Warm ups can be confusing. You might have seen pro athletes doing strange and complex movements before a game. At the gym or local park you’ll notice some people stretch before workouts while others just get on with it. It helps performance and reduces injury risk but there’s so many different views and ways of going about it. So how can you best prepare for your workouts? Here’s 5 keys for making warm ups practical and effective.
1. Get warm
It’s called warm up for a reason. Muscles contract better when warm, they’re also more pliable (bendy!). Plus, it’s more comfortable to move with vigour when warm, you tend to feel aches and stiffness less. There’s been a trend to move away from static stretching in warm ups, partly because it doesn’t significantly increase body (& muscle) temperature. Often people will do many static stretches pre-activity and be too passive to actually warm up. You need a level of purposeful movement to get warm and of course you need to consider how warm you are beforehand. Obviously you don’t have to warm up as intensely when it’s hot. Conversely the cold may call for a longer, more thorough process.
2. Don’t go too hard
Although you need to move intensely enough to get warm, you don’t want to fatigue muscles and affect the actual workout. Keep each and every aspect of your warm up comfortable. No pain or burning in muscles. No shortness of, or gasping for, breath. Just aim to get blood and oxygen flowing around the body. Imagine you are turning muscles on, rather than wearing them out. If your workout intensity is going to be 7 or 8 out of 10, then your warm up should only be a 4 or 5. The reason isn't just physical either. Workouts can be daunting to start on. Being faced with something really tough straight away just makes it even tougher psychologically. Give yourself an easy option first up. It’ll allow your mind the chance to warm to exercise as well. Avoid making it too effortful.
3. Make it relevant to the exercise to follow
You don’t have to mimic the exact movements in the workout. At least though, give attention to the body parts involved. To prepare for a whole-body strength session you could do body weight squats and modified push ups or planks. This'll activate the large muscles of the legs and the shoulders, chest and arms. It'll move your body in a way similar to the strength exercises to follow. If preparing for sprinting, do some short runs at a comfortable but gradually increasing pace. You could add skipping, hopping and controlled jumping to that. When warming up for standard training jogs I simply jog at a slow pace to start and speed up over a few minutes till reaching the planned speed. You don’t get more specific or relevant than that! That may not seem particularly thorough or technical, but my body’s very familiar with it and it doesn’t take muscles through a big range. Jogging is also a consistent and metronomic action, meaning slim chance of doing something like a hamstring tear.
4. Keep it short & purposeful
Unless you’re getting ready for an Olympic event you don’t need a lengthy warm up. It’s not practical or necessary to spend 15 minutes warming up for 45 minutes of regular exercise. If you move swiftly from one exercise to the next it’ll help warm you. Aim to get it done in 3 to 4 minutes. As a client recently said after a 3 minute warm up, “It doesn’t take long to get warm.” In both personal training sessions and my own strength workouts, I use 3 different bodyweight exercises in non-stop circuit style twice. It ensures a few minutes of constant movement which activates muscles and, most critically, warms them. I often make it more time effective and functional by including a core stability exercise. If it’s something I’d do in the workout anyway, I can save a little time by having it in the warm up. It’ll then serve the dual purpose of warming up and developing specific muscle activation and control. It’s important though to ensure it’s not a high exertion exercise, nor done to fatigue.
5. Do dynamic stretches or movement & save static stretches for cool down
That is the most recent guide for which type of stretches to do when. Static stretching before exercise has been shown to offer little, if any, benefit for injury prevention or improved performance. There’s even suggestion it decreases strength and power. This is the type of stretching where a position is held for a period of time (usually longer than 10 seconds). It’s certainly useful, in particular for improved joint range and better artery function. These positive effects, however, mainly happen over the medium to long term. After exercise is the ideal time for static stretching as you're able to stretch warm muscles further. Regularly stretching as far as safely possible will improve your flexibility. Plus, it’ll give your heart rate, breathing rate and mind a chance to settle. Allowing a transition to whatever is next on your schedule for the day. Many people stretch post-workout in the belief it’ll help speed recovery and stop muscle soreness. There’s no real evidence for either unfortunately. All in all, though, post exercise stretching is still a worthwhile habit. Dynamic stretching is now advised in warm up. Some studies show it boosts strength, power and speed, while others show it doesn’t. In my view it’s worth including some in your warm up but it’s not essential before conventional, regular exercise. And don’t expect it to transform how your body performs. There's a couple a couple of simple dynamic stretches included in the suggestions for warming up below. As you'll see they're options amongst fundamental exercises such as squats, planks and push up holds.
Putting it altogether
Here’s a simple way of making your own brief but effective warm up. It's a tiny number of options amongst infinite possibilities. Choose 1 of these upper body exercises: *hold the top of a push up *hold a plank or side plank *swing your arms in circles backwards and forwards Choose a leg exercise: *Hold a squat halfway down (no weight) *Do body weight squats *Hold onto a fence or wall and swing 1 straight leg back and forward Choose a core or balance exercise: * Lie on back and hold a bridge position with feet on ground, knees bent & butt up * Lie on back, thighs vertical, knees @ 90 degrees, draw navel in, gently push hands against thighs while also gently pushing thighs against hands. Hold. Should feel abdominals contracting. * Stand on 1 leg and do small hops side to side Complete the 3 chosen exercises in continuous circuit twice. Do either 10 or 20 second holds or 10 or 20 reps, depending on what is a moderate intensity for you. If you don’t feel warm after the 2nd circuit do a 3rd. Ideally it'll have you feeling ready for action. Not necessarily loose- that can be a process that takes an entire workout, if you manage that sense at all. The breath will be a little quicker and you'll have a feeling that muscles have awoken. Give it a try, or incorporate other exercises you like or think will suit.
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