Exercise is one of the best things you can do for your heart health and overall wellbeing – and the most important preparation for any movement or exercise is an appropriate warm-up. But if you’re confused about what that actually looks like, you’re not alone.
The research around appropriate practice for warm-ups is constantly changing. Historically it has been drummed into us that stretching is how you warm up for exercise, but research now shows that stretching alone does not appear to be of any use in injury prevention. However, it is useful on a regular basis long-term for improving flexibility, which may be helpful for injury prevention in some cases.
So what should we be doing then? Let’s start with what an appropriate warm-up does and what it needs to achieve.
Physiological effects of warming up
A gentle warm-up helps to increase your cardiovascular activity. For people recovering from a heart condition or working on preventing a heart condition, this is even more important so as not to shock the body system into sudden activity. A warm-up gives your blood vessels and heart a chance to gently ease into activity, and this allows you to slowly gauge your heart’s response to increased cardiovascular strain.
This increase in cardiovascular output means more oxygen-laden and nutrient-rich blood gets pumped around your body and to your muscles, providing them with what they need to contract and function safely and effectively. It also removes the waste products of energy production. This activity also raises your body temperature slightly and warms up your muscles and joints.
From research on the optimal warm-up time for athletes, it is suggested that warm-up take 15–20 minutes. For amateur athletes and those getting back into exercise who are time-poor, 5–10 minutes is usually sufficient. Warm-ups should initially focus on whole body cardiovascular output and larger muscle groups. They should also be relative to your fitness level. For example:
- If warming up for a brisk walk, begin with 5–10 minutes of slow walking.
- If warming up for a run, start with 5–10 minutes of brisk walking.
- For swimming, begin at a slow pace and then slowly pick that up.
- If you’re planning on a gym session which includes arm exercises, you may want to start with a slow controlled row or cross trainer warm-up for 5–10 minutes.
- For older adults or those recovering from surgery or other medical issues, it may even be sufficient to march on the spot and make larger slow controlled circles with your arms for 5–10 minutes.
The secret is to listen to your body – body awareness is integral to avoiding injuries. You have a whole incredibly complicated and miraculous system built in which has the single function of letting you know what’s happening inside you. Make use of it.
Taking it one step further
For basic aerobic exercises such as running or cycling, the above is usually enough preparation. But if you intend to do sport where there will be rapid changes in muscle length, or gym exercises where you are taking your muscles and joints through their full range of motion, it may be valuable to add a bit of dynamic movement to your warm-up. There is a selection of ballistic movements that can be done, such as the high leg kicks you might see soccer players doing to warm up pre-match. If you are interested in doing these, it’s best to see a qualified trainer for a demonstration and to also assess that you are doing them properly, to avoid doing more harm than good.
For our purposes, warming up may include taking your body through the full range of expected movement before you add weight. For example, if you are planning to do squats, start by doing 15–20 without any weight added, or do some body weight lunges. If you are doing upper body work, prepare by using very light weights or use a theraband (elastic resistance band of low resistance) to take your shoulder through the full range of movement. Slow controlled rotations of your shoulders may also help with getting your brain used to the idea of the larger range of motion you are about to require.
If you would like to add in a static stretch routine, your muscles should now be warm enough for that to be done.
Preparing for sports
For sport preparation, you should include a warm-up specifically for that activity. For example, in ball sports, do some sideways or jagged running around cones to prepare your muscles and tendons for changes in directional movement. You could also warm up by hitting, passing or kicking the ball between players. Something to be particularly aware of when playing a sport where there are periods of inactivity is to maintain the warmth in your muscles. This can be done by running on the spot, doing jumping jacks or jogging up and down the field.
Although there is no definitive evidence for the use of warm-up in injury prevention, it still appears to be our best solution for situations where there is a risk of injury. A warm-up is simple to do, and there is more than enough anecdotal and informal evidence to suggest that it is of use. It only takes a few minutes, at best will reduce your risk of injury, and at worst have no effect at all. So why take the chance?
Witvrouw E, Mahieu N, Danneels L, McNair P. (2004) Stretching and injury prevention: an obscure relationship. Sports Med. 2004;34(7):443–9.
Shrier, I. (2004). Does stretching improve performance? A systematic and critical review of the literature. Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine, 14(5), 267–273.
Bishop, D. (2003) Warm Up II, Performance Changes Following Active Warm Up and How to Structure the Warm Up. Sports Medicine June 2003, Volume 33, Issue 7, pp 483–498.
Fradkin AJ, Gabbe PJ, Cameron PA (2006) Does Warming up Prevent Injury in Sport?: The Evidence From Randomised Controlled Trials. Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport, 9(3), 214–220.
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