Warming up is one of the most vital parts of any workout, yet many people overlook it and some even openly admit that they don’t like it. It often seems hard to do as it is the introductory part for your body to the actual workout and you need some time to get the engine running. Still, knowing how to properly warm-up for different workouts and what exercises to do can prove crucial to your long-term success and health.
Before we move on, I just wanted to make one clear distinction between warming up and stretching as many beginners think these are the same things. Once you have stretched you’ve already warmed up, right? Well, wrong. Whether you stretch or slightly warm up your body first is up to you but those two parts have to always coexist at the beginning of any workout. The fact that you can feel slightly tired after an active stretching session doesn’t mean you are fully (or properly) warmed up. Let’s take a deeper look at the importance of these activities now…
The importance of warming up and stretching
Warming up has the goal of loosening up your muscles and joints and raising your temperature to where your body operates the best in high-stress conditions. Colder muscles and joints are stiffer and more prone to damage. Stretching, on the other hand, is done in order to get a specific muscle group flexed and stretched to improve its elasticity and muscle tone. The combined result of warming up and stretching is a feeling of flexibility, a better range of motion, and improved muscle control.
Apart from raising the temperature of the body, warming up also acts directly on the muscle fibers’ ability to contract. Warmer muscles produce more energy and take less time to contract compared to colder muscles. Not only does a warm muscle perform better but it also helps your metabolism and blood circulation. It is also faster and stronger.
As with everything else, doing something good far too long or inaccurately can lead to potential issues. That brings me to the next important question here.
Can you overstretch?
Overstretching, in its essence, can involve your muscles, your joints, or both. While many people believe that the looser you are the better, overstretching can be a real thing and can happen in any fitness class from yoga, through pilates and Zumba, all the way to track and field athletics.
Overstretching happens when you push your muscles and joints over their normal stretching limits. That doesn’t always end up badly and we never feel it right away. Muscles that are overstretched often feel and look lax rather than well-toned and can create issues within their respective joints. the weaker the muscle, the less support there is for the joint so the risk of hyperextending your joint becomes real when you overstretch. Furthermore, your muscle can sustain minor (or major) tears in their fibers. The worst things to happen in these instances are tendon or ligament tears which will sideline you for at least a few months.
The best way to prevent these issues is to warm up before you begin your stretching and workout. Even a brief 5-min dynamic walk can warm your body up to the desired temperature for you to begin stretching. Also, dynamic stretches, which you might remember from your high-school routines, are also welcome. Arm circles, lunges, leg lifts are all good options before you get on the ground and start properly stretching.
Okay, but how do you warm up properly? And which exercises are the best for your respective sport? You are about to find out!
General warm-up exercises
The goal from a general warm-up session is to put the joints and muscles through their full range of motion, to raise the temperature of your core, and to make sure everything is working as it is supposed to be before you head into the heavier workout.
Here is an example of a warm-up session that I really like and works for most people. It is as easy as you make it and can be done in around 15 minutes without the need for any special equipment.
- Short slow-paced run – 5 minutes
- Lunges – 4 reps for each leg
- Hip rotations – 10 reps for each leg
- Arm rotations – 1 minute or until you feel shoulders loosen up
- Squats (body-weight) – 10 reps
- Leg swings – 10 swings each leg
- Push-ups – 15 reps (you can start with 5 if you aren’t used to it)
Depending on which parts you want to train more, you can emphasize more on legs, knees, shoulders, arms, neck, back, core, or ankles. I usually leave the joints for the stretching and emphasize on just getting my blood moving during the general warm-up.
While general warm-up exercises aim to raise the temperature of your body and of your deep muscle tissues, specific warm-up exercises aim to mimic the movements you are about to use in your workout but with less intensity. These can be warm-ups for runners, cyclists, weight lifters, and other athletes. Let’s dive into each of those now.
How to warm up for a run
A major rule of running is that every run should begin with a warm-up and a stretch and end with a cooldown period. Those activities will prepare your body for its best efforts and let it recover better from each workout.
