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 What is a Warm Up and How to Warm Up Properly?

Warm up properly and reduce the risk of sports injury with these warm up exercises and stretches.

The warm up exercises are crucial to any sports or fitness training program. The importance of a structured warm up routine should not be under estimated when it comes to preventing sports injury.

A proper warm up has a number of very important key components. These components, or parts, should all work together to prepare the individual for sports performance and minimize the likelihood of sports injury from physical activity.

Warm Up Exercises and Stretches

What is a Warm Up?

A warm up (as it relates to physical activity and exercise) is any activity, either physical or mental, that helps to prepare an individual for the demands of their chosen sport or exercise.

Why Warm Up?

Warming up prior to any physical activity does a number of beneficial things, but the main purpose of the warm up is to prepare the body and mind for strenuous activity.

  • One of the ways it achieves this is by increasing the body’s core temperature, while also increasing the body’s muscle temperature. By increasing muscle temperature you’re helping to make the muscles loose, supple and pliable.
  • An effective warm up also has the effect of increasing both your heart rate and your respiratory rate. This increases blood flow, which in turn increases the delivery of oxygen and nutrients to the working muscles.

All this helps to prepare the muscles, tendons and joints for more strenuous activity.

Warm Up Stretching Guidelines

As with most activities there are rules and guidelines to ensure that they are safe; stretching and the warm up is no exception. Stretching can be extremely dangerous and harmful if done incorrectly. This short video shows you how to warm up properly to get the most out of your stretching.

The Greatest Misconception

Confusion about what stretching accomplishes, as part of the warm up, is causing many to abandon stretching altogether. The key to understanding the role stretching plays can be found in the previous sentence. But, you have to read it carefully.

Stretching, as part of the warm up! Stretching is a critical part of the warm up, but stretching is not THE warm up. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that doing a few stretches constitutes a warm up.

An effective warm up has a number of very important key components, which work together to minimize the likelihood of sports injury and prepare the individual for physical activity.

How to Structure Your Warm Up?

It’s important to start with the easiest and most gentle activity first, building upon each part with more energetic activities, until the body is at a physical and mental peak. This is the state in which the body is most prepared for the physical activity to come, and where the likelihood of sports injury has been minimized as much as possible. So, how should you structure your warm up to achieve these goals?

There are four key components, or parts, which should be included to ensure an effective and complete warm up. They are:

  1. The general warm up;
  2. Static stretching;
  3. The sports specific warm up; and
  4. Dynamic stretching.

Important: All four parts are equally important and any one part should not be neglected or thought of as not necessary. All four components work together to bring the body and mind to a physical peak, ensuring the athlete is prepared for the activity to come. This process will help ensure the athlete has a minimal risk of sports injury.

The 4 Key Components of a Warm Up

Identifying the components of an effective and safe warm up, and executing them in the correct order is critical. Remember, stretching is only one part of an effective warm up and its’ place in the warm up routine is specific and dependent on the other components.

The four key components that should be included to ensure an effective and complete warm up are:

1. General warm up

The general warm up should consist of a light physical activity, like walking, jogging, easy swimming, stationary bike riding, skipping or easy aerobics. Both the intensity and duration of the general warm up (or how hard and how long), should be governed by the fitness level of the participating athlete. Although a correct general warm up for the average person should take about five to ten minutes and result in a light sweat.

The aim of the general warm up is simply to elevate the heart rate and respiratory rate. This in turn increases the blood flow and helps with the transportation of oxygen and nutrients to the working muscles. This also helps to increase the muscle temperature, allowing for a more effective static stretch. Which bring us to part two.

2. Static stretching

Yes, Static stretching! (Short-hold static stretching of 10 – 15 seconds) This is a very safe and effective form of basic stretching. There is a limited threat of injury and it is extremely beneficial for overall flexibility.

During this part of the warm up, static stretching should include all the major muscle groups, and this entire part should last for about five to ten minutes.

There’s quite a bit of controversy about whether static stretching should be included in the warm up, and recent studies have shown that static stretching may have an adverse effect on muscle contraction speed and therefore impair performance of athletes involved in sports requiring high levels of power and speed.

It is for this reason that static stretching is conducted early in the warm-up procedure and is always followed by sports specific drills and dynamic stretching.

This part of the warm up is extremely important, as it helps to lengthen both the muscles and tendons, which in turn allows your limbs a greater range of movement. This is very important in the prevention of muscle and tendon injuries (see related articles below).

The above two components form the basis, or foundation for a complete and effective warm up. It is extremely important that these two components be completed properly before moving onto the next two components. The proper completion of components one and two, will now allow for the more specific and vigorous activities necessary for components three and four.

“…no significant differences in either performance variable were evident when the skill-based warm-up was preceded by static stretching or a dynamic warm-up routine.

This suggests that the practice of a subsequent high-intensity skill based warm-up restored the differences between the two warm-up interventions. Hence, if static stretching is to be included in the warm-up period, it is recommended that a period of high-intensity sport-specific skills based activity is included prior to the on-court/field performance.”

Taylor, K. Sheppard, J. Lee, H. Plummer, N. (2009). Negative effect of static stretching restored when combined with a sport specific warm-up component. Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport, 12(6):657-61.

3. Sport specific warm up

With the first two parts of the warm up carried out thoroughly and correctly, it is now safe to move onto the third part of an effective warm up. In this part, the athlete is specifically preparing their body for the demands of their particular sport. During this part of the warm up, more vigorous activity should be employed. Activities should reflect the type of movements and actions that will be required during the sporting event, including sports specific drills and technical drills.

4. Dynamic stretching

Finally, a correct warm up should finish with a series of dynamic stretches. However, this form of stretching carries with it an increased risk of injury if used incorrectly. Dynamic stretching is most effective after a moderate to high level of general flexibility has been established.

Dynamic stretching involves a controlled, soft bounce or swinging motion to move a particular body part to the limit of its range of movement.

The force of the bounce or swing is gradually increased but should never become radical or uncontrolled. If you’ve never done any dynamic stretching before, please seek instruction and guidance from a professional sports coach or trainer before attempting dynamic stretching (see related articles below).

During this final part of an effective warm up it is also important to keep the dynamic stretches specific to the athlete’s particular sport.

This is the final part of the warm up and should result in the athlete reaching a physical and mental peak. At this point the athlete is most prepared for the rigors of their sport or activity.

How Long Should I Warm Up for?

The above information forms the basis of a complete and effective warm up. However, I am well aware that this entire process is somewhat of an ‘ideal’ or ‘perfect’ warm up. I am also well aware that this is not always possible or convenient in the real world. Therefore, the individual athlete must become responsible for assessing their own goals and adjusting their warm up accordingly.

For instance, the time you commit to your warm up should be relative to your level of involvement in your particular sport. So, for people just looking to increase their general level of health and fitness, a minimum of five to ten minutes would be enough.

However, if you are involved in high level competitive sport you need to dedicate adequate time and effort to a complete warm up.


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