Warm-Up: Do’s and Don’ts

Jo Stretch (1)

Proper warm-ups can reduce injury, improve performance, and increase tissue mobility.

The question is, what exactly is a proper warm-up?

  1. To warm up… obviously! Increased muscle temperature facilitates blood flow and increases nerve conduction velocity, which is a fancy way of saying your muscles will contract faster when warm.
  2. To improve flexibility (we’ll circle back to this one)
  3. To reduce the risk of injury
  4. To enhance performance

A warm-up should do just that: warm you up. For this reason, it should be performed immediately before activity (race, sport, workout, etc.). The benefits will wear off if you allow yourself time to get cold. Also, our bodies are the least flexible and at their lowest temperature immediately upon waking. If you’re an early bird, a longer warm-up (20+ minutes) may be in order if exercising first thing in the morning.

Next, let’s talk about flexibility.

There are many different types of stretching, the most familiar being static stretching: elongating a muscle tissue and holding that position for an extended period. Research is clear that static stretching done as the ONLY component of warm-up has the potential to increase injury risk and therefore should be avoided. However, when done as a component of the warm-up routine, static stretching does NOT increase the risk of injury and may be beneficial for performance. Generally, 30-60 second intermittent stretching is the safest, while holding stretches longer than 90 seconds has negative effects on performance.

There’s one other thing to mention: no consistent link has been shown between regular flexibility exercises and reduced injury. For example, hamstring flexibility has not been linked to reduced hamstring strain injury. Strength training is the single most effective way to reduce injuries.

Stretching is safest when DYNAMIC, which means they’re active, controlled, and limited.

As you might imagine, quick, uncontrolled movements with high force intensity (re: ballistic stretching) have been known to increase the risk of injury. Dynamic warm-ups are the safest and most effective way to prepare yourself for race day.

Here are some of my favorites:

  • Power walk
  • High knees
  • Butt kicks
  • Knee hug to chest + heel raise
  • Grapevine jog
  • Side shuffle
  • Lunges (forward, lateral)
  • Lunge walking w/ trunk rotation to T-lift
  • Single leg balance with opposite leg extension
  • Bridges
  • Squat jumps
  • Jump rope
  • Good morning (minimal weight)

In conclusion:

  • In the long term, you can increase flexibility with stretching, BUT there is no consistent link with injury reduction.
  • There’s good evidence to avoid ONLY static stretching before activity and to incorporate some form of a dynamic warm-up.
  • Dynamic stretching (active, controlled, limited, and short duration stretching) is safest when trying to improve flexibility.
  • Strength training is the most significant way to decrease the risk of injury.
  • Warm-ups should be tailored to individuals, their sport-specific activity, and their goals; there’s no magic exercise, position, or timing that will improve performance.
  • Dynamic warm-ups are the best way to increase muscle temperature, muscle reactivity, and coordination, which are all needed for peak performance.