There’s nothing worse than pulling a muscle mid-way through a training session. It stops all progress and is counterintuitive to the reason we train! But how often have you seen someone walk into the gym, pick up the weights and start lifting…without doing a basic warm-up.
Things like that make me cringe. Why anyone would put their body, and potential progress, at risk is beyond me. Walking into the gym and lifting weights from the cold is the equivalent of starting a car and then driving at 100mph without letting the engine warm-up. It’s just not smart.
“The biggest mistake is to gloss over the warmup,” says Tony Gentilcore, CSCS, co-founder of Cressey Performance in Hudson, Massachusetts. “That does nothing to increase body temperature, increase neural activation, warm up the joints, or get the nerves ready to go.”
So, why is warming up important? Well, the best way to think of your muscles is as rubber bands. They only have so much give, and when you’ve been hunched over a desk all day the rubber bands will tighten and become rigid. Imagine, then, yanking that rubber band…. Hard. Before you know it the band is either pulled or ripped. Game over.
This highlights the benefits of stretching. Those rubber bands get loosened slowly meaning they can be used without fear of snapping or pulling.
Contrary to popular belief, static stretching might not be the best form of a warm-up. Some studies have suggested that static stretching (the type where you pull and hold a muscle into position) can overextend the muscle and zap it of energy, counterproductive to the aim of a warm-up.
It’s because of this dynamic stretching is the better option for a good warm-up. This type of warm-up won’t overextend the muscles, will prepare your muscles for the exercise you are about to complete, and improves blood circulation. All these lead to muscles that are fully engaged, loose, and warmed up, letting you perform each exercise with proper form.
A good dynamic warm-up only takes 5-10 minutes which isn’t much of 45–60 minutes work out and it will save you majors issues down the line. Dynamic stretching gets all the joints moving one at a time, then all together, taking the body through progressive movements that loosen and stretch your muscles. Classic dynamic moves include walking lunges, toe touches, and high knees.
There will be differences in each person’s warm-up (a bodybuilder would warm up differently from a marathon runner) but the general exercises will be the same. For endurance or cardio routines, research shows a dynamic approach, including dynamic stretching—active range of motion movements that tend to be similar to what you’ll do in your workout, can improve performance.
Every warm-up will be different, depending on your fitness level and the goal of your workout. But as a jumping-off point, start with these four basic goals for every warm-up, as outlined by the National Strength and Conditioning Association.
Warm your joints, muscles, and prep your body for exercise with mobility movements. If you’ve got one, now is also a great time for foam rolling. Start by rolling your back, then hit every section of the legs, glutes, and hip flexors.
Get your heart pumping
Increased heart-thumping warms up your muscles and switches on your nervous system. Jog, slowly row, or ride a bike on low resistance. Just be sure you’re able to converse with your workout buddy (or sing along to your Spotify playlist).
Do some dynamic stretches
Stretch your warm muscles, but don’t hold it. Remember: Static stretching during a warm-up can actually hinder your performance. Instead, do dynamic stretching, which involves continuously moving through a range of motion. For instance, you can make big arm circles in both directions, kick your legs forward, or simply touch your toes and then reach for the sky. The key is to not hold in any position.
Move through the exercises planned for that day’s workout at a lower intensity. Have a long, hard run ahead? Warm-up with a few technique drills. Back squats? Start with bodyweight squats or by holding an empty bar. Practicing the movement patterns teaches muscle memory (a.k.a. neuromuscular adaptation) and continues to prepare your body for action.