You’d be the surprised how many times I’ve actually been asked, “Do we even need to warm up?”
The short answer, is yes. There are many benefits to warming up before exercise, particularly intense exercise, but the real issue here is what the warm up consists of, and whether it actually helps or hinders our training performance.
Why warm up?
Warming up prepares our cardiovascular, neuromuscular and respiratory systems for physical activity. It also prepares us mentally which is particularly important for sports or activities requiring complex and intense movements.
To go a little deeper, the physiological benefits of warming up include:
• Increased muscle temperature improves muscular elasticity.
• Increased core body temperature increases blood and oxygen flow to working muscles.
• Reduces lactic acid build up.
• Increases speed of nerve impulses.
• Ability of Connective tissue to elongate is enhanced.
• Muscles are able to exert greater power.
• Secretion of synovial fluid is enhanced and therefore lubricants the joints.
• Reduces the risk of injury to muscles and joints.
So we’ve established warming up is not only a good thing, it is important to implement at the start of our workout. But how should you warm up?
Raise the Pulse
Try to select movements which use large muscle groups and are limited in range of motion and impact, eg. An elliptical cross trainer machine in the gym, or even a slow jog if outside. Build up to include movements similar to those you will use in the main session and bring your Heart Rate (HR) to just below the intensity of the main session.
Mobilize the Joints
It’s common for our ‘normal’ mobility to become restricted, either from sleeping or even our daily activities. To regain this mobility and prepare for intense exercise, start with small movements, and build up to full range of motion. For example, balancing on one leg, then kicking the other leg out straight, gradually increasing the height of the kick with each repetition is a great way to mobilize the hip joint (aka forward leg wings).
Stretching – Dynamic vs Static
Traditionally, static stretching of muscles has been commonplace in warm ups for activities of both individuals and even sporting teams, to increase flexibility and reduce risk of injury. This involves holding a stretch typically between 15 – 30 seconds.
But in recent years, Static stretching during a warm up has been gradually replaced by dynamic stretching, with scientific studies backing up the suggestion that dynamic stretching better prepares the body for athletic performance, while static stretching can actually impede performance. Recent research has found that static stretches may actually decrease the strength in the stretched muscle for up to an hour. A study conducted in 2007 by Fletcher et al showed that 50m sprint performance was worse when using static stretches beforehand, than that of using a solely dynamic stretching approach.
Dynamic stretching involves the movement of muscles and joints without holding the position for longer than a second, and focuses more on the neuromuscular system of the muscle complex. Rather, it involves repetitive contractions of the agonist muscle to produce quick stretches of the antagonist muscle and thereby very specifically prepares the muscle tissue for active contraction and relaxation, similar to that required for sporting situations.
An example of a dynamic stretch, is repeatedly doing a shallow lunge while twisting the torso toward the leading leg.
Another benefit of dynamic stretching is that it maintains the increased HR level and core body temp better than static stretching, which has a relaxation effect which ultimately brings the HR down. I like to integrate dynamic stretching with activities which mimic those about to be performed in the session, such as running through different drills on a speed/agility ladder (gradually building the speed and intensity), with dynamic stretches mixed in.
This doesn’t mean that static stretching shouldn’t have a place in your overall health and fitness regime, as it is extremely beneficial when used after exercise the reduce muscle soreness and increase flexibility.
Just rethink holding those stretches for prolonged periods next time you prepare yourself for that football practice session or early morning triathlon training. Instead, replace it with a good collection of dynamic movements involving all your major body joints and you’ll be better prepared to perform at your best.