The What, How & Why of Warming Up

Welcome to 2018! As we turn the calendar on a new year many will be embarking on a new fitness routine. With more people getting started in fitness there will be more injuries on the way. What can we do to make sure our fitness efforts are safe and effective?

One of the things we want to make sure to do is to warm-up properly for exercise. If you’ve ever attended a track and field meet and watched the 100 m race you’ll notice something.

Although these athletes will only race for 10-12 seconds depending on the level, they will warm-up for much longer than that. Elite sprinters won’t arrive at the track 30 minutes before their race to lace up and pull a heel to their glutes. Instead their warm-up could last hours. And this is to enhance their performance and to minimize injury.

So what does a warm-up do?

A warm-up helps accomplish a couple of things.

  1. It helps improve muscle dynamics so we are less inclined to injury
  2. It helps prepare us for the demands of sport (or exercise)

Regarding reducing the rate of injury, over 30% of sports/training injuries are related to skeletal muscles so it makes sense that we would want to prepare them adequately for the demands to come.

Are there different ways to warm-up?

Well are the different ways and different types. In terms of types we can think of active and passive warm-ups. Active warm-ups are things we do ourselves by moving our bodies. And these can be general, like jogging or ridding the bike before a training session, or specific with movements that mimic the demands of the sport or activity.

Warm-ups can also be passive where we are warmed by external means. This could be by sitting in a sauna or a hot tub or having a warm shower.

Does the time matter?

Your warm-up should occur within 15 minutes of your training session or race. Too much time before and the effects start to wear off. But you also don’t want to still be warming up for your race just before the gun goes off.

As for how long you should warm-up this should be long enough to produce a mild sweat at a non-fatiguing level. To use actual numbers this would be 40-60% of VO2max. If you warm-up at higher intensities than this you risk depleting ATP stores needed for the race or training session.

What is the risk of not warming up?

One study (1) looked the difference of warming and not on lower limb injuries. They found that those with poor flexibility had a 2.5 times greater chance of injury than the norm. And an 8 times greater chance of injury compared to those that had high levels of flexibility.

Another study (2) compared high school football players that warmed up before the start of the 3rd quarter. All players typically perform a warm-up before the game. But for this study half the team warmed up again during the half-time break.The group that warmed up at half-time suffered fewer musculotendinous injuries.

So what should you do?

If you are new to exercise, ease into it. Memories of workouts from college days can come back in the form of injury if we ignore the time that has passed since we last trained at this level. Take some time for a general warm-up such as warming up on the bike. Do just enough to get an elevated heart rate and induce a mild sweat.

Next perform some static stretches where there is resistance but no pain. Hold the stretch for 30 seconds. Target muscles that are chronically tight and that will be involved in the activity or sport to come. Ensure ideal posture while stretching as this is more effective than a poor set up held for a long time.

Lastly, introduce some movement to the warm-up with tasks specific to the activity. For example, for a runner this may include some leg swings or skipping drills.

And as the goal of a warm-up is to increase temperature and prevent injury we want to be aware of training in cold weather. It may take a little longer to warm-up on days when the mercury falls below freezing.

Good luck. Safe training. And Happy New Year!


  1. Pope RP, Herbert RD, Kirwan JD, et al. A randomized trial of pre-exercise stretching for prevention of lower-limb injury. Med Sci Sports Exerc 2000; 32 (2): 271-7.
  2. Bixler B, Jones RL. High-school football injuries: effects of a post-halftime warm-up and stretching routine. Fam Pract Res J. 1992; 12 (2): 131-9.
  3. Woods K1, Bishop P, Jones E. Warm-up and stretching in the prevention of muscular injury. Sports Med. 2007;37(12):1089-99.

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