If you have the time, it’s tempting to skip a warm-up and start exercising right away. But while your brain is ready to go, your body has not yet received the memo. A warm-up serves as a wake-up call, gets your blood flowing, increases your freedom of movement and prepares your muscle fibers and nervous system for work. With all of the different techniques used these days, it’s difficult to know which warm-up goes best with which type of workout and which one works best. Don’t worry – we’ve done the matchmaking for you. Use this warm up guide to get more out of your workout while avoiding the risk of injury.
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Best before: Any kind of training.
Cardiovascular activities are a great way to warm up – to raise your internal temperature – as they get your entire body moving, infusing your muscles with oxygen, blood, and nutrients, and preparing them for takeoff (literally !). Sometimes cardio in and of itself is enough as a warm up exercise if you’re just doing light aerobic work. However, if you are doing heavy lifting or intense, high-intensity interval training, this technique should be combined with another protocol – such as the following – to properly and fully warm up.
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What you should do: Any activity that gets your body moving and grooving is great – jogging, rowing, biking, climbing stairs.
Keep in mind: It shouldn’t be done at a light pace for more than about five minutes to simply keep you warm and not make you sweat. Even if you enjoy running, anything beyond 10 minutes of light jogging ventures into the full training area and is no longer considered a warm-up exercise.
Best before: Any workout, but especially heavy weight training.
Improving the range of motion (ROM) is a priority if you want to pump some iron. Research has shown that using a foam roller can help increase ROM without affecting performance. Foam rollers act as a type of self-massage, helping to break open and release the fascia – the connective tissue that surrounds muscles – that can become tense and inflamed. Rolling improves ROM even before you lift a weight.
What you should do: Position yourself on the roller and roll your body weight along the muscle, starting at the origin and slowly down the entire length. If you encounter a narrow or sensitive area, stop and hold this position for a few seconds for easy release. Aim for at least five passes in each direction per muscle before moving on to the next, and do about five minutes total. Note of caution: never roll your lower spine with foam as the area can become stuck.
Keep in mind: There are different “levels” of foam rollers, ranging from moderately soft to rock hard. If you are new to the technique, start with the softer ones and climb your way up as you know your way around rolling (and as your body adapts to the hardness). Additionally, foam rolling can cause pain, especially if you are very tight or have a lot of adhesions – areas of tightness in your fascia. So don’t be surprised if this IT band grumbles the day after the game ends.
Dynamic stretching / mobility
Best before: Explosive workouts like plyometry or powerlifting and sports.
This technique actively moves a limb over its entire range of motion, pushing blood into the muscles while synovial fluid in the joints is released, lubricated, and prepared for work. It Can Also Help You Perform Better: A study published in the Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness found that dynamic stretching as a warm-up helped improve performance in basketball players.
What you should do: Actions that focus on multidirectional movements at the joints – leg swings, arm circles, hugs from bears – are examples of great dynamic stretches. Start with a shorter, gentler range of motion and gradually let your actions become bigger and more dynamic.
Keep in mind: Spend about five minutes with the large muscles and joints in the body, paying special attention to those who are chronically tense or who are working particularly hard that day.
Exercise preparation (also known as warm-up sets)
Best before: Strength training and CrossFit WODs.
Movement preparation is really a kind of gig where you go through the movements. You will do several sets of the exercises, but with less intensity. This alerts your central nervous system that heavy work is coming and sets a pattern of movement for the upcoming exercises that your body can remember when things get tough. This helps you generate strength efficiently and explosively, making movements more effective and training more intense. And of course you reduce the risk of injury.
What you should do: Evaluate the lift you are focusing on for the day and prepare the movement according to the lift. For example, if your goal is to squat 120 pounds back, your exercise preparation could start with bodyweight squats, also known as air squats, for a few sets of perfect form. Then you could squat with an empty Olympic bar for a few sets. Next, you’d start building up, lowering the rep range to three to five per set, and adding the weight in increments of 20 percent per set until you hit your goal weight.
Keep in mind: How long the actual preparation takes depends on the particular lift and how strong you are in it. If you’re a veteran, your exercise preparation will likely take longer than a beginner. Also note that single-joint isolation movements like a bicep curl require less preparation because they involve fewer muscle groups and joints.
Muscle activation (also known as isometry)
Best before: Heavy lifting days.
In fact, some studies have shown that isometric contractions, in which you contract your muscle against an immovable object, increase performance by as much as 51 percent. This type of contraction stimulates the central nervous system to recruit more high-threshold motor units (those responsible for innervating the fast-twitch muscle fibers), which improves the force of contraction and strength output, resulting in stronger lifts.
What you should do: Think about the movement you want to make, then find a way to simulate it against an immovable object. For example, when doing the bench press, place your hands flat on the bench position and then actively try to push the wall away from you to tighten and contract all of the muscles that you would use in an actual bench press. Press and hold each button for 10 to 15 seconds, then rest for 30 seconds. Do two to three sets, increasing the contraction a little with each set.
Keep in mind: This technique can easily exhaust you. You should therefore limit the actual workload to no more than three minutes.