Coaches and trainers everywhere preach the practice of “warming up” before exercise and competition. The problem is, why should we? Schedules with work, family, projects, chores, leisure, etc. tax our time, subtracting the number of hours available to us in a day, barely enabling us to include caring for our bodies through physical activity. Workouts already take thirty minutes to an hour, so why add to that time with a five to ten minute preparatory period for that workout? Answer: the same reason you go to the dentist and doctor, to make sure that body of yours can function and thrive!
Think of it like this: every time you venture to the gym, your body must be physically and mentally prepared to perform a series of pushes and pulls in multiple planes without any system breaking down. Every time you drive that car or turn on that computer of yours, it is expected to perform certain functions to serve you without any problems or delays. To ensure no complications arise we usually take it to a local professional to run diagnostics, or tests. Does the engine run effectively? Is there enough pressure in the tires? Is my computer free of spyware and malware? How fast does my desktop turn on? These systems tests enable us to know what is working and what needs fixing. The same approach should be taken towards the most complicated tool most of us will ever manipulate in our lifetime: our bodies.
To evaluate if our bodies are prepared for exercise and competition, three areas must be addressed. First is the increase in core body temperature. The purpose of raising the core body temperature is not as direct as it sounds. By shifting the blood flow from our gut to our muscles, this enables our bodies to fuel the muscle fibers and surrounding tissues quickly. This would be the equivalent of letting the engine run for a few minutes to enable to oil to start moving before tremendous demands are placed upon the car. Raising our core body temperature is basically allocating our energy systems serve our musculature instead of our digestive system (which is not completely shut off).
The second is mobilization of our tissues and therefore our skeletal structure. Physiotherapist Kelly Starrett, owner of San Francisco Crossfit and leader in the field of recovery and regeneration in sport, states in his book “Becoming a Supple Leopard” that “mobilization is a tool to improve your capacity to move and perform efficiently.” If your muscles are adhered to one another and the sliding surfaces are grinding against one another like steel on pavement, restoring those functions is a must. Mobilization techniques such as foam rolling, dynamic stretching, or even “flossing” as Dr. Starrett would put it, are two out of many techniques everyone can use to prepare for exercise. Once those hip flexors and rhomboids can function properly without restriction, resistance exercise patterns such as squats or pull-ups will be that much easier to do!
The third, which ties heavily into the second, is an evaluation of your body’s restrictions and limitations. This is most easily conducted through a dynamic warm-up consisting of multi-joint bodyweight or light weight exercises. In ideal conditions there will be a coach or trainer observing your movement patterns to identify any imbalances or possible hidden injuries, but in less ideal circumstances the mobilization warm-up can be a self-evaluation. From your toes to the top of your head (and everything in-between), the warm-up must be designed to either be successful and every exercise can be performed perfectly (assuming you are already trained), or expose the kinks in your system which could take away from your workout. An example of this would be a simple air squat. During that squat, if you find your knees sinking over those toes and your lower back rounding, something in your system is stuck and can’t move. Yes, it could be improper motor patterns, but under the supervision of a well-trained exercise science professional there would only be reason to suspect an imbalance in the muscles, not your brain. The professional would then proceed to tell you what is blocked and help you to loosen up those tissue restrictions needed for a proper squat. Good thing the barbell was not on your back just yet.
So why do we warm up before that personal training session or that football game? To prevent our bodies from breaking down, that’s why. By raising our core body temperature, restoring proper tissue elasticity and sliding surfaces, and performing a systems diagnostic check on our joints and muscle groups, we ensure that our bodies can handle the stress we’re about to put it through. Five minutes is the minimum, but since there are different types of exercise regimens or competitions, there needs to be different lengths and different types of warm ups. The more intense your exercise, the longer the warm up should be. A powerlifter picking up eight hundred pounds will most certainly spend more time preparing for his lift than a soccer mom getting her workout in before picking up the kids from practice. Be specific with your warm up too. Work on that shoulder joint if any bench presses are coming your way. Clean up that Gastrocnemius and Anterior Tibialis before a thirty minute session of jump rope. Whatever your regimen for the day, warm-up beforehand, be specific with the systems check and mobilizations, and pay attention to what your body is telling you (or the coach/trainer). It may take a little extra time in that busy schedule, but believe me, it’s worth it!