Prime Your Body for Workout Wins


By spending a few extra minutes warming up before you train, you can double the rewards of your efforts.

Last updated: 29 January 2021
How and Why to Warm Up Before a Workout

You don't just throw a loaf tin of banana bread batter into a cold oven—you preheat the oven first. Skipping that step could lead to results you'd never post on social media. Well, the same goes for your body before you start a workout: You need to warm up.

Like preheating, a warm-up gradually takes your body from a state of rest into full-fledged movement so you can get the results you're sweating for, explains Nike Master Trainer Joe Holder. "A warm-up helps increase blood flow to the muscles you'll use, offers short-term improvement in your range of motion and mentally prepares you for the session", he says.

"A warm-up helps increase blood flow to the muscles you'll use, offers short-term improvement in your range of motion and mentally prepares you for the session".

Joe Holder
Nike Master Trainer

All of those factors can combine for an instant performance payoff. In fact, a review published in the "Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research" looked at 32 studies and found that in 79 percent of them, people who warmed up before their workouts improved their overall performance. And that, of course, can help you unlock strength gains and better cardiovascular fitness, especially over time.

The Risk of Shortcutting

We get it, the thought of tacking a few extra minutes on to your workout when it's hard enough to make time for the actual workout itself is eye-roll-worthy. But it's better than losing steam or fighting through tense or cramping muscles, which may lead to strains, pulls or major soreness. All of this can happen if you pass up a warm-up, says Michele Olson, PhD, a Senior Clinical Professor of Sports Science at Huntingdon College in Montgomery, Alabama, and a certified strength and conditioning specialist.

That's because "all of your tissues and organs, including your muscles and heart, need more oxygenated, nutrient-dense blood to circulate at increasing levels for them to operate properly during a workout", she explains. Ramping up oxygen via a warm-up can also help prevent you from feeling lightheaded and keep your heart from skipping any beats, she adds. The latter isn't necessarily abnormal, says Olson, but it's not great for your ticker over the long run either.

Equally un-fun: "Working out with tight muscles can mess with your alignment, resulting in decreased motor control of your biggest muscles", explains David Reavy, a performance-therapy expert and the founder of React Physical Therapy in Chicago. For example, those of us who sit at a desk all day tend to have tight hip flexors, he says, which can cause your pelvis to jut slightly forward (called an anterior tilt). This shuts down your abs and glutes during runs and lifts, making all that hard work less effective.

A Formula to Follow

OK, that's why you should warm up. Now for how. Olson recommends spending 10 to 15 minutes on your warm-up, though she notes that the more intense or extensive the workout, the longer and more thorough the warm-up should be. Holder agrees but warns not to overdo it, noting that an overly long or hard pre-session can actually work against you. Case in point: A study in the "Journal of Applied Physiology" found that cyclists who participated in an intense 20-minute warm-up had more muscle fatigue and less pedal power during their workout than those whose warm-up was milder and shorter.

Holder suggests keeping your warm-up at a 4 or 5 on an effort scale of 1 to 10 so you don't deplete your energy prior to the main event. And if you're running short on time, Olson advises scaling down the intensity of your actual workout in the beginning, as those early minutes can generally double as a prep period.

Beyond those guidelines, the framework below is a great warm-up structure for any workout. By the end, you should have broken a sweat, says Olson, a key indicator that you're ready to go all in.

How and Why to Warm Up Before a Workout

General Prep (5 minutes)

First, ease in by foam-rolling major muscle groups and tight spots, like the lats, quads, calves and ankles, which Holder says most people don't spend enough time on. If you don't have a foam roller, use a lacrosse ball or other firm ball to get into those regions. Then move on to easy cardio, aiming to "get the heart rate up a tiny bit and the body used to some generalised movement that can apply to any activity", he says. This will also help get more oxygen to your muscles, notes Olson. Think jogging, skipping and moving in multiple directions via side shuffles and carioca. If you're unfamiliar with these exercises or any of the others mentioned, a quick Google search will give you the how-to. Just make sure you click on a page from a reputable source, like a licensed physiotherapist or certified trainer.

Joint Work + Activation Drills (3 to 5 minutes)

Next, focus on mobilising particular joints by performing movements like hip circles, shoulder circles and half-kneeling hip openers—anything that "works to expand your range of motion (how extensively a joint can move in its intended directions)", says Holder, whose recently launched Advance programme in the Nike Training Club App prioritises this type of work. Greasing these joints will help you move with better form and efficiency, he says. Then do activation exercises, which help "turn on" important muscles, especially your core and glutes, by establishing a connection between them and your brain. This primes those muscles to power your speed, strength, endurance or whatever your forthcoming workout involves. Try a set each of bird dogs, planks and glute bridges, suggests Holder.

Dynamic Movements + Light Plyometrics (2 to 5 minutes)

Now it's time to sprinkle in moves that complement your specific workout. Start with dynamic, or active, movements, which allow your muscles and joints to work through their full range of motion, increasing their immediate range, says Holder. Static stretches, such as holding a side bend, can decrease your power output, he notes. Then finish with easy plyometric, aka explosive jumping, exercises to excite your central nervous system (CNS). An activated CNS helps you generate force faster and more efficiently during your workout, says Holder.

So what does that look like if you're going for a run? Olson likes walking lunges and Frankenstein kicks, also called toy soldiers (if you've never seen Monty Python's iconic "Ministry of Silly Walks" sketch, it's worth watching), while Holder suggests walking hamstring scoops, knee tucks and A-skips (again, Google is your friend here). If you're hitting the squat rack, think sumo squats with a reach, then squat jumps. And for a HIIT workout, try slow bodyweight squats or lunges, says Olson, then skipping, Pogo hops or tuck jumps, adds Holder.

A warmed-up body is just like that buttery banana bread you've pulled out of the oven: warm, springy, and the perfect way to start a day—er, workout.

Words: Rozalynn Frazier
Illustration: Xoana Herrera

How and Why to Warm Up Before a Workout

Take It Further

For more expert-backed guidance on recovery, as well as mindset, movement, nutrition and sleep, check out the Nike Training Club App.

Originally published: 1 February 2021

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