In The Strength & Conditioning Bible, the author tells us that ‘warming up’ is the ‘most important part’ of any workout. Few exercisers realise this, but the warm up provides loads of benefits – from reduced injury risk to augmented motivation.
It’s for these reasons, and those outlined below, that the author of The Complete Guide To Sports Training states that you ‘should never start a workout without first warming up.’
Yet even though this essential training protocol is super-important, most fitness enthusiasts don’t warm-up prior to physical activity. ‘Skipping the warm-up,’ the author of The Royal Marines Training Manual tells us, ‘is the single most common mistake people make in physical training.’
And of the few that do warm-up, many fail to follow the correct process. A few light sets of dumbbell lateral raises or a two-minute brisk walk on the treadmill will not adequately prepare the body for exercise.
Trainers that skip the warm-up or pay lip service to the process put themselves at risk. This article aims to address the primary benefits that warming up can confer. In addition, an example of an effective warm-up has been provided. So, by the end of the article, you will:
Know four primary benefits of warming up
Understand how to structure an appropriate warm-up
Know the fundamental factors that all warm-ups should feature
Have a warm-up to try
Be able to develop your own workout-specific warm-ups
Why warm up before workout #1: Reduces injury risk
The single most important reason why we should warm up before a workout is that it reduces injury risk. A progressive intensity five to 10-minute warm-up raises the temperature of ‘soft tissues in preparation for the more intense work to come,’ (Personal Training).
Raising muscle temperature by ‘warming up properly,’ Arnold Schwarzenegger tells us, ‘helps to protect the body from becoming overstressed.’
This, he goes on to argue, ‘reduces the chance of injury’ by ‘preparing the body for the demands of heavy training,’ (Encyclopaedia of Modern Bodybuilding).
Related: How to reduce injury risk during exercise
A warm up increases ROM
Warming up soft tissues enhances their elasticity and with it the range of motion (ROM) they can move through. As well as enabling you to exploit the full potential of an exercise, an increase in ROM also reduces the risk of muscle pulls, strains, and tears.
A study outlined in The Complete Guide To Sports Training demonstrates the efficacy of warming up in reducing injury risk. Two groups of athletes were put through a sport-specific training programme. One program featured a structured progressive intensity warm-up (to be completed before every session) while the other featured no warm-up protocol.
Athletes that were required to warm-up prior to sports participation suffered far fewer injuries than those who went straight into training. The researchers concluded that a warm-up is an effective way to reduce exercise-related injuries.
Try this Running Warm Up
Why warm up before workout #2: Improves fitness performance
We’ve seen how warming up before exercise reduces injury risk. This is achieved through the increase in core and muscle temperature. The logic follows that warmer muscles are more flexible. And a greater degree of flexibility facilitates a greater range of motion (ROM).
These outcomes are beneficial for other reasons besides reducing injury. One of those reasons is improved training performance. But why do warmer muscles enhance physical performance.
For starters, warming up ‘improves the elasticity of the muscles, enabling them to work harder, more efficiently and for longer before they fatigue,’ (The Complete Guide To Strength Training).
In addition, training when our muscles are warm and supple serves to boost confidence. For example, it feels far safer sinking to 90 degrees during a squat with warm quads and a pliable pair of Achilles. The same can’t be said when our legs are cold and stiff.
By being able to transition through the full range of movement, we can maximise the effectiveness of the exercise. Going back to the squat again, lowering to 90 degrees recruits a broader range of muscle fibres than if we stopped at 45 degrees.
Warming up increases blood flow
Increasing blood flow helps to improve training performance because it provides the working muscles with an influx of oxygen. And oxygen, remember, is the primary fuel source that powers aerobic activity.
Muscles that have a ready supply of oxygenated blood can sustain higher levels of output for longer. (Hence the reason why some professional athletes train at altitude. Training at altitude ‘triggers the increased production of the hormone erythropoietin (EPO), encouraging the body to make more red blood cells to better transport the oxygen available,’ (World Athletics).)
In a restive state, the muscles only receive around 15 per cent of total blood supply. But, depending on the strenuousness of the session, this demand could increase by an additional 60 per cent during a workout. Because ‘it takes time to ‘re-route the blood, and this cannot be achieved efficiently if you omit the warm-up and start exercising vigorously,’ (The Complete Guide To Strength Training).
