How should I be warming up?

It depends.

For those of you that just want know exactly what warmup to do before exercising, skip to the last paragraph. Everyone else: read on!

You should always do some sort of warmup before you exercise. Warming up prevents injuries and improves performance. The basic principle of the warmup is to prepare the body for exercise. Our bodies just aren’t built to transition immediately from the couch to all-out Zumba. So what is actually happening to our bodies during a warmup?

One obvious adaptation to a warmup is an increase in temperature in our muscles. Our cells work better when they heat up a little bit, so every warmup should cause you to break a sweat (or at least a glistening forehead). Since our muscles move voluntarily, our nervous system also needs to get prepared. Ever get tight or sore in your lower back or hamstrings? That’s probably because you didn’t get your butt muscles firing on all cylinders. Additionally, our muscles become more elastic when we warm up, which is necessary to contract correctly.

And while there are specific recommendations (you can still skip to the last paragraph), the type of warmup should really match the type of workout you are about to do. This is due to the principle of specificity: only the systems you are using during exercise will respond and adapt. If you will be doing a running workout, pushups would not be an appropriate warmup; you need to use your legs.

Your warmup also needs to incorporate the same types of movement, the same range of motion, the same energy systems, and the same muscle fibers. All this means is that if you will be going for a run, your warmup should be jogging. If you are going for a ride, you need to be on your bike. If you will be sprinting and jumping, you need to slowly build speed and explosiveness. If you will be playing soccer, you should get accustomed to changing direction. And if you are getting your Zumba on, you should be shaking your hips.

So what about the duration of your warmup? Again, the amount of time you spend warming up will depend on the intensity of your workout. Our bodies must steadily progress to the intensity at which we will exercise. For instance, if your workout consists of running at 50% max, it takes less time to progress to 50% than it does to progress to 100%.

The more powerful the movements you will be performing in your workout, the longer you will need to warm up. This is because it takes our brains a little more effort to recruit our powerful muscle fibers to move. If you just jog for five minutes before you do some all-out sprinting or jumping, you can expect to perform poorly and/or get injured. Similarly, explosive movements require entire muscle masses to move properly, so you may want to spend a bit more time getting them ready.

And you should probably do some sort of stretching.

Contrary to some beliefs, stretching will not kill you. But it won’t improve your performance either, and it probably won’t prevent injuries. Rather, it will just help you feel good! As long as you don’t stretch for more than a few seconds or till it hurts (which is what was done in many anti-stretching studies) you should be fine.

If nothing else, a little stretching is just a good indicator of how warmed-up you are. It’s a great feedback system: if after a warmup you can bend over further than before, then you’re probably good to start your workout. If you’re still feeling a little tight, keep warming up.

Stretching will be thoroughly discussed in a separate blog post. But again, generally speaking, the more intensely you will be exercising, the more you will need to increase flexibility and range of motion.

So what specific warmup should you do? Like most things, the best thing you can do is find a warmup that works for you. Try a few out that make sense, and see how you feel.

But here’s a place to start: spend several minutes doing low intensity aerobic-type exercise (like jogging, stepping, or biking), progressing to moderate intensity for a few minutes. If necessary, spend some time doing event-specific movements like skipping, sprinting, jumping, changing direction, etc. If you will be doing intense exercise, spend more time warming up and increasing your flexibility and range of motion. And check on that range of motion with a couple brief stretches.

Not specific enough? Jog slowly for four minutes, then a little faster for four more minutes, followed by two minutes of this. Then on to your workout!

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