How to Warm Up for Exercise
Picture the scene…
It’s a brilliantly sunny yet freezing cold Saturday morning in the North West of England. A football squad of 15 boys aged 10 and 11 are sent outside to warm up ahead of a match. The ‘coach’ (read: enthusiastic father of one of the players) ‘knows’ how to warm up.
He takes the players through a series of static stretches then tells them to “run round the pitch”. With the enthusiasm of a vegan in a butchers shop, they head off on two laps of the pitch.
I was one of those boys.
The ground is frozen solid – the temperature has been below freezing for over a month now. Our football studs are impotent against the rock hard ground. With little or no grip on the uneven surface, some players intermittently fall over.
After 2 laps of the pitch, we are brought back inside a warm changing room to be told the team for the match ahead. We have sat down and not moved. After 15 minutes inside, we are sent back outside in the freezing December air to play – no further prep. From changing room to game situation in less than 30 seconds.
It’s no surprise muscle strains and tears were not uncommon.
The warm up is a fundamental part of any exercise and activity, be it strength training, team sports, running, swimming etc. Without proper warming up, the body is unprepared for the activity ahead and injury risk is increased dramatically. A suitable warm up prepares the body for what lies ahead and should be tailored to the activity – a warm up for football will be dramatically different to a warm up for a weight training session.
The warm up described above didn’t prepare us for a game of football…
- We stretched cold muscles – massive injury risk
- We didn’t do any mobility work when playing on an unstable surface
- We simply ran around a pitch twice – when do you ever run approx 800m without stopping in football? (Answer: NEVER)
- We warmed up in the cold, then went back inside for a while, cooling us down and removing any acclimatisation to the cold.
Warming up in the environment you are exercising is important – we should have had the team talk first, THEN warmed up. This goes some way to acclimatising us to the conditions we are about to play in. Additionally there is no risk of injury through cooling down then going straight back out to play. Warm up then play – don’t allow for any delay between the two otherwise you will lose the benefits you gained in the warm up.
Here I will guide you through the stages I use for warm ups – what you do in each stage will be determined by the activity you are warming up for…
1. Foam Rolling. Here I like to get the warm up started by using a foam roller to improve tissue quality. I use foam rolling to remove knots from the muscles, improve blood flow to the soft tissues and help to prevent injury.
2. Low-impact Cardio. Next up I like to go through a few minutes of low intensity, low impact cardio. This can take a number of forms – in the gym you could use a rower or cross trainer, if you are outside you could power walk for a few minutes. I typically keep this to a maximum of 5 minutes.
3. Resistance Band Use. I run through a few minutes of movements to warm up the joints and introduce the muscles to a series of exercises. A usual routine would go through shoulder mobility, hip mobility and use of hinge joints at the knee and elbow.
4. Light First Set. Using weight training as an example, I would then use the first set as a warm up set, where I would lift around 50% of my working weight for the day. When this is over you can go on and lift the weight you were going to use for the session.
5. Kettlebell Swings. I regularly use a kettlebell as the final stage of my warm up, and to warm up clients. By stretching the posterior chain, activating the muscles of the legs, back, hips and shoulders, and mobilising the hips you have an excellent warm up tool.
The warm up may sound like a lot of work, but at most you are looking at 10 minutes at the start of a session and a massive reduction in injury risk. You don’t even have to go through each of these steps, but I would seriously consider looking at the structure of your workout to fit in a good warm up – reduce rest time between sets, drop an exercise that maybe isn’t as effective as your others (one of your isolation exercises usually) and you will be able to fit in a good quality warm up.
A warm up will not only reduce training injury risk, but it will also improve tissue health and recovery rates in the short and long term. Never sacrifice a warm up in pursuit of more of the intense gym work – your body will thank you!