The Benefits of Warming Up Before Exercise (and How to Do It Right)

Modern society has patterned us to believe that all things should start up and run perfectly from the moment we lay a finger on them. Touch your iPhone and it’s operating at full capacity, turn on your TV and in seconds you can binge watch your favorite show on Netflix, or open your laptop and you can instantly browse Google. Immediacy is expected and craved. We all know that when the internet is lagging by just seconds it can get us in a tizzy.

So naturally, we also expect immediacy of our human bodies. Why would we have to “warm up” when everything else around us operates at full throttle immediately.

It is exactly this dissonance that makes us cringe when we think about spending even one minute warming up when we could be rowing, spinning, or running now. 

Thankfully, the human body is not an iPhone or other immediate-gratification gadget of the 21st century.  Our amazing bodies are a “gadget” that hasn’t needed an upgrade for over 200,000 years.  We might not have the latest OS or gig speed internet, but with a little bit of patience to warm up, our bodies become one of the finest tuned, most versatile “machines” known.

 

What is a “Warm Up”?

watch face basketballA warm up is exactly what it sounds like!  The goal of warming up, or movement preparation, is to fully prepare your body for a task either more skilled, more intense, or longer duration than everyday life. 

A proper warm up acts as the catalyst to key reactions, processes, and functions necessary for higher level movement.  The key aspects of a proper warm up include:

  • physiological preparation
  • psychological preparation
  • injury prevention
  • performance enhancement

Specifically, a warm up is the period of time and workload needed before a higher-level task that allows the body to optimize all body systems for maximal output.  Simply put, your body needs time to perform its best.  Sure, you can wake up, put on your running shoes, and start right in on your running workout, but it’s going to take you 8-10 minutes before your body and mind are actually ready to run well.

 

Why Do You Need to Warm Up

In order to get the benefits outlined above, there’s a whole host of more-involved physiological and psychological processes that have to occur. Let’s start by tackling the physiological; we’ll address the mental reasons a bit later.

Physiological Benefits of Warming Up

A true warm up will prime the body by engaging the cardiovascular and pulmonary systems, your actual body temperature, and the neuromuscular (brain-body) connection.

Blood Flow and Nutrients:

Any activity beyond daily life requires a higher level of muscle output.  For muscles to work effectively, they need blood flow.  Blood carries vital nutrients essential for muscle contraction.  Oxygen, sugar, amino acids, and ATP are carried by your circulatory system to the muscles most needed for sport or competition.

In order for the muscles to receive the added blood flow, your body first has to shunt, or restrict, the blood from your daily life organs and tissues such as your digestive system.  This doesn’t just happen in seconds.  This process needs a cue or stimulus to start the process.  When the stimulus is too strong, such as starting a run too quickly, your body doesn’t have time to respond, putting you at risk of injury (or at the very least, keeping your muscles from optimal function).

Oxygen:

Believe it or not, your muscles need to breathe! Muscles need oxygen to function properly. They can function with less oxygen, but only for a limited time.  Sprinting and lifting weights is an an-aerobic exercise, meaning muscles contract with limited oxygen.  You can only sprint for a short duration before you run out of energy.  

Jogging and dancing are aerobic exercises, meaning the intensity is low enough that your body has time to transport oxygen to your muscles.  Theoretically, with enough food and water, you can exercise aerobically at submaximal levels until your body needs to fall asleep (sometimes days!). 

Heat:

Temperature plays a key role in muscle energy and force output.  At lower temperatures, your muscles produce less force.  This makes it very challenging to maximize muscle function and performance when your body temperature is low, such as when you first get out of bed in the morning. 

As body temperature and muscle temperature increases to the level needed for the desired activity the metabolic activity, in your muscles also increase.  Basically, at activity level temperatures your body is faster and more efficient at using nutrients to create muscle contractions, thus improving performance. 

