No matter what your workout is, it should always start with a warm-up. The right warm-up gently prepares the body for exercise by gradually increasing your heart rate, circulation, flexibility, and joint mobility. Warm-ups stimulate blood flow, helping get your body ready for exercise so that you can perform your best and, more importantly, avoid injuring yourself. If moving a cold body can cause injury, what does a safe and effective warm-up look like?
It is important to understand what happens in your body when you start to exercise. When you work out, your body shunts blood flow from your midsection to send more oxygenated blood to your exercising muscles, mainly your arms and legs. So you need to give your body time to transition. If you do not gradually redistribute that blood flow with a warm-up, the oxygen demand occurs quickly, leading to possible dizziness and side aches. The muscles, tendons and ligaments are also called on to fire faster and move with a greater range of motion than before, so they need to be ready. Think of your muscles as taffy: warm taffy stretches while cold taffy snaps. Not warming up before going all out can lead to pulled muscles, strained tendons and limited range of motion.
So what’s the best warm-up? There is no one right one for everyone. What yours looks like will depend on what your workout is, but the basics and the order will always remain the same. Warm-ups almost always involve some sort of cardiovascular exercise and light stretching. It should last a minimum of 5 minutes; 10 or 15 minutes is better if you have the time.
Since your warm-up is designed to prepare you for your workout, it should ideally be a lower-intensity version of it, using the same muscle groups in the same ways you will once your workout begins. It should be progressive, getting your joints moving one at a time, then all together, increasing in intensity to loosen and stretch your muscles and connective tissues.
1. Foam Rolling
Many people think of foam rolling as a restorative tool, but it is great for a warm-up, as you can start to get your muscles warm without making any large movements. It’s like a giant rolling pin that breaks up scar tissue and stiff membranes. Start your rolling by hitting every muscle group, paying special attention to your back, glutes and hammies, and hip flexors.
For effective rolling, place the center of the roller directly under the muscle you’re going to roll. Placing all of your weight on the roller, shift your body gently and slowly back and forth about five times. If it hurts, support some of your weight with your hands or arms. Be sure to cover both sides of your body evenly.
2. Get moving
Next, get your heart rate up with some light to moderate cardio. This gets your muscles warm, sending them more oxygenated blood and signals your nervous system to switch on. On days you plan on working on your upper body, choose cardio moves that involve your upper body, like skipping rope or mountain climbers. On days you plan on working only your lower body, focus on low-body cardio like leg-only jumping jacks or the elliptical machine without moving handles.
3. Light stretching
Then, move on to stretching, ideally, continuously moving through a controlled range of motion with very little resistance, usually your own body weight. Dynamic stretches include arm circles, high knees, and deep knee bends. It’s best to keep moving and avoid holding any one position. Keep the tension relatively light, and save static stretching for your cool down. Static stretching, where you hold a stretch for 20-30 seconds before your workout, can actually hinder performance and increase your risk of injury.
4. Starter Reps
Finally, simulate your workout with a few warm up reps. If you're squatting, do a few air squats or crank out a few reps with an empty bar to get all your joints and muscles working together. If you're doing a cardio workout, do a few technique drills. Practicing the movement patterns before doing them full tilt creates muscle memory and primes your body for action.
Your warm-up is complete! You should be feeling loose and pumped for your workout. If you still feel cold or tight, listen to your body and warm up for a few more minutes.