Joseph M. Horrigan, Soft Tissue Center

Most of us know how important it is to warm up properly before working out, but we all have those times when we’re in a hurry and we cut back on our warm-ups.  This applies to recreational sports as well as the gym.  There are trainees who follow the workouts of the current champions, but they are late from work or school and they jump into heavy weights without a warm-up.  These are the situations that can lead to injury.  The best preventative measure is a proper warm-up. Let’s take a closer look at why you should make the time. There are several physiological reasons for giving priority to your warm-up:

  • The first is that your ability to do physical work tends to improve at elevated body temperatures.  This is especially true for power activities, such as weightlifting and weight training, running and sprinting, and throwing events, like the tennis, volleyball, and jumping sports including track and field, volleyball and basketball.

The improvement occurs throughout the body’s systems.  Elevated body temperatures allow oxygen to be freed from the hemoglobin in your red blood cells more easily, making it more accessible for your training.  An extra source of oxygen is found in myoglobin, which is a muscle protein and is released at higher temperatures.  The increase in muscle temperature also makes the chemical reactions involved in performing work occur more efficiently.

  • Another benefit of higher body temperatures is that it reduces the internal viscosity, or the pliability and resistance, of skeletal muscles, and this makes them move easier.  Cooler temperatures increase viscosity and make the muscles stiffer.  “Some recent information on the protective effect for soft tissue injury is most interesting in that it supports the concept of warm-up,” noted research physiologist Frank Shellock, PhD, in a 1986 National Strength and Conditioning Association Journal article titled “Physiological, Psychological and Injury Prevention Aspects of Warm-up.”  “Tear analysis of tendons and ligaments was performed on warm and cold [rabbit] tissue, and the warm tissue was found to tear at a higher force that the cold tissue.”In addition, studies have shown that muscle contraction is quicker and more forceful at elevated temperature.  As the late sprint coach, Charlie Francis, stated “No world record in the 100m was ever set in cold weather”.
  • The nervous system, too, benefits from a good warm-up.  The nerve receptors and the speed of the nerve impulse are temperature sensitive and improve when your body temperature goes up.  If you’re in a sport that requires quickness, like football, track and field, hockey, martial arts or gymnastics, this is a critical point for you.
  • We all know that warming up improves the blood flow to various body areas.  This brings much needed oxygen and nutrients to the exercising muscle faster and removes waste products like lactic acid more efficiently.  The warm-up prepares your body and shifts blood flow from the organs to the muscles.  It can also shift blood away from a nonexercising area to one that you’re working.
  • Another very important point is that the cardiac output, or the blood that is pumped by the heart, moves to the area of exercise faster when you start with a warm-up.  The improved blood flow to the muscle increases its elasticity, and the higher body temperature is believed to bring about improved range of motion involving the joint capsule, tendons, ligaments and connective tissue.  That’s the main reason why you should do your stretch after a warm-up and not before.  When you stretch a cold muscle, you risk injury.  “Most injuries occur if the person is not prepared,” continued Shellock, who is associated with the University of Southern California School of Medicine, and who is a former powerlifter.  “This can be if the muscle is not prepared for the work that day and also if the trainee is not prepared for that type of workload in training.”
  • So how should you approach your warm-up?  Begin with what is known as a general warm-up.  The purpose of this is to increase your overall body temperature for all the above-mentioned reasons.  Try to use as many muscle groups as you can so that you’ll increase their temperature with the work.  A general warm-up does not involve the lift you’re going to use in training but rather something like riding a stationary bike, jumping rope or a run.  Even so, you want to involve the body parts you’re going to use in your workout.
  • The next step is called specific warm-up, and its purpose is to improve the temperature of the muscle and tissue you’ll be using.  For example, if you already performed a general warm-up on a stationary bike, and you are going to train the bench press or you may have a chest workout, you would now do a set of light bench presses to warm up your pecs, delts, triceps, seratus anterior and rotator cuff muscles, as well as the wrist, elbow and shoulder joints.  This also gives you a chance to establish the groove of the lift for the day.  Remember that the warm-up is an individual thing—if you use 135 pounds for eight reps and on the last rep still don’t feel as warm or loose as usual, do another set.  To avoid unnecessary fatigue, however, make it a shorter set.  You may only need four or five reps this time for the muscles to feel right and ready for your planned work sets.
  • On the subject of overtraining, be aware that it’s also possible to over-warm up.  “I think the best way to determine an adequate warm-up is by breaking a sweat,” Shellock said.  “This indicates that the temperature is high enough to activate your thermal receptors to cool you down.”  As Shellock pointed out, this occurs before the exercise uses too much fuel and causes fatigue.
  • “One important point for those advanced trainees to remember is that a well-conditioned athlete requires a longer and/or more intense warm-up to achieve an optimal elevation in body temperature,” he continued.  “This occurs due to the fact that the well-conditioned athlete has a thermoregulatory system that is more efficient at responding to heat produced during exercise.”
  • There is much debate about the length of time in which the effects of a warm-up carry over.  Some published literature notes that it could be 45-80 minutes.  While there are scores of coaches who will disagree with this, in most cases these opinions are based on individual variance—such as athletes who were previously injured; athletes who never warmed up properly to be begin with; athletes who sat on a cold track or field, with their hamstrings against the cold surface; or athletes who took too much time between training sets.
  • The bottom line is that you now have plenty of reasons to improve your performance and avoid injury by warming up.  Use a general warm-up, stretching and a specific warm-up, and then train.  After that comes the cool down, but that’s a subject for another column.  Train hard and train smart, and the rest will follow.