With the onset of winter (it's almost here), the importance of a good warm-up before a workout increases. It's also more important for the over-40 crowd who tend to have less joint fluid and muscle elasticity.
Let's start with a one-question quiz: What is the primary purpose of a warm-up?
No, this is not a trick question. The answer is: to warm up the muscles, fascia, and joints prior to exercising them. So why do so many people still consider stretching to be a "warm-up"? Maybe because it used to be (and sadly, often still is) taught that way.
And that's unfortunate. Because warming up before working out is beneficial for a variety of reasons:
- Reduced risk of injury. Warm muscles and fascia are more pliable and therefore resistant to injury, particularly in exercises that require extra range of motion (ROM).
- Gradual increase in metabolic requirements. This is less stressful on the body and heart.
- Helps prevent premature fatigue. Warming up increases blood flow through the working muscles as blood vessels dilate.
- Improved motor skills. Nerve impulses travel faster at higher temperatures.
- Improved efficiency. Warm muscles move faster due to reduced viscosity and increased synovial fluid in the joints helps lubricate and protect them.
- Early detection of physical problems. Some strains or other conditions may not reveal themselves until you begin taxing yourself physically. Gradually increasing effort levels can help prevent aggravation of these problems.
Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of warm-ups: passive and active. In a passive warm-up, the muscles don't work at it; instead, an outside agent is used to warm the muscles, such as a sauna or heating pads. An active warm-up involves moving vigorously to generate heat internally. Passive techniques are sometimes used to augment an active warm-up; most commonly, wearing warm clothing. (I've been known to turn up the car heater on the way to a workout … every little bit helps!)
Active warm-ups can be general or specific. A specific warm-up uses movements related to the upcoming workout; for example, high reps of a light weight prior to lifting heavier weights. A general warm-up uses a basic exercise such as jumping rope or jogging to raise the body temperature. It's often a good idea to precede a specific warm-up with a general one … warming up for the warm-up.
The duration of a warm-up can vary, but be sure the muscles are warm at the end! A vigorous warm-up, such as jumping rope, can be as short as five minutes or less while an easier one, such as brisk walking, will likely take longer.
The duration will also vary depending on the air temperature and the intensity of the workout. You don't need as thorough a warm-up for jogging, for example, as for running wind sprints or lifting heavy weights.
Another factor is the range of motion (ROM) of the workout. If the activity requires more than normal ROM (kickboxing versus slow running, for example) then you want to warm up into the full ROM you will be using. In some cases, this may mean stretching, but only after your body is sufficiently warmed up. And be sure to stay warm throughout; don't allow yourself to cool off during stretching.
There are many activities you can do as part of a general warm-up. Some examples are brisk walking or jogging, jumping rope, jumping jacks, cycling, and rowing. Remember to perform these exercises at a comfortable pace; don't over-exert yourself or you may injure yourself during the warm-up! Also, be sure to warm up all the parts of the body you will be engaging in the workout. For example, stationary cycling is not a good choice as a warm-up for activities that will tax your upper body.
Specific warm-up exercises vary depending on the nature of the upcoming workout. Most common are movements that mimic your workout but at a lower intensity. For example, shadowboxing before boxing or light bench presses before heavy ones.
So warm up - literally - before you work out.
Be seeing you.