Updated: Sep 8, 2022
Before you start your workout, you should always complete a series of warm up exercises. Spending 5- to 10-minutes warming up prior to exercising can reduce injury risk. Furthermore, warm up exercises can also improve physical performance enabling you to get the most out of your training session.
Yet, though the warm up is the most important part of a workout, it is the most neglected.
In this article, you will discover some of the best warm up exercises. Also, you will learn how to warm up correctly and receive an all-purpose warm up plan.
But first, let us have a closer look at why we should do warm up exercises.
Benefits of warm up exercises
In his highly authoritative book, The Complete Guide to Stretching, Norris states that ‘before starting any exercise session, it is essential to warm up.’ He qualifies this emphatic statement with a few reasons why it is essential to warm up prior to an exercise.
The first and most important reason why we should begin every workout with a warm up is that it reduces injury risk. Further on in his outline of the importance and process of warming up, Norris cites research showing a strong link between warming up and reduced injury.
However, more interesting was the research conducted on the importance of the warm up to the cardiovascular system. In a study researchers recruited a group of trained men with no underlying heart problems and made them run at a high intensity for 10- to 15-seconds without first warming up. ‘In 70 per cent of these subjects, abnormal changes were seen on an electrocardiogram (ECG) machine,’(The Complete Guide to Stretching).
The abnormal change and irregularity of heartbeats suggested that insufficient blood was getting to the cardiac muscle. Also known as ischaemia, restricted blood flow to the heart impedes its ability to fuel the working muscles which impairs physical performance.
But interestingly, when the same subjects were put through a progressive warm-up prior to the vigorous run, the changes were either greatly reduced or completely absent.
And while erratic heart rhythm isn’t necessarily dangerous to healthy trained individuals, it is for those with underlying heart conditions or the elderly.
The purpose of warming up
A common misunderstanding is that completing warm up exercises decreases physical performance. But then it does seem logical that expending energy before exercising will limit the amount we have left for our workout.
However, if this were the case, then no professional sports person would participate in a warm up. Yet, if you’re a sports fan you’ve almost certainly seen athletes warming up prior to a contest or competition.
Tour de France cyclists dedicated 20-minutes or more to warming up before a 120-mile-long stage. Footballer players Fartlek up and down the side of the pitch in preparedness for substitutions. And boxers go a few rounds on the pads before entering the ring.
There’s a reason why athletes pay special attention to the warm up. As Watson reminds us in Physical Fitness & Athletic Performance, ‘A warm-up of an appropriate nature enhances physical performance by producing a number of physiological changes in the body.’ These changes include:
1. Rise in core and muscle temperatures
2. Enhanced neuromuscular function
3. Improved joint mobility
4. Increased muscle flexibility
5. Gradual rise in heart rate
Best warm up exercises #1: Rowing
Rowing on an ergo machine is one of the best warm up exercises you can do. The action of rowing engages two major muscle groups. When initiating the row stroke the big muscles of the legs are engaged – the quadriceps and glutes specifically.
After the legs have got you moving the muscles of the back take over as you transition to the second phase of the stroke. Rowing activates all the muscles of the back which include the erector spinae, latissimus dorsi, trapezius, rhomboids, and infraspinatus.
Finally, the arms conclude the stroke as you pull the paddle to your stomach. This final phase brings into play the biceps, forearms, and posterior deltoids.
But we’re not finished!
Rowing is a true whole-body exercise. In addition to engaging a score of skeletal muscles, it also stimulates the cardio-respiratory system. A 5- to 10-minute steady-paced row will warm up all the major muscle groups and get your rate up and blood circulating. It’s for these reasons that rowing is one of the best warm up exercises.
Related: Best Rowing Machine for the home gym
Best warm up exercises #2: Cross-trainer
The one limitation with rowing is that it can be uncomfortable for heavily pregnant women or people carrying excess weight around their stomachs. This fact was brought home when, while on a personal training course, I had to row 2000-metres with a prosthetic protruding pregnancy belly. Honestly, I was out of puff and in pain before I’d finished the first 500. And though this simulation may seem strange, the reason was quite sound – that being to teach prospective personal trainers how others experience exercise.
One simple, yet equally effective warm up exercise alternative to rowing is the cross-trainer. Performed in an upright position, the cross-trainer is a more suitable warm up exercise for those who find rowing uncomfortable. But, like rowing, it engages the major muscle groups of the legs and back.
Another attribute of the cross-trainer is that it is a non-impact exercise. This makes it perfect for beginners, the elderly, people who are overweight, and those carrying an injury.
