Women's Health

Do You Really Need to Warm Up Before Exercise?

Sayco Williams should have known better. The personal trainer in New York City teaches clients to warm up properly, but one day last year, he didn’t take his own advice. “During my second set on the incline bench, I was painfully reminded that I should have,” remembers Williams, whose sharp shoulder pain forced him to stop his workout on the spot. He couldn’t lift anything too heavy for two weeks.

“From that point on and every time after, I make sure to warm up my rotator cuffs well enough to prepare for my lifts,” says Williams, who also works with clients online.

Williams’ experience supports advice drilled into Americans since elementary school gym class: Always warm up before exercising and cool down after. But in reality, many people – including some serious athletes and, apparently, even personal trainers – ditch these components, often in the interest of time or pursuit of intensity, finds Jim White, a personal trainer and dietitian with studios in Virginia. “People are just busy, and they skip the warmup and cool down,” he says.

What’s more, what minimal research exists in the area doesn’t entirely paint warming up as a do-or-die aspect of exercise, says Megan Moran, a physical therapist and running program specialist at MedStar NHR Rehabilitation Network, Ballston-Marymount. “We don’t have a lot of evidence that it’s going to decrease your risk of injury,” she says.

Still, she and other experts still recommend warming up before exercise to prime your heart, lung, brain, muscles and mind for what’s to come. “A warmup is necessary to prepare the body for exercise by increasing heart rate and blood flow to working muscles,” according to the American College of Sports Medicine. One recent study, for instance, showed that cyclists who completed a warmup at 70 percent intensity improved their ability to consume oxygen before starting their trial with all-out effort. Their times were faster as a result.

In fact, White says, warmups and cool-downs are “the most important thing over the workout itself because injuring yourself can set you back.”

But not all warmups are created equal. One study, for instance, showed that football players who warmed up again between their first warmup and game time benefited if the “re-warmup” included plyometrics (jumping and navigating an agility ladder) or sprints with frequent changes of direction, but not if it included a hamstring exercise. Another study showed that elite cyclists performed better after a shorter, not-so-strenuous warmup than when they did a more traditional, longer and more intense workout.

“A warmup is not intended to deplete energy; it’s meant to make you feel good, open up the legs, open up the small capillaries that are feeding those muscles,” says Dr. Mimi Winsberg, a psychiatrist in San Francisco and Ironman triathlete.

Here are some tips to do it right:

1. Keep it short and light.

In general, Moran recommends exercisers do about 10 to 15 minutes of warming up; ACSM says a warmup should be “slow and easy” – think a brisk walk, light jog or easy bike. “The goal is to break a sweat” before moving into stretching and exercise-specific parts of the warmup, ACSM says. A good rule of thumb: Warm up at about 30 percent of your maximum intensity if the workout itself will be around 80 percent intensity, White says.

2. Do dynamic – not static – stretching.

If you walked into White’s gym, you’d probably see at least a few people walking around with their arms out like Frankenstein. That’s because they’re doing a warmup appropriately named “Frankenstein,” in which they kick their legs up to meet their arms while walking. He also recommends butt kicks, arm circles and other movements that stretch the muscles actively. What you want to avoid prior to exercise: static hamstring or other stretches when your muscles are cold. Research shows that such movements can actually decrease your power in the workout itself, Moran says.

3. Make it exercise-specific.

If you’re gearing up for cardio, aim to increase your breathing and heart rate slowly to prevent fatiguing too early in the exercise itself. Going from zero to 100 would be like leaping out of bed in the morning without sitting up, shaking off the grogginess and stretching first, Moran says. “It’s preparing our body to go into a different phase of activity,” she says.

If you’re preparing for a weightlifting workout, on the other hand, it’s most important to practice your movements with no weights or light weights to test drive how your joints are working that day and practice your range of motion. In other words, you don’t want to learn you have a kink in your knee or your stance is unsteady when you have 100 pounds on your back. “If something hurts,” Moran says, “don’t do it until you consult your physical therapist.”

Team sports or other agility workouts, meanwhile, lend themselves to warmups like speed drills in order to activate your neuromuscular system and test out your quickness that day. Before a cycling workout, for example, Winsberg likes to do “ladders” – first building up and then lowering the resistance, then speeding up and slowing down and finally increasing and decreasing both power and cadence. “I find it’s a really good indicator of fatigue,” she says. “If there’s not quickness there, it’s probably not a day to do a really tough workout.”

Q4. Prepare your mind.

If nothing else, warming up mentally is good for your future workout physically. Plenty of sport psychology research and athletes’ experiences demonstrate that mental imagery – essentially visualizing how you’ll succeed on the court or field – can dramatically improve performance. “It’s helpful to understand what the goals of your workout are before you go into it,” says Winsberg, who also serves as the psychiatry lead for the mental health app Ginger.io. She recommends thinking about what you’ll say to yourself when you feel like quitting or face any other challenge during the workout. “Our thoughts,” she says, “generate our feelings.”

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