We all know the importance of warming up before exercise, and we all know that it’s something we’re supposed to do. However that doesn’t stop us from often overlooking it, as over-cautious, as something that isn’t as glamorous or as exciting as running or lifting weights. This is a serious mistake however, as warming up before exercise is actually one of the most efficient ways to ensure we avoid injuring ourselves (which can in itself prove a large setback for our training and exercise goals) as well as helping us to get the most from our workouts and perform better than we otherwise would. The importance of warming up before exercise is not only about health then, but also about reaching maximum performance. Furthermore many people may be unaware of the importance of cooling down which can also make a difference when it comes to avoiding injury and capitalising on your hard training.
Warming up is a preparatory phase that most athletes do, or should, undergo at the beginning of an exercise session or event. This will consist of light stretching before exercise, limbering and ‘warming’ of the muscles; getting the blood to flow around the body, limbering joints and stretching the muscles and connective tissue. Cooling down on the other hand consists of similar light exercises practiced at the end of the workout or event, which gradually returns the body to its ‘resting state’, helping to reduce soreness and fatigue following the workout by draining lactic acid which builds up after a work out and helping to return hormone levels to normal (which will help with relaxation and put less stress on the immune system). Lightly massaging or stretching the muscles can also help aid recovery of the microtears that will occur during resistance training. This means that your body will be able to maximise on the ‘anabolic window’ that follows any training routine which will in turn mean your muscles grow back bigger (experiencing more ‘hypertrophy’) than they would if you left them to their own devices.
The importance of warming up before exercise then is down to multiple effects. Firstly, by stretching the muscles and joints you can help them to become more limber and subtle. This means that sudden movements, such as a high kick or awkward turn will be less likely to pull or tear your muscle. Tearing a muscle can be a serious injury that takes a long time to heal (not to mention being incredibly painful potentially requiring stitches) and keeps you out of the gym even in more minor cases. In one famous incident Sylvester Stallone managed to tear his entire pectoral muscle in half in a bench press competition with one of the then-strongest men in the world: Franco Columbu. Today you can still see that one of his pecs is far more vascular than the other as a result. The same goes for tendons and ligaments which can also tear causing severe pain and writing off your gym sessions for some time.
At the same time stretching your muscles has other benefits that are more to do with your performance and training than health and avoiding injury. For one, by stretching your muscles you will be able to use a larger percentage of them during each repetition. As you perform bicep curls for example your biceps will be able to stretch more during each curl, which will mean you train the entire length of the muscles. Furthermore, warming up with rush blood to the muscles, supplying them with oxygen, ATP and minerals thereby improving strength and endurance during training. The importance of warming up before exercise cannot be overstated for bodybuilders or anyone looking to improve their strength and the appearance of their physique.
Sometimes the warm up doesn’t consist of any cardiovascular activity or stretches other than the workout itself but performed at lower intensity. For example you may prepare for a session of jogging by running lightly on a treadmill at a low setting. This then warms up the specific muscles involved in the exercise you will be performing, and also helps to wake up the ‘muscle memory’ for the event you’re about to partake in. This then can help improve performance for the upcoming exercise. It will not however help to stretch the muscles or the joints and so at least five minutes of stretching should be affixed to the beginning of the warm up.
The importance of warming up before exercise also extends to how it affects the bones and joints, which are other areas susceptible to injury during a workout or training. By warming up you will help fluids to reach the joints thus making them more subtle and prevent corrosion and locking. For something like running that places a lot of impact on the knees this is incredibly important.
By stretching the spine and separating the disks in the spinal column you can also prevent serious injury to the back. It was through not warming up that Bruce Lee damaged his back in the gym and at one point he was told by doctors that he would never walk again. If it can happen to Bruce Lee it can happen to you – this should really hammer home the importance of warming up before exercise. Also highly important is the affect warming up has on the heart. After resting for long periods of time sudden activity can be enough to trigger a heart attack in those with heart problems or who are overweight. By warming up slowly then you can slowly get the heart working rather than shocking it into sudden action. If you’re not used to exercising on a regular basis this becomes even more important then; warming up could in fact save your life.
As said, after the warm up and the exercise a ‘cool down’ is also advisable. This will help you to stretch your muscles and encourage growth, will help your heart to slow down and will end the production of hormones such as adrenaline which can place strain on the heart and on the immune system. By stretching out the muscles you can also drain lactic acid, a fact that leads to stretching after every single exercise in activities such as Pilates.