As exercise professionals, we recommend warming up the body before engaging in physical activity. Whether you’re walking to work, raking leaves, weight lifting or playing sports, doing a proper warm up has several benefits, including helping to prevent injury and optimizing your performance.

To better understand what constitutes a warm up exercise, the optimal way to warm up, and understand how warming up prevents injury, we will delve into the physiology and research around it.

What is a Warm Up?

A warm up is any activity that helps prepare you for the activity that you are about to perform, like exercise, sport, or daily life. As the name suggests, warm up exercises are intended to warm up your body. Warming up the muscles helps prepare them for activity. Ideally, you want to slowly ramp up your heart rate and your respiratory rate rather than being thrust into heavy activity and heavy exertion right away.

The warm up typically happens right before the activity is going to start and its purpose is to:

  1. reduce the risk of injury while performing the activity;
  2. enhance your performance of the activity;
  3. or minimize pain in cases of injury or chronic conditions.

How to Warm Up Effectively?

What constitutes a warm up can mean different things to different people. You might think of it as those old school stretches your gym teacher would instruct you to do, like side bends, hurdler stretches, and a couple of laps around the field to get ready for whatever you were doing as the main activity for the class.

Some people might warm up with yoga type stretches or a variety of movements they’ve picked up in group exercises classes. Whereas other people might approach their warm up with specific activities that closely match the movements they will be engaging in.

Technically, all of those approaches can be considered a warm up. They key is ensuring whatever approach you take achieves the goals of the warm up. Any sort of light, whole body movement that helps your blood circulate into the muscles can be effective.

This general activity should be somewhere around 40 to 60 percent of your maximum effort. In other words, on a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 means you’re not trying at all and 10 means you’re giving it all you can, you want to be between four and six.

The second part of the warm up process is stretching. Stretching will also loosen up the muscles and helps increase their range and motion as well as their capacity for activity. There are two types of stretching — static and dynamic — that should be incorporated into a warm up.

With static stretches you find a particular position where you feel tension in a muscle and then you hold it until you start to feel it lengthen or loosen up. For example, if you wanted to stretch your hamstring (the muscle in the back of the thigh), you could sit on a chair, straighten your leg and point your toes to the ceiling.

Next lean forward over that leg until you feel tension in the back of the leg and then stop there. Hold that for 10 to 15 seconds and then come out of this stretch and repeat that sequence two or three more times. This is a good enough stretch to start loosening up the muscle in the beginning and not achieving too much lengthening.

With dynamic stretching you are not necessarily isolating the muscle but stretching a variety of muscles with low intensity functional movements. This will cause the muscles to draw in fluid so they can lengthen more gently and prime your nervous system for activity as well. Ideally, you want those dynamic movements to be as fluid as possible.

For example, if you wanted to stretch your hamstring dynamically, you could sit on a chair. This time, instead of straightening your leg, you could lift your heel off the ground and bend and straighten your knee several times to shorten and lengthen the muscle throughout this movement.

How Does Warming Up Prevent Injury?

Warming up the human body is similar to warming up your car briefly before driving it. Although today’s vehicles require less than 30 seconds to warm up, this precious time allows oil to circulate throughout and lubricate all of the moving parts.

Similarly, a light intensity warm up allows your cardio and respiratory system to increase circulation and lubrication gradually so that you don’t go from zero to 60 miles per hour all at once and put unnecessary stress on your cardio system.

This also leads to increased blood flow through active tissues, which aids with taking away waste products that are produced during exercise and minimizing potential pain associated with activity.

When we increase the temperature in the muscle, it enhances the supply of oxygen into the muscle and therefore increases the amount of energy it can produce.

A warm up also provides a protective mechanism in the muscle minimizing risk of injury. They’ve found in studies with rabbits that this warm up or this protective mechanism requires greater length of stretch and force to produce a tear in the rabbit’s muscle. It is safe to conclude there is some protection against injury when you use muscles that has benefitted from a warm up.

From a biomechanical standpoint, to operate your body safely and efficiently you should have full range of motion in the joints and muscles. If you have tight muscles or limited joint mobility, having a proper stretching routine will help make performance of whatever activity you’re trying to do better, because you have the best mechanical advantage.

It should also help protect the joints themselves because they are not operating in a misaligned manner where certain structures within the joints, such as ligaments or bursa, might get injured. The warming of those structures, especially the muscle, enables them to absorb more strain and stress.

Usually, muscles and joints begin to break down after they’ve been stressed beyond their tolerance point.  When people have weak muscles around the joint it becomes difficult to absorb the force and energy particularly during weight bearing activities.

For example, when you’re walking, any impact coming up from ground reaction forces transmits up through your leg. If the muscles are weak and cannot absorb this force, the impact or energy is transferred to other passive tissues, such as the joint surface or ligaments. This can lead to destruction of the joint, pain and immobility.

If you don’t warm up adequately or gradually, you might not necessarily feel the effects of it the first few times that you do it. However, if you do that continually, eventually parts of your body will wear out if they’re subject to increased stress, including your cardiac muscle. It is better to gradually get it active, gradually raise the intensity and the breathing rate just to help prepare your body to do what it has to do.

Physical Activity & Injury Prevention

Physical activity is vital in improving and maintaining flexibility, strength and balance. Maintaining good physical health can improve pain and fatigue associated with many chronic illnesses.

At Propel Physiotherapy, movement is the foundation for our preventative and rehabilitation programs. We take an active approach to working with all clients regardless of their previous level of activity.

Our highly experienced and trained exercise professionals and physiotherapists can provide a comprehensive assessment and develop a customized exercise program to help you optimize your daily function, performance in sports, manage the effects of injury and prevent the potential of further injuries. Contact us to learn more about how warm ups prevent injury and how we can help you.


Written by

Chris Sutarno
Chris SutarnoRegistered Kinesiologist
Chris Sutarno works with clients with paraplegia, tetraplegia, amputation, dementia, acquired and traumatic brain injury, diabetes, and orthopedic injuries to help them transition after acute care. He adapts therapeutic exercises to suit their personal goals, whether it be resuming activities of daily life, returning to work, improving their physical conditioning and athletic performance, or maximizing aging at home.



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