The workout bible says you must warm up to prevent injuries and improve performance. But knowing a bit about why you should warm up will give you a better appreciation for the process and what to strive for as you go through its application.
Here’s a quick look at why you need to drudge through the pre-workout grind and give your warm-up a bit more respect.
Benefit 1– Performance Increases
It’s likely all you really care about, right? Will the time spent warming up help me play better?
Well, according to a meta-analysis by Fradkin et al. (2010), many variables linked to sports performance increased (i.e., improved race times, increased jump distance, increased accuracy, etc.) with a little pre-exercise.
Although, the difference in performance ranged between 1% and 20% improvement, and some trials even saw a decrease in performance. So the question is, what explains the crappy or harmful warm-ups?
1- Not specific enough to the task of the event, or it wasn’t long enough to increase muscle temperature, such as doing twelve jumping jacks before throwing a ball.
2- On the flip side, the warm-up was a bit too difficult and fatigued the body, such as an intense warm-up before a jumping test.
Benefit 2– Injury Reduction
The second reason you should warm up is that it decreases your long-term risk of injury. There are two good reasons that this happens:
1- The one most of us already know is you’re less likely to tweak something during your workout if you warm up well (which we’ll cover more later.)
2- Warming up allows you to work on the small muscles and improve the way you perform a skill. It also gives you time and repeated practice at improving an exercise or sport with lower loads and speeds. Herman et al. (2012) demonstrated that when warm-ups included balance, sports-specific landing drills, and appropriate activation consistently for three to four months, they reduced the risk of non-contact ACL tears.
And who doesn’t want to be instantaneously stronger?
Many strategies have been studied, like static stretching, progressive loading, and ballistic movements, for their ability to improve the body’s ability to generate force during that training session.
The one strategy that doesn’t appear to improve strength? If you likely guessed it, that is static stretching.
So if you want to generate a lot of force (sprints, heavy squats, rebounding, etc.) you will see immediate improvements by doing something explosive first to prime the system for that task.
Benefit 4– Increased Muscle Temp
One of the most recognized reasons why you should warm up is that as you start exercising, your muscle temperature increases. Before we talk benefits, let’s review why this happens:
1- The chemical reactions to power your muscles also generate heat. In fact, about 75% of the energy produced from metabolism during exercise is lost as heat.
2- The mechanical friction from the muscle fibers moving against each other generates heat (see shivering).
3- Blood vessels dilate and push more warm blood into the muscles.
An increase in temperature can help prepare our body in several ways, but a big one is by speeding up chemical reactions. Check out the Q10 effect, which states that enzyme rates double for each 10-degree increase in temperature.
Thus, increasing your muscle temperature is an easy way to improve metabolism and muscle contraction times. So if you’re not getting hot during your warm-ups, you are missing out on easy performance improvements.
It’s as easy as throwing a hoodie on as you head to the gym and keep it on as you go through your warm-up. Of course, becoming overheated is detrimental to performance, especially for long endurance events, so this is not a case of more is always better!
Benefit 5– Increased Elasticity
The elasticity of the ligaments and tendons also improves as they get warm.
A 2013 study showed that ligament flexibility increased, and the force required to move the knee decreased by 25% after wearing a heat pack on the knees for 20 minutes (Petrofsky, 2013). Additionally, a study of hamstring and patellar tendon grafts showed decreased stiffness as they were warmed (Elias, 2008).
Thus, it’s not an illusion that you feel more limber and move easier as you get warmed up.
Again, prioritizing an increase in body temperature (i.e., get some sweat going) is important as part of your pre-training prep. You can help facilitate with gear like compression garments or knee sleeves, especially on cold days.
Benefit 6– Flexibility Improves
In addition to the flexibility gains that occur by increasing the elasticity of the ligaments and tendons as part of your warm-up, the muscles improve their ability to elongate as well.
For a long time, static stretches like sitting on the ground and reaching for your toes were common. But over the last 5-10 years, dynamic stretches like high kicks have replaced the sit and reach.
We’ll start by saying static stretching is not the devil—it has a time and place— but ideally not before a training session.
We could point to the several studies that show performance drops due to stretching, which is relevant to the pros, but getting real for the masses, I’m skeptical that any gym-goer would notice a detrimental effect from stretching.
The real issue is that sitting around stretching sucks time away from doing more productive things. By opting for a dynamic movement to “stretch”, you not only improve mobility of the muscles, but the “dynamic” part checks several other boxes as well. Things like improving blood flow, working proprioception, getting sweaty, and priming the nervous system.
So you’re warm and feel more limber for your session, but the research shows a lack of long-lasting effects from this improved mobility. To make things more permanent, work on strengthening those new end ranges by making a program like Crossover Symmetry a part of your prep.
Benefit 7– Hormone Response
By introducing a good warm-up, your body transitions from “rest and digest” to “fight or flight” mode. This shifts your body’s focus to getting ready for exercise.
Some of the changes that come from increased sympathetic drive include: increased heart rate; bronchial tube dilation (more airflow); the capillary beds in muscle dilate (more oxygen and blood flow); your muscles contract (or get ready to); saliva production and digestion decreases (don’t need that right now!); and glycogen gets converted to glucose for energy.
You can help the transition to the sympathetic system with a bit of caffeine pre-workout. It’s the one ergogenic aid with a ton of research to show that it does indeed boost performance. Although this isn’t advice to take more, actually it’s a reason to take less.
A recent study showed that caffeine (3mg/kg) increased both aerobic and anaerobic power compared to a placebo. Yet, the performance boost started dropping off after 15 days as the body desensitized to the effects (Beatriz 2019).
So if you’re running off fumes and coffee, relying on your pre-workout drink to kick it into gear, it will be hard to flip the switch to full beast mode when you hit your training session.
Benefit 8– Reduced Soreness
You’ve probably heard of active recovery, but how about active preparation? The impact of a warm-up can have you feeling better on the days following a tough workout.
In a randomized control trial, Olsen et al. (2012) measured soreness in groups who did a tough leg workout after an aerobic warm-up, a cool down, or neither. The results showed significantly less muscle soreness on the following day for those who went through the aerobic warm-up before the workout compared to no warm-up.
It was even MORE effective at decreasing pain than the group that did a cool-down instead of a warm-up.
If you’ve got a big event, doing something involving eccentrics, or getting back to training after some time off, you can bet some soreness will show up the next day or two.
Try fighting off your pain proactively with some aerobic prep to get your body ready.
Benefit 9– Mental Prep
As we’ve covered, a pre-workout warm-up has many physiological benefits. Yet, one of the most significant reasons why you should warm up is related to dialing in the mental game.
Particularly in a competition setting, the “ritual” or consistency of a warm-up can impact a player’s psychological preparation for the sport or competition.
We’ve all heard of a top-level player choking under pressure. Athletes tend to choke when they become too self-aware and start to process the many factors around their performance. A warm-up routine provides a distractor to those external stressors of the event and a rehearsal of the cues that will bring about their “flow” state.
So related to your performance at an event, have a simple series of things you execute in the same order. The routine provides an anchor of familiarity, bringing about calm and allowing you to focus during a high-stress situation.
Dial-In Your Routine
Hopefully, you’re convinced that your warm-up should take priority. The next question is how to get started. Our articleThe Perfect Warm-Up Planwill give you all the details on maximizing your routine.