Why warm up before workout #3: Prepares physiological systems
At rest, our physiological state is markedly different to when we’re exercising. During exercise, our body is working at a much higher rate. The increase in workload places significant demands on the cardiovascular and respiratory systems.
One of the primary purposes of the warm-up is to ‘bring about these changes as efficiently as possible without introducing any extra risk,’ (Physical Fitness & Athletic Performance). What follows is a list of the main physiological changes that warming up brings about. Accompanying each change is a brief assessment of the potential negative impacts of failing to warm-up properly.
Gradually raises heart rate
Going straight into a strenuous workout without warming up will cause the resting heart rate (RHR) to spike. For those that are fit and regularly engage in aerobic exercise, a sudden increase in RHR may result in temporary discomfort. The heart will thud away frantically until the systems stabilise.
However, for those that are untrained, elderly, carrying excess body fat, or have an underlying heart condition, the effects can be far more serious. For example, such subgroups stand the risk of experiencing dizziness, fainting, nausea, and heart complications.
Increase in blood flow
In Why warm up before workout #2 we considered the process by which an increase in blood flow improves physical performance. A greater supply of blood to the working muscles provides them with more oxygen, the primary fuel source powering aerobic exercise.
But when we increase blood flow, we of course also increase blood pressure. Blood pressure carries many negative connotations as it is associated with obesity, atherosclerosis, and hypertension.
A rise in blood pressure caused by exercise is fundamentally different to high blood pressure at rest. The former is a short-term response to physical exertion while the latter is a long-term symptom associated with an underlying health condition.
Warming up reduces health risks
However, it’s important to understand that increase blood pressure, even if it’s a short-term response to exercise, may still put certain people at risk. For example, those that are obese and/or in a hypertensive state.
These risk factors shouldn’t be used as reasons to cease exercising. On the contrary, exercise is arguably more important for such people as it can support the transition to a healthier state. Also, studies have shown that over time ‘regular aerobic training reduces … blood pressure during rest …, particularly in hypertensive subjects,’ (Exercise Physiology – Fifth Edition).
The point being made here is that those in high-risk categories must be especially careful when engaging in physical exercise. They should also take the warm-up phase of the workout seriously to ensure the gradual and safe elevation of physiological systems.
Related: 7 Ways to Stay Fit & Active
Why warm up before workout #4: Improve exercise motivation
All the reasons why we should warm up before workout discussed thus far have to do with the physiological responses. Warming up raises core and body temperature. This increases the ‘elasticity’ of muscles and the range of motion around a joint. As well as enabling us to maximise each exercise, flexible muscles are less prone to strains, pulls, and tears.
We also considered the reasons why warming up is important for the cardiovascular system. A 10-minute progressive intensity warm-up gradually elevates resting heart rate while increasing blood flow.
In addition to making exercise more pleasant, gradually raising resting heart rate and blood flow diverts oxygenated blood to the working muscles. Being a primary fuel source for most forms of physical activity, this serves as an effective way to improve training performance.
Warm up both body and mind
But if all this leaves you unconvinced of the importance of warming up before your workouts, maybe the last benefit will win you over. I’m sure you’ll agree that some days you feel less than enthusiastic about working out. We all experience exercise apathy from time to time. For some inexplicable reason, motivation melts away and we begin looking for an excuse to forgo fitness.
However, what we invariably discover is that after a gentle warm-up the workout no longer seems like a monumental undertaking. This has to do with the fact that warming up ‘increases your arousal level and motivation,’ (The Guide To Strength Training).
Furthermore, an appropriate warm-up can ‘prepare’ us ‘mentally’ for the workout ahead. Even ‘performing one or two warm-up sets with light weights acts as mental rehearsal,’ readying us for the demands of training.
Taken together, the above benefits support a strong case for why we should warm up before workout. Spending just 5- to 10-minutes warming up prior to exercise can:
- Reduce injury risk
- Prepare the physiological systems
- Improve physical performance
- Increase training motivation
In anticipation of your renewed (newfound) enthusiasm to complete a warm-up before every training session, below you’ll find an example of a warm-up and a few helpful links.
Try this 10-Minute All-Purpose Gym Warm-Up
Discover the importance of Warming Up & Cooling Down