Every so often, I see gym-goers walk up to a treadmill, and start their jogging/running routine within a couple of minutes of arriving at the gym. I am always at a lack of understanding – is it the lack of time to fit in a safety measure or just ignorance? Either one way, they are headed for injury or worse. Warm-ups have a very specific purpose – they prepare the mind and body for what is coming further on in the workout session.
Let me start with what exactly is a warm up and which activities qualify as warm ups and which don’t. Warm is any low intensity, slow-paced activity that may (preferable) or may not resemble your intense and eventual activity but gets the muscles, tissues and organs ready for more intense workout. A warm up may start out slow but it can be increased in pace and intensity finally to match the main workout. In general, the more intense and complex your main workout, the longer your workout should be.
Any warm should be able to increase your blood circulation in a gradual way without shocking the systems. Cold muscles are in contracted state and do not absorb shock or impact too well leading to injuries. A warm-up should be able to increase your heart rate and your rate of breathing a little and should raise the temperature of muscle tissues slightly. It should be able to make you sweat lightly as well.
Activities such as moderately paced and brisk walking are good warm-ups as are warming up on a stationary bike or an elliptical. A warm up should ideally be done for 5 to 10 minutes (depending on the intensity and complexity of your main workout) but may be done for 15 minutes in cold weather conditions. Stretching by itself does not count as warm-up but works as a complementary activity to better prepare the different muscle groups that will be put to action in the main workout later.
To recap, warm-ups are essential to any cardio or strength training workout to enable:
1. Better limb coordination and reaction times
2. Better preparation for the heart to work at an increased rate soon
3. Mental readiness for the workout
4. Better blood flow to muscles and tissues resulting in more efficient delivery of nutrients and oxygen to them during (and after) the workout.
5. Better readiness for the muscles to workout making them more supple and flexible.