Fitness Articles

Reference Guide to Warming Up

An In-Depth Look at the Warm Up

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SparkPeople’s Exercise Reference Guides offer an in-depth look at the principles of fitness.

What is a Warm Up?
A warm up is the act of preparing for an athletic event or workout by exercising or practicing for a short time beforehand. Warming up helps reduce your risk of injury and the aches and pains that come with exercise. The physiological reason to warm up is to assist your circulatory system in pumping oxygen-rich blood to your working muscles. The idea is to increase circulation throughout the body, in a gradual manner. A proper warm up safely prepares the body for the increased demands of exercise.

Cold muscles do not absorb shock or impact as well, and are more susceptible to injury. While scientific studies are ongoing to define the best warm up techniques for injury prevention, the warm up in general is firmly established as a key to exercising safely and effectively. A warm up should be done before strength training, aerobic (and anaerobic exercise) and stretching.

Examples of Warm Up Activities
A warm up should be sport-specific, which means that it mimics the activity you’re about to do, but at a lower intensity, lower impact, and/or slower speed. For example, you’d walk before running. Other general warm ups include the stationary biking, using the elliptical machine or light stair climbing. Exercises that use your arms and your legs (such as a Nordic Track or Air Dyne bicycle) are great for a total body warm up. A good warm up before strength training is to do the exercises you are about to perform with a very light weight first. Contrary to popular belief, stretching is NOT the same thing as warming up. In fact, stretching should come at the very end of your workout for best results.

What are the Benefits of Warming Up?
A warm-up helps you prepare both mentally and physically for exercise, and reduces the chance of injury. During a warm-up, any injury or illness you have can often be recognized, and further injury prevented. Other benefits of a proper warm up include:
  • Increased movement of blood through your tissues, making the muscles more pliable.
  • Increased delivery of oxygen and nutrients to your muscles. This prevents you from getting out of breath early or too easily.
  • Prepares your muscles for stretching
  • Prepares your heart for an increase in activity, preventing a rapid increase in blood pressure
  • Prepares you mentally for the upcoming exercise
  • Primes your nerve-to-muscle pathways to be ready for exercise
  • Improves coordination and reaction times
How to Warm Up
When warming up, keep the FITT Principles (Frequency, Intensity, Time and Type) in mind.
  • Frequency: How often you should warm up
    A proper warm up should be done before any exercise session or physical activity, whether it is a cardio, strength training workout, or stretching.
     
  • Intensity: How intensely you should warm up
    A warm-up should start with exercises of low intensity and then progress to match the intensity of the main exercises of the workout. The greater the intensity of the workout, the longer its warm-up should be. Speed, strength, and difficult technical workouts should have longer warm-ups than aerobic fitness or endurance workouts. A general recommendation is to perform a warm-up that includes all the large muscle groups of the body.

    For an effective warm up, perform movements that increase your heart rate and breathing, and slightly increase the temperature of your muscle tissue. A good indication of this is when you have raised a light sweat. Your warm up should be nice and easy. If it makes you too tired, try doing less strenuous warm up exercises.
     
  • Time: How long your warm up should last
    Your warm up should last at least 5-10 minutes (or slightly longer in cold weather or before high-intensity exercise). Breathing will be harder than normal, but not as hard as during the actual exercise.
     
  • Type: What activities are suitable for warming up?
    See “Examples of Warm Up Activities” above. The warm up can be a lower intensity version of the workout you are about to do, or it can be a completely different exercise. As long as it increases your heart rate and breathing, and involves the muscles you are about to use, it is considered a proper warm up.

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About The Author

Jen Mueller Jen Mueller
Jen received her master's degree in health promotion and education from the University of Cincinnati. A mom and avid marathon runner, she is an ACE-certified personal trainer, health coach, medical exercise specialist and behavior change specialist. See all of Jen's articles.