Everyone exercises for various reasons. Maybe your trying to bulk up, shed some unwanted weight, train for a specific sport or event, or just live a healthy lifestyle. Regardless of your goal, there is one thing that cannot be denied and that is the importance of a warm-up. Of course, it can get a bit confusing trying to figure out the best way to prepare yourself, both mentally and physically, for an upcoming training session. So, in this article you’ll learn all about why you should indeed perform a warm-up prior to exercise and the best way to warm-up, and some things you should avoid during a warm-up.
Why should you warm-up prior to exercises and training sessions?
When you warm up correctly prior to exercise several things happen that lead to a lower risk of injury as well as an increase in benefits from the training session ahead such as:
Better blood flow. Due to the closure of blood vessels while relaxed, various muscles only receive 15-20% blood flow. As we move our blood vessels begin to dilate, or become wider, allowing the heart to not work as hard to achieve better blood flow to muscles and other tissues throughout the body, leading to less risk of high blood pressure during exercise. After about 10-15 minutes of quality movement, blood flow begins to increase up to 70-75%, blood vessels begin to open, and the temperature of the skeletal muscle rises, which brings us to the second reason for warming up:
Increased body temperature. Contrary to belief, our muscles are not always fixed at 98.6 °F. Muscle temperature changes based on blood flow to the tissue. Think of your muscles prior to warming-up like a cold rubber band: if you try to stretch one rapidly, there is a good chance it will snap. The same is true for cold muscles. The increase in blood flow, brought on by vasodilatation, and temperature allows better muscle elasticity and makes achieving end ranges of motion easier. Oxygen also becomes more readily available for use by muscle tissue during this process, allowing for more efficient muscle contractions with less risk of strains and pulls.
Hormonal changes. During your warm-up the production of hormones in your body responsible for regulating energy, such as epinephrine, growth hormone, and testosterone (yes, even in ladies) is increased. This allows for energy sources such as carbohydrate and fatty acids to be more readily available for the body to burn during your training sessions.
Mental Focus. Your warm-up allows you time to clear your mind of all the distractions of life that may impede you from focusing on the task at hand: a quality training session. This may sound a bit more philosophical rather than physiological at first but take a moment to think about how complex some of the movements are that you perform in a typical training session. Many of these movements require exceptional amounts of agility, balance, and coordination, and can easily be compromised when appropriate focus is not provided.
How NOT to warm up
Just as it is important to know why a warm-up is important and how to warm-up properly, it is equally important to know what not to do for warm-up.
After understanding why you should warm-up it is easy to see that a major mistake and something to be avoided, is skipping over the warm-up all together and jumping right into a training session.
Static stretching. If you watch a high school soccer team warm-up for a game, chances are you’ll see some static stretching going on. This routine may involve holding the old butterfly stretch or basic hamstrings stretch for 20-30 seconds. Static stretching like this, or even a more physically demanding form such as yoga, is a great tool for stress management, encouraging relaxation, lowering blood pressure, and helping to improve mobility and flexibility. Stretching sessions and yoga are tools highly recommended for athletes on recovery days, as well as a cooling down the body after a hard training session. Shutting down muscles prior to exercises however, is not the way to warm-up. Many studies have shown that static stretching not only fails to reduce risk of injury, but also limits physical performance in any explosive activities such as running, jumping, and lifting by hampering the amount of force muscles are able to produce during activity.
Strategies for a proper warm-up
Using the rubber band analogy, muscles are always more pliable and durable at higher temperatures. Therefore, in order to make the following warm-up strategies even better, 5-10 minutes of light cardio, such as jogging or biking, prior to warming up will help your body better move through desired ranges of motion.
Joint mechanics. Most movement dysfunctions, such as the inability to reach full range of motion, is not due to tightness of muscles like commonly thought; but due to the inner workings of joints themselves (hips, shoulders, knees, elbows, ankles, wrists, spine). By dealing directly with joints and the capsules they are surrounded by we are better able to free up movement and create stability by keeping the joint from overstretching. To do this, you will often see us having athletes use resistance bands to do one of two things:
1. Pull joint surfaces apart, resetting the joint into a good position
2. Encourage movement through the joint capsule, restoring proper movement of the joint inside the capsule.
Self-myofascial release. Better known as foam rolling, this helps to increase blood flow and temperature to the area being addressed. Foam rolling also helps to restore function to the sliding surfaces between the skin, underlying tissues, and bone. This allows us to free up potential adhesions that may hinder functional movement patterns.
Corrective exercises. The first two categories can also fall under corrective exercises. These are individual low exertion exercises assigned to a person in order to enhance the quality of a specific movement pattern. By using the Functional Movement Screen, we are able to identify such dysfunctional patterns such as asymmetries and imbalances throughout the body and assign the appropriate corrective exercises. These are best preformed after addressing joint mechanics and sliding surfaces, in order to move fully through each corrective exercise.
Dynamic stretching. A contrast to the static stretching, dynamic stretching uses momentum to actively move through positions of end range of motion. Several studies have shown the benefits to performing a dynamic warm-up prior to exercise, such as improving injury resistance, strength and power output, and reaction time.
Picking the right dynamic exercises for a warm up can be tricky so here are 10 tried and true exercises you can use before training sessions and competition:
Toe touch and squat
Hip wheel and reach