By Chere Lucett
When you hit the gym, studio, or whatever workout facility you go to, you don’t want to waste time (and energy) warming up. You’d rather jump in cold and get a move on, right? Wrong.
While you think diving into the deep end of a cold pool is fine, here are the chilling facts: more than 30% of injuries seen in sports medicine clinics are to skeletal muscle, and several research studies note that compliance to integrated warm-up protocols significantly lower injury risk (Woods, 2015; Soligard et al., 2010). In fact, without a significant warm-up protocol, expect the “ouch” to lead to time on the couch, because those snaps, crackles and pops that shout at you when you are starting your exercise routine might be more dangerous than you think.
There are a few important factors to consider when determining the “best” warm-up for you.
First – consider your age.
Your real age, not the one you tell your friends and co-workers! The truth is that the older we get, the less elasticity we have in our muscles, tendons and ligaments. This means we need to ensure our bodies are given the best protocol to increase core temperature, increase blood flow and gain range of motion in the muscles and joints we plan on working (Alter, 1996).
Second - be honest about your fitness levels.
Yes, you may feel like the fittest man or woman alive, but the truth is, if you are hitting the floor or the bike after a long break, or you’re new to the fitness scene, your body is going to need more time to adjust to the rigors of a workout. If you jump in too fast and too hard, and your body isn’t accustomed to the challenge, that’s when injuries like to rear their ugly heads (Woods, 2015).
Third – understand your body.
Nobody is perfect, even the everyday superheroes in the gym have muscle imbalances and altered joint motion due to overused and underused muscles. It’s important to know your muscular and joint range of motion limitations so you can warm-up your tight, overactive muscles and activate lengthened, weaker muscles appropriately. We’ll talk a little more about this later in the article.
Lastly, plan your warm-up based upon the determined activity you plan to engage in.
Yes, you’ll want to warm-up differently depending on if you are throwing around medicine balls versus doing a less-intense endurance cycling session. The intensity of your planned workout will help you determine the right components of a warm-up and help you get the most out of your workout (Cook, 2013).
Okay, now that you considered the above factors, it’s time to put together your warm-up. There are a few components that should be considered when designing your warm-up. The first of which is adding in the correct form of flexibility.
Add in the right stretch
There are various forms of flexibility you can integrate into your warm-up. However, some forms are better-integrated prior to a workout than others. Research has shown that prior to a workout, dynamic stretching (performing a series of exercises through a full range of motion with muscular control, such as body weight lunges, squats, and medicine ball rotations) may be more beneficial to other forms of flexibility, such static stretching (holding a stretch for 20-60 seconds at a person’s individual muscular end range of motion) (Aguilar, 2012). In fact, studies have shown dynamic stretching increases reaction times and muscle fiber recruitment (translation: it could help you be faster and stronger in your workout) (Turki, 2012).
But before you run off and put yourself through a series of dynamic flexibility exercises, here’s something important to remember; muscle imbalances should be addressed prior to a bout of dynamic flexibility exercises. Tight, overactive muscles may limit range of motion or alter normal joint motion, and they may need a few rounds of static stretches to relax the muscle and increase range of motion (Etnyre, 1986). This will help to ensure the dynamic flexibility exercises are performed with proper form and control. For example, if you’re one of those people who spend a lot of time in front of a computer (with your shoulders rounded and head bent forward), then you may possess tightness in your chest muscles. In such a case, you may want to stretch your chest muscles to give your shoulder a bit more room to maneuver before performing something more dynamic. However, static stretches done prior to an intense workout may slow you down (Fowles, 2000). So static stretching sessions should be followed up with dynamic flexibility exercises to fully prepare the body for that intense activity. For example, holding a static chest wall stretch for 30 seconds should be followed up by a dynamic shoulder exercise, such as a row using light to medium resistance tubing (Morrin, 2013). Once you provide increased range of motion through static stretching, adding in dynamic movement teaches your body how to use and control that new range of motion (Sady, 1982).
Traditional cardio as a warm-up
Past thought was that one should jump onto a piece of cardio equipment or walk a few blocks before stretching, then jump into your workout. But let’s leave that notion in the past. The truth is any activity could be considered cardio if it is raising your heart rate and consequently increasing your core temperature. And it doesn’t have to be done prior to performing your flexibility routine. As we briefly discussed, your individual needs will determine what type of flexibility you add in to your warm-up; however, dynamic stretching exercises will raise your core temperature and prepare your body for your workout, so there’s no need to add in more cardio unless you want to.
It’s important to remember that a traditional cardio warm-up, for example light to moderate intensities on a Spinner® bike at the beginning of class or walking on a treadmill can also be considered a form of dynamic stretching and can be integrated into your warm-up if desired. There’s no hard and fast rule about adding in cardio modalities, so do what feels best for you based on your fitness level and the workout you have in store. For example, if you possess muscle imbalances (and who doesn’t) and are going to perform weight training as your workout, your warm-up may consist of some static stretching followed up by dynamic stretching (lunging, squatting, rotations) prior to hitting the floor. If your workout is a Spinning® class, you may start with stating stretching, and then begin the class doing light intensity work on your Spinner bike, which is specific to the activity you will be engaging in.
Warm-up protocols aren’t necessarily “one size fits all” and as you have read above, they need to be specific to you, the exerciser. Following someone else’s lead in a warm-up is fine if you aren’t quite sure where to start, but your needs will be different based on age, fitness level, intensity of the workout you have planned, and muscle imbalances. Combine the right components that help you feel energized and prepared to handle the workout ahead of you. Just remember to grease the wheels before you go racing off into your workout. Start slow, then go!
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