Neurological:

For a muscle to contract it needs an impulse from a nerve.  The faster a nerve signal moves from your brain to your working muscles the faster you’re able to contract a muscle and perform an activity.  This brain-to-muscle pathway needs to be primed to function at top performance.  The more it’s used, the faster it works and the less you have to focus on the activity itself.  A proper warm up will utilize specific exercises and drills to enhance neuromuscular function specific to the desired activity.

So, let’s review.  A proper warm up will improve … just about every aspect of muscle function. 

Here’s a quick list of the physiological changes that happen during a warm up.

  • Increase body and muscle temperature
  • Increase energy output and efficiency
  • Optimal oxygen transport to working muscles
  • Faster and more specific nerve firing to key muscles
  • Faster muscle contractions

This all sounds awesome, but a bit science-ish, so let’s simplify things.

With the right warm up, you are faster, stronger, more powerful, have better reaction time, are able to work out longer, AND it reduces your risk of injury!

If you bottled that, everyone would buy it.  That’s the best part though – it’s FREE! It just takes a small investment of your time.  No, you can’t buy a “warm up in a bottle” and your body doesn’t have the immediate response of a smartphone, but we’re only talking minutes to get these powerful benefits.

Warming Up and Injury Risk

Even for the novice athlete, the notion that warming up reduces injury risk is old hat.  Everyone knows that, right?  The problem is that everyone knows, but they don’t realize how much of a difference it can make. While all the aforementioned physiologic processes are taking place, you’re also reducing your risk of injury.

With increased blood flow and muscle temperature, muscles and tendons become more pliable. This means that as you move, the powerful systems designed to absorb force are able to better do their job. You’re more likely to bend into your hips and knees the way you should, allowing your glutes, hamstrings, calves, and quads to respond, rather than the force travelling into your spine or knee joints.

It goes back to the idea of your body being a finely tuned machine – there are SO MANY systems designed to support activity and keep you healthy; you just have to give them a chance to work.

Psychological Benefits of Warming Up

In addition to physical preparation, a warm up can mentally prepare the athlete for competition. The warm up provides time for the athlete to practice sports specific skills, team plays, and build confidence for the game.

When you learn new patterns of movement, your brain “chunks” the information. This means that the first movement in the series or pattern (like the first step in a high jump approach) cues the brain to perform the rest of the sequence.

Warming up primes the brain for the sequences you’ll be performing during the sport or activity. Waking up the muscles and going through sport-specific movement patterns will bring those to the surface, cluing the subconscious pathways in to what’s to come. Performing slowed-down versions of “in-game” movements help to prime the neural pathways, increase reaction times, and activate the brain through the process of visualization.

This also means that if you perform a similar warm up (or keep consistent elements present) before all practices and games, you can trick your brain into being ready for activity on days where you lack your motivation. For instance, if you have a day where it’s cold and windy and you just don’t want to run, if you can convince yourself to start the warm up, you might be surprised to find that by the time your warm up is done, you’re more ready to work than you expected.

What Is the Best Warm Up?

The short answer is… it depends.

Wouldn’t it be great if there were one, perfect, one-size-fits-all warm up that we could hand out?

Unfortunately, due to the information chunking and the wide variety of athletic movements across all sports and activities, it would be impossible to design a succinct warm up that covers all the bases. For example, you wouldn’t want to have to have a distance runner performing the same warm up as a soccer player! The movements performed in soccer are so much different than those performed in track and field, rugby, tennis, football, etc.

The differences in movement patterns (cutting, kicking a ball, throwing a football, triple jump to a pit) are all specific movements that need to be built into the warm up. It is those differences in each sport that requires a specific warm up for the sport.

Secondly, the warm up must evolve with the training. For example, as the football team moves forward in the season, the warm up must evolve with it. As the football team begins to practice new drills, the new drills should be included in the warm up and replace the older drills.

So, the more complete answer is that it depends on the sport, training factors, and skills that need to be emphasized.

Is Stretching a Warm Up?

It’s pretty common to see runners performing a few quick stretches before jogging off, or athletes on the sidelines reaching for their toes before starting to warm up. And for a long time, most of us were taught that stretching before activity helped to loosen up muscles and increase range of motion before play.

stretching on a track

So, does stretching constitute a warm up?

