Why you shouldn’t skip the warm up

Originally written for www.stuff.co.nz, published 22 June 2015

flexibilityWe know we’re supposed to warm up and cool down before and after exercise, but who does it anyway, what should we do and does it make any difference? Well, it all depends on how you do it.

A good warm up targeted to the activity you’re about to do has a multitude of benefits:

  • Increasing body temperature and muscle elasticity, reducing the potential for muscle and connective tissue injury
  • Increasing blood flow and delivery of nutrients to the exercising muscles
  • Speeding up the flow of nerve impulses, getting your brain working, improving your reflexes and telling your muscles to get ready for action
  • Allowing blood vessels to dilate, reducing resistance to blood flow in preparation for the increased demands for blood and oxygen and reducing stress on the heart

The research shows that static stretching, the kind where you stick your leg up on a bench and hold for a minute or two (as we were told to do in the 80s), is not recommended as a warm up as stretching ‘cold’ muscles in this way can cause injury.

Many studies also demonstrate how it reduces strength and power output (which is not helpful if you’re in the gym to build strength or about to take to the field for a game of football or rugby). Save the static stretching for your cool down after exercise.

Instead of static stretching to warm up, consider incorporating the following:

  • dynamic stretching, that is, slow controlled movement through a range of motion
  • games that move you multi-directionally, upregulate your reflexes and are fun, especially if you’re working out with others
  • mobility drills which can be similar to dynamic stretching but focus on getting more movement in the major mobile joints – the ankle, hip and thorax – and the surrounding connective tissue. Examples include leg swings forward and back and across your body to open the hip area, and work with foam rollers and resistance bands. Yoga sequences like sun salutations can also be used as a mobility warm up.
  • fascial freeing which concentrates on moving the layers of connective tissue in a ‘glued up’ or restricted area – mainly in the ankle, hip and thorax. Fascial freeing involves taking bony sections of the body like the hip bone and the ribs and applying subtle traction and pressure to the area in all directions, encouraging the fascia to move, hydrate and separate. This can be done manually or with a foam roller, ball or other tools. Fascial freeing done well will provide instant increased range of movement.

Take into account any muscle weaknesses that may affect your performance and gradually raise your heart rate and body temperature.

For example, if you know activating your butt muscles before you run helps to alleviate knee pain, a few butt activation exercises, some light running drills and a slow jog to raise your heart rate before you settle into your running pace is useful.

If you’re doing upper body strength work in the gym, working on some thorax mobility drills, dynamic upper body stretches and a few warm up sets on your chosen upper body exercise before getting into your weights will be more relevant than sitting on a bike for 10min because although that gets your heart rate up, it will not prepare your upper body for what’s coming next.

The amount of time you spend warming up really depends on how much time you have available, the intensity and complexity of the activity you’re about to do. At a bare minimum, five minutes should do it, but if you’re going to be challenging your body quite intensely, a longer warm up would be better.

All in all, the better you warm up, the more you’ll get from your workout, so it’s worth investing the time.