Related: Best budget Cross-trainer for home workouts
Best warm-up exercises #3: Airdyne bike
The airdyne bike is an intermediate exercise between rowing and the cross-trainer – positionally speaking. As warm up exercises go, the airdyne bike is one of the best. The reason?
Like rowing and the cross-trainer, the airdyne bike engages all the major muscle groups. In fact, it recruits a wider range of muscles than rowing does. That’s because you can exert equal force when pushing and pulling the bike arms. By doing so you can activate both posterior and anterior upper body muscles – such as the chest (pectorals) and shoulders (anterior deltoids). These are two muscle groups that remain relatively inactive when rowing.
Related: Need an Airdyne Bike?
Another attribute of the airdyne bike is that you have the option of focusing exertion more on either the upper or lower body. This enables you to tailor your warm up to suit your workout. For example, if you were going to complete this Upper Body Resistance Workout, you could engage the arms more throughout your warm up.
There’s just one limitation with the airdyne bike, which has absolutely nothing to do with the exercise. Unfortunately, few gyms feature this highly functional piece of exercise equipment. Unless you train at a CrossFit gym it’s unlikely that you’ll get to use an airdyne bike. However, as this review shows, quality budget airdyne bikes can be bought for the home gym.
Related: Try these 21 CrossFit Workouts
Best warm up exercises #4: Cycling
Of the three warm up exercises outlined so far, cycling (or running) is the least effective. Perhaps a better description would be that cycling stimulates a more specific range of muscles.
Cycling, as with running, primarily engages the lower body muscles – glutes, quads, hamstring, and calves. It also activates the cardio-respiratory system, but only if sufficient exertion is applied for extensive periods.
The limited scope of muscle engagement is perfectly acceptable so long as it aligns with your workout and training objective. For example, if you pit yourself against this Lower Body Workout, a 10-minute progressive intensity cycle would adequately prepare the muscles.
But, cycling would not be a suitable warm up exercise if you were going to complete a Full Body Kettlebell Circuit.
All-purpose warm up routine
Now that we’ve considered four warm up exercises, it’s time to turn our attention to the process of warming up. What follows is an all-purpose warm up routine that you can use for your workouts.
The routine observes well-established safe warm up principles. Simply stated, the warm up activity is scheduled for 5-minutes over which time the intensity progressively rises. This is one of the most important aspects of any warm up: the intensity level must gradually increase. If it doesn’t the warm up will fail to raise core body and muscle temperatures (see Watson’s list above).
The second most important aspect of the warm up is that the exercises selected should reflect those that feature in the main session. By this it is meant that, if you are going to complete a whole-body circuit, then your warm up should prepare the whole body. For such a workout cycling and running would be suboptimal warm up exercises as they primarily engage the legs. Rowing, the cross-trainer and airdyne bike are all suitable warm up exercises for circuits and functional workouts.
5 minute warm up routine
Phase 1: Relaxed rowing pace for 1-minute (equivalent to walking)
Phase 2: Raise intensity and sustain for 2-minutes (equivalent to jogging)
Phase 3: Raise intensity and sustain for a further 2-minutes (equivalent to running)
Repeat if you do not feel adequately warmed up. However, if you do repeat start at Phase 2, then progress back up to Phase 3. Extend the final phase by 1-minute.
Warm-up exercise FAQ
What’s the best cardio warm up exercises?
For the reasons outlined above, the two best cardio warm up exercises are rowing and the airdyne bike. These cardio exercises activate the major muscle groups while also stimulating the heart and lungs (cardio-respiratory system).
In addition, rowing and airdyne cycling quickly raise muscle and core temperature. Which is the primary purpose of warming up.
Can warm up exercises include resistance?
Yes, body weight and resistance exercises can be included within a warm up. However, that yes comes with a couple of stipulations. The first stipulation is that resistance exercises should be performed towards the end of your warm up.
Once you have raised muscle and core temperature, after 5- to 7-minutes of cycling on the airdyne bike, you can start the resistance exercises. This leads nicely to stipulation two. And that is, the resistance exercises should be low intensity – i.e. low weights and low reps.
What are good warm-up exercises?
Any cardio exercise is good to include within your warm-up. Cardio exercises that engage the lower and upper body are best. Also, body weight exercises and light resistance movements are good to use as part of a whole-body warm-up. But here's a list of 12 good warm-up exercises.
Warm-up exercises list
Kettlebell under the leg pass
Medicine ball slams
Power bag heaves
Related: Check out the best Circuit Training Exercises