Every run is different so you need to prepare yourself for the different types of efforts you will spend on the workout. In general, 10 minutes of light exercising is good enough to warm you up and loosen the muscles and joints. A light jog at the beginning of your run is also a good way to get your body up to speed, both figuratively and literally. It is important to not rush the workout and take things slowly. Some dynamic exercises like lunges and jumping jacks are also a good idea if that is something you prefer. Mimicking the motions your joints and muscles will do during the upcoming run is one of the best ways to prepare your body for what is coming next.
As you feel more and more prepared, you can pick up the pace of your initial warm-up or move to active stretching…
Stretching is a key part of every run, both at the beginning of it and in the end after you cool down. While there isn’t much evidence of whether stretching after your run helps, it sure does make you feel more grounded and it also contributes to the cool-down period in which you can do some passive stretching and keep bringing your HR down.
Remember that stretching your muscles while they’re cold is never a good idea and can lead to potential injuries. This is why stretching should always come after the warm-up if you want to have it before the workout.
The stretching for your run should be more dynamically oriented with active stretches that don’t require you to sit on the ground. Do lunges, hip extensions, arms and legs swings, and other types of motions that will mimic your run.
After your run, hold the stretching positions for longer durations (15-30 seconds). Avoid bouncing when doing them and do not stretch if you feel pain in a certain region of your body. Tense and painful muscles should be taken special care of and you should only stretch as much as the muscle allows you to. If it begins to loosen up, you can increase the stretching efforts but, once again, never stretch if it hurts too much.
A few other stretching tips would be to never hold your breath and to properly stretch your body symmetrically with both sides being equally engaged in the process. Try to relax your breathing and slow down your breathing rate. Deep belly breaths are a good way to calm down your body.
The cool-down period is essential for a couple of reasons here. If you stop suddenly after your run and go do some passive stretches or simply go shower, you might experience some lightheadedness mainly due to the fact that your blood pressure and heart rate will drop rather fast. To prevent that, you need to ease your way into the end of the workout by slowly decreasing your efforts until your HR is down to 80-100 bpm and your breathing rate has normalized. This cool-down period is also a good mental transition between the maximum efforts you go through during the workout and the calmness of the post-workout stretch.
To properly cool down after your run, start walking slower and slower until you reach normal walking speed. You can do that by slowly jogging as well, as long as you bring that HR down effectively and gradually. In that period, you can begin replenishing your lost water and electrolytes.
Knowing how to create a proper running plan is vital to your success. This is why I’ve dedicated a whole article on that topic where I’ve discussed all the details surrounding a potential plan that you might want to build around your schedule.
How to warm-up for weights
Just like with running, weight-lifting warm-ups include stretching both in their warm-up and cool-down periods. If you’ve ever had a weights coach, you were probably constantly reminded that stretching can improve your muscle performance and prevent injuries.
Still, a lot of people today aren’t convinced that stretching does something for your overall recovery and prefer to not include it. Even more so, weightlifters think that stretching isn’t a crucial part of the workout as a whole, and skip it altogether. All that leaves is just a warm-up period and a cool-down one. Whether that is true, it is almost impossible to say as there are conflicting results from various studies. Still, what nobody argues with is that a good warm-up can be sufficient for your body in order to get it up to speed and start lifting heavy weights.
Include movements similar to the ones you will do in the gym and put aside at least 15 minutes before you start feeling your body warming up and feeling ready to amp up the efforts.
Weight lifting injuries almost always occur due to poor form so one of the major things about warming up for these workouts is maintaining that proper form even during the warm-up. Keep your posture upright and try mimicking the movements as good as possible. During the cool-down period, you can stretch but, just as with running cool-down stretches, don’t hold your breath, don’t stretch over pain, and try to relax and hold your stretches for some good 20-30 seconds.
How to warm up for cycling
Just as you wouldn’t start off your car and rev it high on a cold morning, you don’t want to rush your body too fast into the town springs and hammering climbs ahead of your cycling workout.
