Whether you're an athlete or someone trying to get into shape, you've probably been told to warm up before you begin a workout or play a game. Warm-up exercises can be passive or active, gentle or strenuous. Almost everyone agrees that they will help you perform at a higher level and avoid injury, but scientific proof of these claims is slim. Here's what you need to know about the benefits of warm-up exercises.
How Warmups May Help
As soon as you start moving, certain changes occur in your body. These include:
- Your body temperature increases
- Blood vessels, including tiny capillaries, open up, increasing blood supply to the muscles
- The blood releases more oxygen that you will need for your workout
- Your muscles contract more easily as they become warmer
- Your joints loosen up
- Your brain engages with the body
Because your heart rate will increase slowly, warmups also make exercise less stressful for your heart.
Types of Warm-Up Exercises
The best way to warm up will depend upon your physical condition, your chosen activity, and other factors. Your warmup may be active or passive. Many warm-up routines also include stretching, which can be dynamic or static.
Active Warmups. The most common warm-up exercises are active ones. Researchers have found that active warmups improve performance as long as they are not too intense. An appropriate warmup can improve the way the body uses oxygen without depleting its energy stores. Often experts advise following a general aerobic-type warmup with a sports-specific one.
Passive Warmups. In passive warmups, your body temperature increases through some external means, such as a hot bath or sauna. This method achieves many of the same results as active warmups without causing fatigue. It does not, however, provide all the benefits of an active warmup. A passive warmup is sometimes used to maintain body temperature between an active warmup and an athletic performance.
Static Stretching. Static stretching — achieved by holding a position for 30 to 90 seconds — was once a part of most warm-up routines. Then researchers found that static stretching hurts performance. Today briefer static stretches may be used to loosen a joint, but experts suggest that they are more appropriate after a workout, not before. Bouncing during a stretch, also called ballistic stretching, has fallen out of favor as it can cause injuries.
Dynamic Stretching . Dynamic stretching involves moving the body in a way that mimics the coming activity. For example, runners often use walking lunges to warm up before a race. Swimmers are more likely to use shoulder rolls and arm circles. Dynamic stretches are repeated 10-12 times without bouncing.
Why Warmups Don't Always Improve Performance
Most of the time, warm-up exercises improve performance. Researchers who looked at several studies found that 79% reported improved performance after warmups. The percentage of improvement ranged from 1% to 20%. However, about 17% of the studies showed a decrease in performance.
The researchers also investigated why warmups might hurt performance. They found that warm-up routines were not effective when:
- They didn't fit the activity
- They were too short to warm muscles
- They were too vigorous and energy-draining
- Too much time passed between the warmup and the activity or event
Researchers also suggested that the subject's age, level of conditioning, and psychological state could affect how well a warmup works.
Warm-up Exercises and Injury Prevention
It's often hard to determine why a particular sports injury happened. For this reason, researchers have had difficulty linking sports injuries to a lack of proper warm-up exercises. One study found that warm-up routines reduced the number of muscular injuries, which make up over 30% of the injuries seen in sports medicine clinics.
Tips for Effective Warmups
How long should you spend warming up? Professional athletes usually spend a long time preparing for a game or contest. For instance, tennis pros may hit balls for an hour before a match. Professional athletes aren't simply warming up muscles. They are rehearsing a specific series of movements.
For most people, who are seeking to warm muscles and loosen joints, a warm-up period of about 10 minutes should be enough. Follow these tips to make your warmup effective:
- Start your warmup right before your game, race, workout, or other activity
- Engage the cardiovascular system by focusing on the large muscle groups, such as those in the legs
- Start slowly and then increase speed or intensity
- Work out until you are sweating slightly but not fatigued