Whether your workout plan is a bodyweight routine in the park or a 5K, warming up should be the first thing on the to-do list (after that pre-workout snack). But what's the ideal way to warm up? Experts agree a warm-up should heat and loosen the body, and prepare the mind for action. A comparison of two warm-ups on joint range of motion. Beedle BB, Mann CL. Journal of strength and conditioning research / National Strength & Conditioning Association, 2007, Nov.;21(3):1064-8011. But there are a few moves you should avoid too.
When it comes to strength training and a variety of sports, coaches often think of their warm-ups as training preparation—using techniques such as foam rolling and movement practice to get the gears aligned. Enter: the dynamic warm-up.
This popular warm-up approach gets all the joints moving one at a time, then all together, taking the body through progressive movements that loosen and stretch your muscles. Classic dynamic moves include walking lunges, toe touches, and high knees.
We perform optimally and better avoid injury after a warm-up that does what its name promises: warm us up. Combination of general and specific warm-ups improves leg-press one repetition maximum compared with specific warm-up in trained individuals. Abad CC, Prado ML, Ugrinowitsch C. Journal of strength and conditioning research / National Strength & Conditioning Association, 2011, Dec.;25(8):1533-4287. Warm-up and stretching in the prevention of muscular injury. Woods K, Bishop P, Jones E. Sports medicine (Auckland, N.Z.), 2008, Mar.;37(12):0112-1642. And while a marathoner doesn't warm up like a powerlifter (the same way an opera singer doesn't warm up like a modern dancer), there could be some similarities.
For endurance or cardio routines, research shows a dynamic approach, including dynamic stretching—active range of motion movements that tend to be similar to what you'll do in your workout, can improve performance. A review of the acute effects of static and dynamic stretching on performance. Behm DG, Chaouachi A. European journal of applied physiology, 2011, Mar.;111(11):1439-6327. Some experts even suggest performing a few short intervals of the planned exercise at a lower intensity (for example: brisk walking before running, or bodyweight squats before adding weight).
As for static stretching, leave it for the cool-down. Numerous studies have shown that it can hinder performance and increase the risk of injury. The effect of static stretching on phases of sprint performance in elite soccer players. Sayers AL, Farley RS, Fuller DK. Journal of strength and conditioning research / National Strength & Conditioning Association, 2009, Feb.;22(5):1533-4287.
Your Action Plan
Every warm-up will be different, depending on your fitness level and the goal of your workout. But as a jumping off point, start with these four basic goals for every warm-up, as outlined by the National Strength and Conditioning Association.
1. Loosen up.
2. Get your heart pumping.
Increased heart thumping warms up your muscles and switches on your nervous system. Jog, slowly row, or ride a bike on low resistance. Just be sure you’re able to converse with your workout buddy (or sing along to your Spotify playlist).
3. Do some dynamic stretches.
Stretch your warm muscles, but don't hold it. Remember: Static stretching during a warm-up can actually hinder your performance. The impact of different warm-up protocols on vertical jump performance in male collegiate athletes. Holt BW, Lambourne K. Journal of strength and conditioning research / National Strength & Conditioning Association, 2008, Apr.;22(1):1533-4287. Instead, do dynamic stretching, which involves continuously moving through a range of motion. For instance, you can make big arm circles in both directions, kick your legs forward, or simply touch your toes and then reach for the sky. The key is to not hold in any position.
Move through the exercises planned for that day’s workout at a lower intensity. Have a long, hard run ahead? Warm up with a few technique drills. Back squats? Start with bodyweight squats or by holding an empty bar. Practicing the movement patterns teaches muscle memory (a.k.a. neuromuscular adaptation) and continues to prepare your body for action.
There’s no limit to the variety of warm-up moves that can get you game-ready, and changing things up is always a fun (and often effective) approach. Here are two of our favorite warm-ups:
Find an enjoyable warm-up and remember to listen to your body's cues. Your warm-up should not fatigue you. After all, it's only one aspect of the workout. And don't forget to cool down at the end.
Originally published June 2012. Updated October 2015.