The Warm Up

The warm-up is a vital part of any exercise program. It is in fact the first one of the three key components of any exercise session; the other two components are the actual work-out and the cool-down. Warming up thoroughly, especially prior to intense resistance exercise, puts the whole body in a state of readiness, increases the range of motion in our limbs and reduces the risk of injury.

In the fitness environment, a proper warm up includes three phases:

a) a general cardio-respiratory warm-up through any aerobic type exercise of moderate intensity for about 5-10 minutes. Treadmill or stationary bike are good examples of this.

b) limbering up through a number of easy static stretches, including some light dynamic stretching and calisthenics

c) Exercise-specific warm-up, which consists of one to several light sets of the particular (multi-joint) resistance exercise, chosen to be performed first for a particular body-part.

A proper general warm-up through moderate aerobic exercise results in a mild elevation of your heart rate and ventilation and perhaps light perspiration, but should not be fatiguing. It increases your core body and muscle temperature, which contributes to making your muscles loose, supple and pliable and augments the blood flow to your heart and your working muscles. This augmented blood flow does not only increase the oxygen delivery to your muscles, but also increases your muscles' oxygen utilization, as hemoglobin releases oxygen more readily at higher muscle temperatures. The production of energy for exercise is facilitated and the speed and efficiency of muscle contractions is improved. Your joints are lubricated and lubricated joints help you to move better.

After 5-10 minutes of moderate aerobic activity, you should continue to prepare for your work-out by limbering up with a few easy static and dynamic stretches, possibly including some light calisthenics (push-ups, freehanded squats, jumping jacks etc.).

Static stretching involves assuming the desired position, moving slowly toward the extreme range of motion for the joint you are stretching and upon reaching the desired level of tension holding it for 10-20 seconds. Dynamic stretching involves swinging the arms and/or legs in a controlled manner. The emphasis hereby needs to be on your major muscle groups, particularly those which you plan to train first in your subsequent fitness program. Stretching and limbering up contributes to increasing the range of motion of your limbs and lubricating your joints, decreases muscular tension, loosens up formerly injured areas and makes you less vulnerable to new injuries. Avoid jerking or bouncing when performing static stretches as this can lead to strains, pulls, or other kinds of injuries. Limbering up should only take a few minutes and should not be confused with progressive static stretching for improved flexibility. If you should need to improve your flexibility, perform progressive static stretching as part of the cool-down phase after your weight training session.

A proper warm-up finally concludes with a so called exercise-specific warm-up , which consists of one up to several light sets of the particular resistance exercise, which is to be performed first in your subsequent weight training session. It depends on your current training level, whether you will need to perform only one warm-up set or more. If you are a beginner and yet handle only light weights, a few light repetitions of your first resistance exercise, possibly performed with an unloaded barbell, may be sufficient, before increasing the resistance to your normal training weight.

In the case of a highly advanced athlete, several sets with gradually increasing resistance may have to be performed before the actual effective training weight is reached. Please note that exercise-specific warm-up sets should not be exhaustive, but merely prepare the body for the subsequently performed sets of higher intensities. Therefore they do not necessarily need to be carried out through the full number of repetitions, which is generally 8-12, unless you train specifically for strength increases. They also don't count as regular training sets.

Prior to the exercise-specific warm-up, it may in some instances even be recommendable to perform one or more non-exhaustive sets of exercises for certain muscle groups which are about to be used as stabilizers in the subsequent exercise. Before a heavy squat work-out it makes, for example, good sense to specifically warm up your lower back and abdominal muscles with a few light sets of back-extensions and abdominal crunches in order to prepare these muscle groups for their function of stabilizing your spine. One or two sets of light leg extensions may also help to specifically warm up your knee joints.

All the above described phases of the warm-up are equally important and none of its key elements should be neglected or considered unnecessary. All phases work together to ensure that the athlete is properly prepared for the activity to come. There is no doubt that time spent on warming up will improve any athlete's level of performance and reduce the risk of injury, especially when performed prior to repetitive or resistance-based exercise. Therefore a good trainer must always encourage the athletes in his care to regard the warm up as an essential part of their training session.

Christoph Klueppel

Master of Fitness Sciences
Specialist in Performance Nutrition