The Right, and Wrong Way to Warm Up
Everyone knows that they should warm up before exercising, but few people are told exactly how. And even if you are, you might not have been told the right thing, as the proven method for warming up has changed significantly in recent years.
We now understand that the neural aspect of a warm up is just as important as the physical. “Waking up” muscles means more than just stretching their fibres and getting the blood flowing; you also need to prepare the connection between your brain and your muscles.
This has shifted the focus from simple stretches towards functional exercises which more closely resemble the exercise or activity that you are preparing for. A more practical warm up improves performance while also reducing the risk of injury.
How to warm up for exercise
A reliable rule of thumb when you’re warming up for exercise is to perform lower intensity versions of the exercises that you’re about to do, using lighter weights or simply your body weight. For example, if you’re about to do a bench press, do a few slow, controlled repetitions using only the bar before you load it up with your usual weights. Alternatively, you could do some body weight push ups.
Some exercises may require additional mobility warm ups to make sure that all structures involved in the exercise have been prepared. For example, if you intend on doing a squat we recommend that you work through your hip rotations to ensure that they don’t stiffen up under load. Or, if you’re doing any shoulder exercises in the gym or swinging a tennis racket, you should do rotational movements of your shoulder joint beforehand.
It’s recommended that you seek professional guidance on how to prepare and perform squats and shoulder exercises as both have a high risk of injury if you rush in or if your form is slightly off.
How to warm up for sport and activities
Functional warm ups become more complicated when preparing for a sport, as the number of structures involved, and the range of movements are massively increased over static exercises.
For example, when warming up for a game of football, you would want to start with some light jogging to kick your cardiovascular system into gear and start pumping blood through your muscles.
Then, as football is a leg-heavy sport, you would want to do some dynamic stretches such as kick outs, swings, lunges, calf raises and light squats.
Finally, you should get the ball involved, which is when you start doing passing and dribbling drills which prepare your body and mind for interacting with the ball.
For whatever sport or activity, you take part in, try to break down the movements you’re going to do into a series of functional warm ups, whether they’re tennis shots, golf swings or dance moves.
Why not just stretch?
Stretching is still the go-to warm up for many people, and you may still be taught it at your gym or sports club.
However, research has shown that static stretching – where you pull your body into position and hold for around 30 seconds – can decrease athletic performance.
This is because you can inadvertently over-lengthen muscles, which derive much of their power from tension. Stretch muscle fibres too much and they lose this tension, reducing their performance and increasing your risk of injury.
Functional warm ups do a much better job at preparing your muscles for whatever challenge you’re about to throw at them, without making them too loose.
Stretching does still have its uses. If you’re feeling stiff the day after exercise, stretching is a great way to loosen yourself back up again, and it is frequently used within our injury rehabilitation programmes.
Just don’t rely on stretching for warm ups if you want to get the most out of your exercise or activity.
Still feel lost? We can show you how to warm up
If you’re still not sure about the right way to warm up, we’re always happy to guide you through both warm ups and exercises so that you can achieve your fitness goals efficiently and safely.
MSc BSc MCSP HCPC MAACP
Musculoskeletal and Sports Physiotherapist