Yes and no.  It depends on the type of stretching you are doing. 

Static stretching (think reach and hold) offers no benefit in relation to injury reduction, but may temporarily improve tissue length.  Improved tissue length alone doesn’t meet the demands of most athletic activities.  Static stretching also provides no elevation of body or muscle temperature and doesn’t activate muscles for priming.

Dynamic stretching, on the other hand, checks most of the boxes required for a proper warm up. Dynamic stretching involves stretching with movement or stretching in functional patterns related to sport.   The movement creates heat, the stretching improves tissue length and mobility, and functional movement patterns activate key muscles.  Although dynamic stretching can be used as a warm up, it doesn’t maximize the body’s full potential as there is no specificity to sport movement.  Dynamic stretching combined with sport specific practice is an excellent way to prepare for exercise.

How Should Warm Ups Be Structured?

When it comes to forming a warm up for yourself or your team, research has supported structuring the warm up into key components. Ian Jeffreys researched and published articles outlining the optimal approach to implementing an effective warm up to improve performance and reduce the risk of injury. Jeffreys recommends the RAMP method, where RAMP stands for Raise, Activate and Mobilize, and Potentiate.

The RAMP Method

Stage 1: Raise

To start off a warm up, the initial focus should be to heat up the body using low level activity. The low-level activity consists of light jogging, or other forms of aerobic exercise. The purpose of this phase is to increase body temperature, increase breathing rate, promote blood flow to muscles, and improve range of motion. Ideally, sports that are more power and strength based do not need to spend much time during this phase. However, it is still important to get the heart pumping and heat up the body. In comparison to endurance-based athletes (long distance swimmers, runners, cyclists), there should be more time spent in this area.

Stage 2: Activate and Mobilize

The second phase of the warm up becomes more specific to the sport. Depending on the muscles and joints that are used for that sport, the second phase of the warm up should focus on “Activating” and “Mobilizing” specific muscles and joints.

Specific muscle activation is essential to a proper warm up.  Each activity has different muscular demands and therefore requires different muscles to be utilized.  Your body is a creature of habit and will default to using the muscles the same way every time you perform a movement unless you intervene.  This can lead to overuse and injury.  In order to use your muscles effectively and efficiently you’ll need to activate specific muscles each time you warm up. 

Isolation exercises are perfect for targeting specific tissues.  For instance, using a mini band around the knees for resistance significantly enhances gluteal muscle activation.  Using resistance bands in the upper body can activate your shoulder blade muscles and rotator cuff. 

It’s important that activation drills are done with specificity and focus.  Some muscles, like your glutes, are difficulty to fire and can be overshadowed by surrounding tissues.  Using optimal body position and mental focus, you can active the key muscles for any activity, in turn improving performance and decreasing your injury risk.

To make the acronym RAMP work the “m” needs to be mobilize, but to keep things simple, we’re going to call it stretching.  As we mentioned before, static stretching before activity hasn’t been shown to decrease injury risk and doesn’t provide the necessary elements of warming up.

Stretching before activity needs to be dynamic to enhance performance and offer any chance of injury reduction.  For example, soccer players can go through “open the gate”, “shut the gate”, and forward and back pedal drills to focus on internal rotation, external hip rotation, and forward/back hip mobility which is important for cutting and change of direction activities. Moreover, this drill will activate the glutes, quads, hamstrings and calves in preparation for the next phase.

Stage 3: Potentiate

The final phase of the RAMP warm up is to prepare the athlete for maximal intensity (or close to it) and to utilize the effects of post-activation potentiation (PAP). This phase becomes even more sports-specific and the goal is to progressively increase the demand to meet the intensity of in-game situations. For example, a running back may start to include sprinting and catching the ball, whereas a high jumper may start to include jumping over a bar with a gradual increase in the bar height. A 5k runner should start to include a few strides with increasing distance (start with a 50m stride and progressively increase to up to 200m at their race pace).

