The start of a new year has many of us re-committing to our wellness and movement goals! But sometimes we get so focused on achieving our fitness goals that we miss the important preparation a warm up brings. The warm up prepares your body for more advanced activity: it eases the heart rate up, increases circulation, enables better performance, and can even reduce your risk of injury.

To optimize your warm up time, try to include these four elements:

  1. Raising the heart rate
    Your warm up should help your body ease in to reaching your target heart rate. Activities that move the arms and the large muscles of the body (like the leg muscles) help get your blood moving and raise your heart rate the most. The key is to begin at a slow-to-moderate pace, gradually increasing your speed and your movement until you’ve raised your heart rate close to where you will be working during your workout.
  2. Joint mobility
    Did you know your joints actually receive very little blood circulation? In the joints, movement is required to pump synovial fluid–and all the nutrients and wastes within it–in and out. Movement also helps lubricate the joints and prepares them for more complex or rigorous activities. Most people adequately address several joints in their body during a warm up simply because they are moving already anyway. However, some joints tend to receive less attention. For example, many people do a great job of moving their hips and knees, their shoulders and elbows, but their trunk remains upright and still in the warm up. Doing a yoga cat-cow exercise, gentle trunk twists, and shoulder shrugs are all great ways to prepare the joints of the trunk for your activity. Once again, the key in a warm up is to begin with a slow-to-moderate pace and a small-to-moderate range of motion.
  3. Dynamic muscle stretching
    This is the kind of stretching that happens while you move, as opposed to static stretching, which requires a long hold in a stretched position. Static stretching is generally more beneficial after a workout (more on this in a future post). Dynamic stretching tends to be a better stretching approach for preparing for your workout. An example would be marching with high knees, which dynamically stretches the posterior (back) hip and thigh muscles. Adding in kicks to the back will dynamically stretch the anterior (front) hip and thigh muscles. This kind of stretching safely increases your muscles’ tolerance to larger ranges of motion. As always…start slow and small-to-moderate.
  4. Engage the neuro-muscular connections
    You want to gently “wake up” your neuromuscular (nerve-to-muscle) connection by initiating small strength tasks to prepare for larger ones. Consider what your most difficult strength-building activity will be for your current exercise session. Are you aiming for a one-minute plank? A squat with significant weight? A series of pull-ups? Maybe today is a “leg day” or an “ab day.” Once you’ve identified your workout goals for the day, try to incorporate some activity in your warm up that prepares your neuromuscular connections for those goals with a lighter version of the task. This will likely look different at different fitness levels. For example, the advanced athlete may warm up with a series of heel raises, jumps, and squats. But for someone beginning their fitness journey, heel raises, jumps, and squats may be the workout goal. Thus, they may warm up with pointing and flexing the feet against a theraband and some mini squats. It’s important to note here that if your workout contains significant balance activities–such as yoga, dance, gymnastics, etc.–incorporating light balance activities into the warm up will be helpful in engaging the neuro-muscular connections as well.

This probably sounds like a LOT, but the good news is a lot of common warm up movements take care of more than one of these elements. For example, the movements in a yoga sun salutation achieve elements 2-4 and can even warm up the cardiovascular system if done at a moderate pace. Your warm up should take about 5-10 minutes and perhaps even 15 or 20 minutes if you are about to engage in high level athletics or very advanced exercises.

Would you like some warm up ideas? One of my favorite resources is Achieve Fitness Boston. Their instagram page makes it easy to pick up fitness tips, including warm up routines and progressions to work up to a fitness movement goal. If you are injured or in pain and would like a customized warm up plan, come see us for an evaluation, and we can help you design a customized exercise plan in line with your goals and needs!

This article is intended for educational purposes only and should not be taken as medical advice or treatment. 

Image credit: Public domain image from Pixabay user JViniya.