It isn’t unusual to see people walk into a gym, change into workout gear, and spend about two minutes rotating their arms and doing some jumping jacks before racking the bar for compound lifts. It’s the same at football turfs or makeshift cricket pitches across the country: you come in, bowl a few overs, go back home, and the next day your shoulders are screaming with pain. I know people who have had the misfortune of tearing their knee ligaments because they didn’t spend five extra minutes getting ready for what is an intense physical activity. Those few minutes of warming up could save you months of rehabilitation.
The primary cause behind people ignoring warm-ups is that it’s “boring”. It’s probably the least liked part of training. It is not unnatural to want to hit the weights or kick a ball as soon as possible. But going cold into any physical activity can become a major hindrance as you increase the intensity of your workouts, be it in the gym, or even if you’re running or cycling.
The most popular time slots for working out are mornings and evenings. If you’re someone who hits the gym early in the day, it means your muscles have most probably become stiff overnight while you were sleeping. If you plan to go in the evening, it is highly possible you do so after a day of sitting in one place. In both these situations, the body needs to be ‘activated’ before the muscles can be worked. The formula is simple: a tight muscle is a weak muscle.
“Warming up is the most important part of your workout. The most important benefit of being particular about them is the phenomenal drop in the chances of getting injured or tweaking something during the workout,” says physiotherapist and sports scientist Luqman Shaikh.
He adds that while the onus may fall on personal or group trainers (eg: CrossFit, zumba, and boxing) to make sure that their clients warm up, it is eventually the individual’s responsibility to make sure they are serious about preparing for a workout.
There is solid science backing up the importance of warming up. As your body temperature slowly rises, the increased blood flow puts less pressure on the heart; the increase in muscle temperature means they contract and stretch easier and this range of motion translates to a better workout. The body starts producing more hormones that allows you to increase your energy output. Finally, and the most underrated quality in the world of fitness, warming up helps you get mentally ready for what is to come.
Let’s see what a fascinating 2016 study published in the Journal of Sports Science & Medicine, called Effects of Mental Imagery on Muscular Strength has to say. It states that the benefits of getting mentally ready during the warm-up for upcoming physical activity can “be explained in terms of neural adaptations, stronger brain activation, higher muscle excitation, greater somatic and sensorimotor activation and physiological responses such as blood pressure, heart rate, and respiration rate.” The mental imagery referred to could be as simple as thinking of doing a bench press with weights while you’re doing push-ups during the warm up. It is also why you see batsmen practice their drives while they are walking up to the crease.
An easier way to approach warm-ups could be to see it as a pre-training work out. Tuning your warm-ups to the muscle groups you will hit on the day will also help keep them fresh. This means focussing on cat-cows, glute bridges, pull-ups, and rows on back day; hamstring pulses, ankle rotations, and bear walks on leg day. As for how long these warm-ups should be, find a sweet spot which isn’t too intense but also not too relaxed. It is also a misconception that intense warm-ups are better. Research has suggested that the opposite is true.
A paper in the International Journal on Sports Physiology and Performance on exercising before rowing [the sport], stated that “a warm-up characterized by lower intensity and shorter duration should elicit less physiological strain and promote substantially higher power production.” There is no compulsion to sweat or feel jaded after a warm-up. Instead, you’re looking to achieve being ‘ready’ for a workout. I have come across trainers who are so particular they will place a hand on their bodies and check for increased temperature and heart-rate to evaluate their preparedness.
But it’s not just about heart-rate. “A lot of people think heart-rate is the only marker of you being warmed up sufficiently, but there is a system to follow,” Shaikh explains.
He says there are three parts to a warm-up: the first is mobility and activation which will consist of a couple of sets of low resistance bodyweight exercises and resistance band aided mobility. Then comes dynamic stretching which will not consist of cold stretches with holds, but movement based stretches like leg swings or hamstring pulses. The third part is cardiovascular, which can consist of jogs, cycling, and using the rowing machine. Foam rolling can also be considered part of your warm-up to aid your range of motion.
So the next time you are about to put your body through an exaggerated load, it is important to prepare. Not just physically, but mentally, so that your fitness journey is smooth, and not made of roadblocks which can easily be avoided with a few minutes of warming up.
Pulasta Dhar is a football commentator and writer.