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One of the most underrated parts of the workout is the preparation that comes before the workout itself, which is the warm-up. This guide will give you all the information you need to develop the ultimate warm up. Most athletes don’t spend enough time warming up or are actually hindering their performance. This guide will teach you optimal time to static stretch, dynamic stretch and foam roll to maximize your performance and prevent injury. Let’s start with the benefits of a warm up.  

Benefits of a Warm Up

  • Increased heart rate
  • Increased blood flow
  • Helps to prepare the body for movement
  • Contributes to injury prevention

Think of the warm up as your coffee before the workday – the caffeine in the coffee can help you get moving in the morning, just like a warm up does before your workout. It is important not to skip over the warm up, because preparing your body for physical movement should not be overlooked. Warm up exercises should mimic movements in the main workout in order to encourage more blood flow to the areas that will be exercising. This can also help to reduce your risk for injury. 

For example, people who plan to deadlift during their workout should incorporate components of the deadlift, either with little-to-no weight, or review proper body mechanics and technique during the warm up. Another way to tailor your warm up to your workout is to activate similar muscle groups in a dynamic manner.

athlete stretching to warm up 

Mistakenly, most people are eager to jump to some sort of stretching routine, or low-intensity movements, like high knees or jumping jacks, to warm up the muscles. While these activities may be appropriate for low impact/low intensity workouts, those who are working on explosive and powerful exercises will want to take a different approach to their warm ups. 

Conversely, cooldowns are also necessary components of a workout program because they decrease the heart rate and breathing rate, cool the body temperature, and help to restore normal muscle tension after exercise. The cooldown is a great way to return the body to its baseline. 

There has been a lot of attention regarding which warm up methods are most effective. Follow along as we discuss 4 research-based ways to change up your warm up routine that may help you achieve better performance during workouts or competition. 

Perform Dynamic Stretches BEFORE Your Workout 

We like to call dynamic stretches the “new kid on the block,” and they are definitely worth talking about. Dynamic stretches consist of active movements that require you to move through a comfortable range of motion. As you continue, your movements may become bigger and more specific to the workout that you are preparing to do. Examples of dynamic stretches include:

  • Running or jogging with high knees
  • Butt kicks
  • Trunk rotations
  • Walking lunges 
  • Light banded (resistance band) movement
  • Sport-related movements at 50% speed/intensity

Ultimately, dynamic stretches allow us to increase our range of motion, elevate our heart rate, increase blood flow to the working muscles, and prepare our bodies for intense movement. More importantly, recent research has shown that dynamic stretches can still improve muscle length without sacrificing performance during workouts or competition. This means that incorporating dynamic stretches within a warm up will not negatively affect our ability to jump, lift, run, or perform athletic-like movements. 

One way that dynamic stretches prepare our bodies for movement is through prepping the nervous system for high level activity. By activating the “fight or flight” mechanism, our bodies are able to focus on the mechanisms that are important to survival, like heart rate, breathing rate, blood flow, and muscle movement. This response, finely tuned by something called the sympathetic nervous system, forces other body functions that are not crucial to survival (like digestion) to slow down so that more energy can be directed towards the working parts. 

Save Static Stretches Until AFTER Your Workout 

girl warming up to go for a run outside

Why? Because static stretches can help to decrease muscle soreness. 

Saving the static stretches until post-workout also helps to optimize the length/tension relationship in your muscles. In doing so, you may be able to increase your range of motion and flexibility. 

The main reason why static stretching is not recommended pre-workout is because it can hinder your performance, endurance, and ability to perform explosive movements. Unlike dynamic stretches, static stretching does very little towards increasing blood flow to specific areas of the body.

Unfortunately, no one is certain about the optimal time to hold each static stretch – some experts claim that it can take months for you to see long term changes in your flexibility. However, we do recommend that you hold each stretch for about two minutes. Increasing your mobility will take some time, but you can optimize your efforts by consistently stretching everyday.

Foam Rolling Works In The Warm Up…Until It Doesn’t 

The use of foam rolling has been controversial within the fitness and exercise community. However, the general consensus is this: foam rolling can create short-term improvements in mobility without necessarily sacrificing your performance. It has also been shown to increase blood flow to working muscles and decrease pain sensitivity signals. 