Cycling warm-ups can last up to 1 full hour before you start putting heavy efforts into the workout but most experts believe that 15-25 minutes should do the job. The thing with cycling is that it is a low-impact sport compared to running and weight lifting, so half-doing the warm-up or even skipping it will most likely be fine and won’t result in an injury. Still, there is no doubt that warm muscles simply work better than cold ones, so it is to your benefit (and for the good of the workout) to put 20 minutes aside for easing your way into the big efforts.
At the beginning of your workout, start off slow by spinning easy for around 10-15 minutes. In this time your body will start adapting to the exercise and will get up to speed. Those minutes aren’t only for your body to adapt, though, as your mind needs to tune in as well. Visualize the efforts you want to spend on this workout, your route ahead, and your current mood and state. This is a great period for self-reflection and thoughts for your future training successes.
Pay attention to your body and more particularly – to your legs. If they are sore due to a few days of inactivity, you might want to take things slower and warm-up for a few extra minutes.
Check with your heart rate and measure the efforts your body is spending during the warm-up. I really suggest getting the best fitness tracker for cycling in order to have an accurate read on your body’s metrics. That will allow you to gauge your efforts better and see where you are compared to previous workouts or your rest state.
If your heart rate is unusually higher and you feel like you have to spend extra amounts of energy to maintain the pace of the warm-up, that might indicate that you are overtraining your body and need a longer rest next time. This signal can also help you determine how hard you will go on this workout or whether you should continue at all. Sometimes a warm-up ride is more than enough if your body is overtrained and it is best to take the rest of the day off.
Some of the things I haven’t mentioned until now are also a good alternative to warming your body up, as well as stretching it nicely in the process. Active stretches, jump ropes, and even some yoga poses can all prepare you for the upcoming workout as good as some of the traditional warm-ups.
- Jump Ropes
Even though this one is fairly obvious, jump ropes are still one of the best ways to train your cardio and get your body to the desired operating temperatures. It is also excellent for your body coordination and it involves pretty much every muscle in your body.
- Animal Walks
If you aren’t shy about how people look at you in the park or at the gym, some animal-inspired exercises will surely raise some steam off your body. Crab walks, bear crawls, bunny hops, inchworms, scorpions, and duck walks are all a form of dynamic stretching that also takes quite the effort to perform correctly. Here is a good tutorial on almost all animal-based warm-up exercises:
- Hot temperatures
Apart from actually exercising to get your body up to speed, some people prefer going into the sauna for a quick 10-minute session or even take a hot shower before a workout in order to, very literally, warm-up their bodies. While many think that this isn’t the most ideal method of doing a warm-up, some trainers say it is completely safe, as long as you don’t rush your way into the workout afterwards. Saunas will warm-up your body but will also loosen everything in there so make sure you still give yourself an introductory lap or two before you go all-in.
Should you stretch on your rest days?
Stretching, if done as part of your daily routine can have a couple of great advantages. Apart from setting you in-line with your inner self and allowing you to focus on your body, breathing, and mind while doing it, daily stretches also keep your cardiovascular and muscular systems in good shape. While studies are conflicting when it comes to major health and performance benefits, nobody argues with the fact that stretching makes you feel better and makes you more flexible.
However, as I previously mentioned here, be careful not to overstretch your muscles or joints as that can lead to serious injuries and sideline you for some time.
Your rest days should have your heart rate at its resting beats per minutes. The best way to track that is by having a good waterproof fitness tracker on your hand and getting a constant live read on your HR.
Knowing how to properly warm-up for different workouts is something you need to learn and remember if you want to stay healthy and keep your body injuries-free. No matter the sport, a good 10-minute warm-up session is a must and is sometimes all your body needs to prepare for the upcoming workout. While some sports such as weight lifting won’t require a lot of stretching, runners and cyclists benefit a lot from stretching both in their warm-up and in their cool-down periods.