How To Warm Up For Any Exercise

ballet warmup stretch

Warm ups are the red headed step child of fitness (at least they've got warm down stretches to hang out with).

Why?

They're easy to forget.

But they're the most important part of your workout.

You'd like to avoid injuries, right? And improve your performance?

Today I'll arm you with everything you need to know to do a warm up that's:

  • Fast
  • Fun (no, really!)
  • And complete

You'll even start to look forward to your warm up 🙂

And I'll make sure you avoid the most basic warm up mistake out there.

Build Your Own Warm Up Routine

build warm up exercise

We have a uh, ship load of theory on warm ups later in this article.

This is to inform and empower you to design your own warm up.

It's super easy (and totally OK) to find a generic warm up routine on YouTube and follow that. Actually, I’ll save you the trouble, check out Steve Kamb’s warm up.

But if you can design a warm up to suit your needs you can save some time or get better results from your workout.

Step 1: Choose Your Aerobic Warm Up

So what are you warming up for?

A social run? Or maybe a race, or max effort in the gym?

If you're just going out for a not-so-serious effort, you can get away with three minutes of aerobic warm up.

If you need results from the work out, saving time just went out the window. You're going to increase your performance by doing at least 15 minutes of aerobic warm up.

So what does an aerobic warm up look like? Any light exercise that moderately raises your hear rate. You shouldn't be puffing or sweating a lot.

It could be any of the following:

  • Fast walking (treadmill, or outside)
  • A very light jog
  • Cycling (stationary or on an actual bike)
  • Elliptical machine workout
  • Light aerobic movements like marching, star jumps etc
  • Dancing to your favorite music
  • Or whatever you can image! 🙂

Fuzzy video: webcam :\

See the video for some ideas, and be sure to check out the Aerobic Warm Up section for more information on how this works.

Step 2: Your Range Of Motion Warm Up

Spend some time thinking about the movements you'll be doing. 

For example, let's imagine you'll be running. Consider the joints and muscles doing most of the work:

  • Hips
  • Knees
  • Ankles
  • Quadriceps (front of your thigh)
  • Hamstring (back of your thigh)
  • Gluteals (butt)
  • Calves

Think of movements that will make these joints and muscles work, for example:

  • Lunges
  • High knee raises
  • Leg swings
  • Butt kicks
  • And so on.

Would you bother warming up your shoulders, arms wrists and so on? Not so much. Design your warm up for your activities.

Now, on to why warm ups help so much:

How to Avoid Injuries and Increase Performance

cowboy warmup stretch

A good warm up will prepare your body for hard physical activity and improve your performance.

All from as little as 5 minutes effort before you start.

If you're strategic about it, you can even get it done in less time.

So why do warm ups work?

First, we need to understand there's two parts to any warm up:

  • Aerobic activity, and
  • Range of motion (ROM) movements.

Let's see what they can do for you.

Aerobic Warm Up

An aerobic warm up is light exercise that raises your heart rate a little, and lasts for 3 – 15 minutes.

3 – 15 minutes: that's a big range, right? 

3 minutes of aerobic activity will increase:

  • Your core temperature
  • Circulation, and
  • Muscle elasticity

Which makes injury less likely.

Supple, elastic muscles and connective tissues are less likely to tear or break.

But 15 minutes of light aerobic activity measurably increases performance. How awesome is that?

How to Warm Up Without Doing a Warm Up

Oooh, sounds mysterious, right?

Remember I said you could cut down your warm up time?

If you train at a gym, try doing a fast walk on the way there. Park a little further away from the gym if you have to.

Or you could bike there instead. There are limitless opportunities in everyday life.

Got a job at home you're dreading, like scrubbing the shower or sweeping the yard? Go at it vigorously enough and it counts!

Just as long as your heart rate increases moderately, you're getting warmed up. 

Range of Motion Warm Up

This is the other half of your warm up, and it'll change depending on your planned work out.

Range of Motion (or ROM) movements are an exaggerated, but light version of whatever exercise you've got planned.

You'll also see this called a 'dynamic' or 'active' warm up. 

This is the main point:

You take your body through all the motions it's going to perform during your workout, but at low intensity.

"Sounds weird, got an example?"

Sure! Before going for a run, you might do lunges and butt kicks.

Before pushups you could swing your arms back and forth at shoulder height.

Just as long as you exercise the joints that'll be doing the most work in your workout.

ROM Warm Up Benefits

The number one benefit is that you're getting even more blood flow where you need it. 

This means more warmth and more oxygen. The capillaries expand for better blood flow through your joints and limbs.

Not only that, your prepare your nervous system.

As you prepare for your main workout, you're preparing the messaging systems between your brain and limbs.

The result?

Smoother muscle function  (faster muscle contraction and retraction) which adds up to more speed and power.

The #1 Warm Up Mistake

cat warm up stretch

But doing your warm up the wrong way increases risk and reduces performance.

Sounds nasty, right?

To top it off, it's probably the way you were taught to warm up at school. I know I was!

It's simple: static stretching. 

Static stretching is starting a stretch and holding it a while before releasing.

This is a disaster for cold muscles – because the muscles AREN'T warm and springy they're more likely to tear than stretch.

But even if you've done your aerobic warm up and got your blood flowing, they're still no good for us. 

Why?

Because when you stretch a muscle it loses power and speed. For hours. This will reduce your performance during your workout.

The one reason static stretches are used in a warm up.

Maybe a fitness professional has assessed you and recommended a certain static stretch as part of your warm up. 

If they have, keep doing it!

The one thing static stretches are good for in a warm up is what I mentioned earlier:

Reducing muscle power.

But didn't I just say that was bad? Usually it is, but if you have a power imbalance between opposing muscles, sometimes it's beneficial to take the dominant muscle out of the picture by stretching it.

"What the hell are you talking about?"

I don't know if you said that, but I wouldn't be surprised if you did 🙂

Running gives us some classic examples (it's about to get nerdy here folks).

If we look at our thighs, we've got two important muscle groups – quadriceps ("quads") on the front, and hamstrings ("hammies") on the back.

If one of these muscle groups is significantly stronger it can cause an injury in the other muscle group. Especially when running at speed.

So stretching one of them can give the other a chance to catch up while we're exercising.

Another example is the psoas muscle, one of the hip flexor muscles. The psoas runs vertically from the top of each thigh across your hip and into your midsection.

Used to be that no one paid attention to the psoas.

That's changed as people spend more time at their desks, which causes chronically shortened psoas muscles.

The psoas is partly responsible for lifting your leg vertically. All well and good.

But running with a tight psoas can lead to a cascade of other problems in the lower back and legs.

This problem can be resolved by stretching the psoas before running.

Final Warm Up Thoughts

So that's a lot of information on warming up, right?

But hopefully you can see now how important warming up effectively is.

Have warm ups been a regular part of your exercise routine? And do you think you'll be doing more of them in the future?

I'd love to hear about your views and experiences, so let me know in the comments!

PS – I totally avoided the obvious joke about 'warming up to warm ups' for the whole article. Do you feel like you were just Rickrolled? 😉

PPS – Apologies to all the red-headed step children out there. I'm sure you're all awesome and dearly loved 🙂

Photo credits: Ballet Stretch by Tommy Wong, Cat Stretch by Mr TinDC, Stretching Cowboys by Emilio Labrador, Roof Builder by Barbara Eckstein

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