Photograph: Getty Images; Collage: Gabe Conte
You get to the gym and check your watch: You have an hour to fit in a workout before your busy day beckons. The temptation—understandably—is to dive right into the good stuff. The heavy lifting or high-intensity reps. The last thing you want to do is waste your precious time pedaling a bike without resistance or moving through a series of cat-cow poses.
We know it’s annoying, but you probably should warm up before working out. Think about when you start a car on a cold winter day, says Derek Millender, head strength and conditioning coach for the Cleveland Cavaliers. You don’t just want to turn the key and push the gas pedal to the floor. “Give it time to warm up, letting the ice melt off the windshield, letting all the fluids go through the engine,” he explains. “That’s what’s happening with your body when you warm up.”
The Benefits of Warming Up
The benefits of warming up have been debated in research because of the overwhelming number of modalities (foam rolling, static stretching, dynamic stretching, light exercise), yet every trainer and physical therapist I spoke to agrees. Warming up before you exercise is good for you. Here’s why.
1. You Reduce Your Risk of Injury
The number one reason that most people—from athletes to casual gym-goers—should warm up is to reduce their risk of injury. During a warm-up, your heart rate increases, sending more blood flow (and oxygen) to your muscles. “Muscles become more elastic and this reduces the risk of tears or strains,” says Cara Dobbertin, DPT, at Practitionr. “A warm-up also helps lubricate your joints to reduce the risk of joint-related injuries.” But it’s not just your muscles, joints, and tendons that will thank you. According to a 2018 study, warming up also reduces heavy loads on the heart that “can occur when high-intensity exercises are suddenly started.”
As you start your session, check in and scan your body, says Millender. Take note of any body parts that might feel a bit tight or achy, and make adjustments to exercises based on how you’re feeling that day, or give them a little extra love while you’re warming up.
2. You Can Enhance Your Performance
If you want your body to work at its max, a warm-up can help with that. A 2010 literature review analyzed thirty-two studies and found that in 79 percent of the criterion, warm-ups improved performance. Another 2020 study performed on table tennis players found that warm-ups led to significant increases in flexibility, lower- and upper-limb power, and ball speed when the participants combined dynamic stretching with either static stretching or foam rolling.
3. You Realign Your Focus
It’s not all physical; your warm-up has psychological benefits, too. Let’s say you had a busy day at work: “Checking in with yourself during a warm-up is a way for you to decompress and start to focus on the time you have for your training session,” says Millender. Louis Chandler, head trainer at Alo Wellness Club, agrees. “Warm-ups boost mental focus for your upcoming workout,” he says. “They can also reduce stress and promote positive self-talk for your workout.” (And we all need a little more of that.)
Even simple stretching, which is less effective than methods like dynamic stretching, has a “meaningful effect on exercise performance by affording psychological stability, preparation, and confidence in exercise performance,” according to a 2018 study.
How to Craft Your Warm-Up
When it comes to my exercise routine, I want to make it as simple as possible. I want to Google “warm-up routine” and have it spit out a step-by-step protocol that I can use everyday. But unfortunately, that’s not realistic. Personalizing your warm-up to your physical condition, past injuries, and upcoming workout is the best way to ensure you’re primed for the task at hand, explains Dobbertin.
And you don’t want to jump into your warm-up without a plan. “A good warm-up plan can make sure you are hitting all the key points and muscle groups that you’re going to use,” says Chandler. Ideally, “the warm-up would start light and gradually increase in intensity,” says Dobbertin.
While your warm-up should change depending on your training, there’s a general recipe you can follow. Both Chandler and Millender suggest a 10-to-15 minute warm-up—that’s enough time to get the body warm while also prioritizing efficiency. Chandler breaks his warm-ups into three sections, usually about three to four minutes each.
Cardiovascular prep, like walking on the treadmill or spinning on a bike.
Mobility and dynamic stretching: “Here is where I like to work full-body exercises to lengthen tight muscles and increase flexibility,” he says. You can “include movements like gentle trunk twists, leg swings, and arm circles to warm up the larger muscle groups,” says Dobbertin. As you’re warming up, take the opportunity to run your joints through the full range of motion they’ll need for your workout.
Activation: Where you’ll directly engage the muscles you’ll be using to “stimulate the muscle fibers, readying them for exercise,” says Chandler. He uses a resistance band to engage specific muscle groups, like rotator cuff openers if he’s working the upper body or banded lateral walks if he’s working the lower body.
If you have extra time, Millender likes to integrate some soft tissue work, like foam rolling, as well as balance exercises, like single-leg stands. However, he says, it doesn’t need to be time-consuming, and if you have one of those days that you can’t fit it in, don’t beat yourself up about it.
Most importantly, don’t be afraid to mix it up and have fun with your warm-up. “If you like basketball, maybe you take ten minutes on the basketball court, moving and shooting free throws,” says Millender. “Once your workout becomes more like a job or a chore, you lose your joy. The goal of this is not perfection—it’s just growth.”
Originally Appeared on GQ