Theoretically, you can foam roll before and after your workout, depending on your goals. If you want to use the foam roll to help alleviate muscle soreness, then it may be best to roll post workout. It can help to loosen up muscle tissue and increase blood flow to the area. There is a small amount of evidence that points to the benefits of using a foam roll before the workout in order to improve form or technique.

Recently, there has been a growing interest in the use of handheld massage guns, like the Theragun, to improve pain and mobility. Similar to foam rolling, massage guns also have the capability to reduce tissue tension and possibly improve blood flow to the area. In terms of system-wide effects on the body, there may be some implications for the reduction of pain signals, but more research is needed on this topic.

We do not have definitive answers about either of these methods right now, so our recommendation is to listen to the needs of your body before deciding how to use it. Luckily, research studies have not shown any negative effects of foam rolling on muscle performance, which means it is okay to use it in your pre or post workout routine. 

Shift Your Focus From Flexibility to Performance

Did you know that there are actually instances in which muscle or tendon stiffness can be beneficial?

Many physical therapists and trainers who work with professional basketball players would agree that having increased stiffness in the Achilles tendon benefits the players’ performance. More specifically, tendon stiffness in the ankle joint allows the players to generate and store more power that is required for vertical jumps, rebounds, or quick changes in speed.

female athlete crossfit squats to warm up for exercise

On the other hand, coaches who work with CrossFit athletes emphasize the importance of ankle mobility and flexibility in order to improve squat depth. These athletes perform multiple repetitions of banded ankle exercises in order to achieve optimal performance during events. 

So what is the main connection between the professional basketball player, who does not require large amounts of ankle flexibility, and the CrossFit athlete who requires full range of motion in the ankle joint? Both of these athletes are tailoring their workouts, and warm ups, to improve their performance and end results. 

You, too, can practice this concept by engaging in warm up and cooldown activities in the correct order and using the right exercises that will enhance, versus negate, your performance. 

Is More Mobility The Right Answer?

Think of muscles as little building blocks that are connected together, like links in a chain. While we can remove links from the chain, it is not possible to add new links to increase the length. Our best option is to find ways to relax the chain, aka muscle, to improve mobility. 

Somehow, we decided that having increased mobility was a good thing. But is this true?

We recommend that you avoid falling into the trap of using flexibility and mobility as a measure of your health and fitness. Having more mobility does not necessarily alter your risk for injury. For example, gymnasts are some of the most flexible athletes in any sport. Their sport demands are incredibly dynamic and require full, albeit hyper, extension of many joints in the body. That being said, gymnasts are known for overuse injuries like tendinitis, which stems from actual weakness within the muscle itself. Sometimes, the more motion you have, the harder it is to maintain joint stability and strength.

Key Takeaways To Create The Best Warm Up

  • Your warm up should serve as an activity-specific movement that is geared towards what’s coming up next. 
  • For moderate-to-intense activity, prioritize dynamic stretches before your workout in order to prime your body for big movements. Choose exercises that use similar muscle groups to your main workout while working at a lesser intensity.
  • Static stretches should be performed post-workout to decrease muscle soreness and possibly improve flexibility over time. 
  • Use a foam roll according to your body’s needs. Foam roll before exercise to gain a little bit of mobility without inhibiting muscle performance. Foam rolling after exercise may be beneficial in reducing muscle soreness and formation of painful muscle adhesions. 

Showing you different ways to incorporate warm ups into your workout is just one step that sets us apart here at Peak Physiotherapy and Performance.  If you are looking to learn more about the best warm up options for your workout, then contact us today for a free phone consultation here. We look forward to hearing from you!

About the Author

Dr. Andrew Junak is a Doctor of Physical Therapy and Board-Certified Orthopedic Specialist. Dr. Junak received his Doctorate of Physical Therapy from Walsh University and completed his Orthopedic Specialist training at the Cleveland Clinic. He is the owner of Peak Physiotherapy and Performance, a physical therapy clinic in Canal Winchester and Blacklick, Ohio. He serves the local communities of Lancaster, Grove City, Blacklick, Pickerington, and Columbus. Dr. Junak is passionate about helping people solve their problems in order to get them back to doing the things they love.

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