Believe me, you aren’t alone. It happens to the best of us. A meeting goes a bit too long, those jerks in front of you don’t know how to drive, maybe you had to repair a flat tire on your bike. Anything can happen, but dammit, you’re going to make it to your workout session, because there you can leave all the pressures at the door and pay attention to just you. You blast into the gym, skip the warm-up and go head-first into the main workout, thinking that’s what really counts – but that couldn’t be further from the truth.
You need to warm up to get the most from your workout.
You’ve heard it so often that it probably goes in one ear and out the other by now. “You should warm up and cool down as part of every workout,” and yet, you’ve probably skipped these things more often than you would care to admit. But do you know why you hear them so frequently? If you’re even a little bit like me, someone just telling me to do something doesn’t really get it through my thick skull. I need to know why for it to sink in.
What I learned is that the warm-up shouldn’t be thought of as an option, such as the previews before a movie. Think of the warm-up as a dress rehearsal. It’s the equivalent of the first scene which dictates how everything else plays out, and neglecting it can harm you. If you are pressed for time and need to scratch something from your routine, it should never be the warm-up.
Why is warming up your body before any strenuous physical activity so important? I’m glad you asked! To begin, warming up will make your workout feel easier than if you were just hopping off the couch and going for it, says Thomas Trojian, MD, team physician for the University of Connecticut Department of Athletics and director of the Injury Prevention and Sports Outreach Programs at the New England Musculoskeletal Institute. According to Trojian, a proper warm-up:
- Increases muscle core temperature, thus decreasing work required for muscle contraction and making movement feel easier.
- Allows higher maximum cardiac output and oxygen consumption. (Translation: It increases your endurance and speed.)
- Causes blood vessels to dilate, which aids the transportation of oxygen and nutrients to the working muscles (so you can run faster and jump higher).
- Increases your range of motion by heating the synovial (lubricating) fluid in your joints, improving flexibility.
- Warms you up mentally, increasing motivation and focus.
There are several changes that take place once physical activity begins. You already know that your respiratory rate, blood flow and oxygen levels delivered to your cells increases, but it also increases the nutrient levels and sends what you need where you need it (like to the muscles, lungs, and heart, three pretty important things). If you just jump straight into the workout, the body (your body) will perform less efficiently, and your workout won’t produce the best results. You even run a greater risk of hurting yourself –essentially, you’re being cheated of the best possible benefits you could get for the effort that you’re already putting in.
To put it plainly, jumping into exercise without warming up causes a sudden hike in blood pressure, shocks the body, stresses the heart and increases the risk of injury. (Bad things!) When you warm your body first with light cardio, it allows you to process oxygen more efficiently and helps your muscles and nerves to work like they’re designed to. (Good things!)
So now you understand the incredible importance of warming up. (If you don’t, go back and read that all again.) Hopefully you’re curious as to the best way
to warm up: what works best, and what doesn’t work much at all. The answer just may surprise you.
If you’re one of the very many people that believe a quick stationary jog to heat up the body and some static stretches does the trick (after all, you feel warm, maybe even broke a sweat) – well, I’ll let you in on something: that doesn’t quite do it. The jogging is okay to get the blood pumping. What it doesn’t do is prepare the body for whole-body motion or flexibility, which most good workouts require.
On the other hand, dynamic movements and stretching that mimics the activities that you plan to do in your actual workout, those are golden. Those wake up your muscles and joints for your main routine, ultimately making your entire workout more beneficial – and fun! If you slowly progress into your workout, you’ll notice that things are a little easier and you don’t get out of breath so easily because you’re allowing your natural body chemistry to function as it’s designed to. Make sense?
As far as static stretching (holding stretches), those aren’t helpful before a workout, and studies have shown that they may even be harmful. Save those for post-workout when your body is good and warm.
How Warm is Warm?
There is no hard evidence that says specifically how much warm-up is needed before a workout, but for even the shortest workout, make sure that you get at least five minutes in. Progressively increase the difficulty of your warm-up along with your workout to be certain that your body is able to adapt to it. (Your warm-up grows as your workout does!) Most recommendations are in the 10- to 20-minute range, though individual needs cause this to vary. Think 5 minutes if you’re exercising for a half hour with a 5 minute cool-down, 10 for an hour.
Depending on your fitness level and the particular movements you are performing, the warm-up may feel like a workout in itself, which is a good thing, as long as you remember – precision is better than sloppy speed. Think about it this way:
· The higher your fitness level, the longer you probably need to warm up. (The more fit you are, the longer it takes to get your heart rate up and the more muscle you have to get warm. This is good!)
· Warm up by focusing on dynamic flexibility exercises that are specific to the main workout.
· Remember to save the static stretches for after
your workout – they’re great to incorporate into the cool-down part of your workout, which (surprise!) is also very important – but we’ll cover that in the next post.
Have fun getting a better workout by warming up!
P.S. As important as the warm-up is, don’t stay stuck in the warm-up zone! This is meant to be a brief but thorough preparation for your workout.