Why warm up?
A pre-exercise warm-up:
- -warms your muscles by increasing the movement of blood through your tissues, making the muscles more supple;
- -increases delivery of oxygen and nutrients to your muscles by increasing the blood flow to them;
- -prepares your muscles for stretching;
- -prepares your heart for an increase in activity;
- -prepares you mentally for the upcoming exercise; and
- -primes your nerve-to-muscle pathways to be ready for exercise.
The warm-up is widely viewed as a simple measure to help prevent injury during exercise. While scientific studies are ongoing to define the best warm-up techniques to gain this injury-prevention advantage, the warm-up in general is firmly established as a key to exercising safely and effectively.
Ensuring an effective warm up
To make your warm up effective, you need to do movements that increase your heart rate and breathing, and slightly increase the temperature of your muscle tissue. A good indication is warming up to the point where you have raised a light sweat.
If you are exercising at a higher level than for general fitness, or have a particular sporting goal in mind, you may need a longer warm-up, and one that is designed specifically for your sport.
Follow these options in the order listed.
1. General warm-up. To begin your warm-up do 5 minutes of light (low intensity) physical activity such as walking, jogging on the spot or on a trampoline. Pump your arms or make large but controlled circular movements with your arms to help warm the muscles of your upper body.
2. Sport-specific warm-up. One of the best ways to warm up is to perform the upcoming exercise at a slow pace. This will allow you to simulate at low intensity the movements you are about to perform at higher intensity during your chosen activity. Examples include a few minutes of easy catching practice for cricketers or baseball players, going through the motion of bowling a ball for lawn bowlers, shoulder rolls, side-stepping and slow-paced practice hits for tennis players, or jogging for runners. Sport-specific warm-ups are often designed by a qualified trainer in that sport.
3. Stretching. Any stretching is best performed after your muscles are warm, so only stretch after your general warm-up. Stretching muscles when they are cold may lead to a tear. Static stretching (stretching a muscle and holding it in this position without discomfort for 10-30 seconds) is considered the safest method of stretching.
Perform a light static stretching routine at the end of your warm up by stretching each of the muscle groups you will be using in your chosen activity. A static stretch should be held at the point where you can feel the stretch but do not experience any discomfort. If you feel discomfort, ease back on the stretch. Remember not to bounce when holding the stretch. Don't spend so long doing your stretches that your muscles cool down and your heart rate returns to normal. It is better to keep most of your static stretching for after your exercise session, that is, after your cool-down.
Recent studies comparing a warm-up that includes static stretching with a warm-up that does not include static stretching have shown that, although pre-exercise static stretching does improve flexibility, it does not appear to prevent injury during exercise.
Apart from static stretching, other methods of stretching include ballistic, dynamic and PNF (proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation) stretching, each of which is best done under instruction from a qualified fitness instructor or sports coach.