warm-up at maximum intensity. Start slow and build up to more vigorous, challenging movements. This gives your muscles and joints a chance to get used to the movements.
Of course, it is possible to have too much of a good thing. Go too hard and too long, and you will wear yourself out before the event. You don’t want to get fatigued, just fired up.
Other mistakes you can make when warming up for a workout include:
Not matching the warm-up exercises to the activity you’re about to do
Not warming up for long enough or with enough intensity
Warming up too early before an event, which allows your muscles to cool down again
This session will get your client ready for a lot of different types of events or workouts. Adjust as necessary to hit the appropriate muscle groups. Aim for about 10 or 15 minutes for your warm-up and flexibility routine. Spend the first few minutes doing the activity at a gentle pace and intensity. For instance, kick the soccer ball around before a game or jog slowly before a race. Then, move into dynamic movements and stretches:
Walking Quad Pull for Quads and Hip Flexors: In a standing position, step forward with the right leg, bringing the weight into that leg. Flex the left knee, and bring the heel to the glute. Reach back with the left hand to hold the left foot and draw it toward the glute. Hold, then switch to stepping forward with the left leg.
Walking Knee Hugs for Hamstrings and Glutes: In a standing position, step forward with the right leg, bringing the weight into that leg. Draw the left knee to the chest. With both hands wrapped around the front of the knee, pull it toward the torso. Hold, release, then switch to stepping forward with the left leg.
Sagittal Plane Leg Swings: In a standing position, feet hip-width apart, shift the weight to the left. Lift the right foot and use momentum to swing the leg forward and back. Repeat 10-15 times then switch to the opposite leg.
Frontal Plane Leg Swings: Begin standing with feet hip-width apart. Shift weight to the left leg and lift the right foot. Abduct the right leg, bringing it out, then adduct it in allowing momentum to do most of the work.
Arm Circles for Shoulders, Chest, and Upper Back: Swing the arms in large and small circles to warm up the shoulders. This can be done unilaterally or bilaterally.
Standing Torso Twist for the Trunk: Begin with feet hip-width apart in a standing position. Bending the elbows to 90 degrees, actively rotate to the right and then to the left. Use caution to twist gently, protect the spine, and not exceed a comfortable range.
As an athlete or a personal trainer working with athletes at every level, it’s important to understand the benefits of warming up. If you want to boost performance and limit injuries, use effective, targeted, and dynamic warm-up routines for every game or training session.
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McGowan, C.J., Pyne, D.B., Thompson, K.G. et al. Warm-Up Strategies for Sport and Exercise: Mechanisms and Applications. Sports Med 45, 1523–1546 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-015-0376-x
Fradkin, A. J., Zazryn, T. R., & Smoliga, J. M. (2010). Effects of warming-up on physical performance: a systematic review with meta-analysis. Journal of strength and conditioning research, 24(1), 140–148. https://doi.org/10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181c643a0
McCrary JM, Ackermann BJ, Halaki MA systematic review of the effects of upper body warm-up on performance and injury. British Journal of Sports Medicine 2015;49:935-942.
Herman, K., Barton, C., Malliaras, P. et al. The effectiveness of neuromuscular warm-up strategies, that require no additional equipment, for preventing lower limb injuries during sports participation: a systematic review. BMC Med 10, 75 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1186/1741-7015-10-75
Silva, L.M., Neiva, H.P., Marques, M.C. et al. Effects of Warm-Up, Post-Warm-Up, and Re-Warm-Up Strategies on Explosive Efforts in Team Sports: A Systematic Review. Sports Med 48, 2285–2299 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-018-0958-5
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