PAP is a theory that states “the contractile history of a muscle influences the mechanical performance of subsequent muscle contraction.” In broader terms, by performing fundamental sport specific activities at maximal or near-maximal effort, those activities will enhance sports performance of activities that share similar movement patterns. For example, if an athlete wanted to perform their best high jump, the athlete could utilize PAP by performing a weighted squat at their 5RM or below. Then, the athlete would perform the high jump and should jump higher.

One question about PAP is how much time is required to optimize the effects of PAP. In other words, if the high jumper wanted to get the best results, when should he perform the back squat prior to the high jump? A research article by Nibali et al. compared the results of eight physically trained men who performed a 5 RM back squats (as a warm up) followed by a jump squat for maximal height. The 8 trained men waited either 4 minutes, 8 minutes, or 12 minutes prior to performing the max jump squat. Results showed that the optimal time was between 5 to 9.5 minutes to achieve the greatest results.

So, what does that mean?

Essentially, the athletes should finish up their warm up about 5 to 10 minutes before their competition to get the full effects. The warm up should last at least 20 minutes (some last up to 45 mins). The more intense the activity the longer the warm up needs to be.  The more skilled the activity, the longer you need to practice the movement before doing it at full tilt.  Additionally, your warm up needs to be specific to the intended activity.

 

Sport-Specific Warm Ups

Utilizing the RAMP method, we put together some examples of what a warm up would look like for different sports. Feel free to use or modify these as your needs dictate, but don’t forget: Raise, Activate, Mobilize, and Potentiate. Make sure to work through all the phases.

Cross Country

Raise: Light jog, about 60% of race pace (10 mins)

Activate and Mobilize: 10-20m of dynamic stretches (hamstrings, quads, calves, hips)

Sample dynamic stretches: Standing hamstring stretch, standing quad stretch, side to side lunge, standing glute stretch.

10-20m of each running drill (A drill, B drill, C, drill, D drill)

Potentiate: 50-200m strides progressively increasing to race pace

Tennis

Raise: Light jog around the tennis courts (5 mins)

Activate and mobilize: arm circles, side steps with arm crosses, carioca drills, knee hug lunge, trunk rotation, 

Potentiate: Tennis serving drills, tennis swing drills, tennis return drills, rallying with increasing to 100 percent intensity.

Soccer

Raise: light jog (10 mins)

Activate and mobilize: dynamic stretches (hip adductors, hip abductors, Hip internal rotators, hip external rotators, quads, hamstrings)

Examples: open the gate, shut the gate, high knees, butt kickers, side shuffles, standing hamstring stretch, Standing quad stretch, side to side lunge, standing glute stretch.

Potentiate: scrimmage, 3v2, corner kick drills, practicing certain plays that were covered during the week.

A note on soccer:

In addition to a soccer warm up, it is important to acknowledge the research’s strong support for including select exercises. The FIFA 11+ program was designed to address the high injury rate in soccer players; some articles suggested up to 70% injury rate! Since implementing the FIFA 11+ program, estimates suggest a decrease in injury of up to 39%! The warm up consists of 15 progressive exercises that can be completed in as little as 20 minutes.

Now, the FIFA 11+ is not the entire warm up, but a huge component to include. It is important to also incorporate ball drills, soccer plays (offensive, defensive, corner kick, free kick), and other activities that you (or the team) would like to focus on prior to the game or practice. In addition, increasing the intensity to facilitate PAP can optimize the soccer players.

 

Takeaways

At the end of the day, the warm up is one of the most important aspects of being active – and one of the most neglected.

Whether you’re amateur or professional, competitive or a hobbyist, you’re still (probably) a human, meaning that your body has the same need to warm up in order to reach peak performance. Following the RAMP method, most sports require 10-20 minutes of sport-specific warm up to get the benefits. We provided a few examples in this article, and the principles can be followed to create your own routine.

If warming up currently isn’t part of your routine, do yourself a favor and add it in. You’ll be reducing your injury risk and increasing your performance (in a matter of minutes) – who can argue with that?

Benefits of Warming Up

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