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Anatomy of a Workout

Step 3 - The Warm up


Updated October 18, 2006

If you've made it to this part of your workout, you've already achieved success, having dealt with the mental obstacles that stand in the way of your workout. The warm up is your chance to focus on the physical...namely, getting your body ready for the workout to come. For this reason, the warm up is an essential part of your workout, not just for your body, but for your mind. Warming up is important for a number of reasons including:
  • It warms the muscles and increases body temperature, which improves the oxygen supply to the body
  • It helps increase blood flow to the muscles, allowing them to contract and relax more quickly
  • It helps prepare the body and the mind for more strenuous activity
  • It may help reduce the risk of injury
  • It may increase overall exercise performance
  • It increases the elasticity of the ligaments, tendons and other connective tissues

There are different ways to warm up and they're often classified into three categories: passive, general and specific. With passive warm ups, you raise the body's temperature by doing things like sitting in a hot tub or taking a hot shower. General warm ups involve increasing the heart rate and body temperature by just moving the body around. Specific warm ups mean you do similar movements to the exercises you'll be doing. Any of these can work and what you choose will often depend on what type of exercise you're doing. Passive warm ups (like taking a hot bath) can be a good choice for gentle activities such as stretching or yoga workouts. For other types of workouts, you may want to choose more specific activities.

Warm ups for Cardio Workouts. For cardio workouts, it's best to stick with lighter versions of the exercise you'll be doing. For example, if you're running, you might start with a few minutes of light walking, move into a slow jog and then into the workout. If you're doing an aerobics workout, you might start with low-impact moves (step-touches, grapevines, marching in place, etc.) before you move on to more vigorous activities.

Warm ups for Strength Training. For strength workouts, you can either do a general warm up (e.g., do a few minutes of light cardio) or a specific warm up where you do warm up sets for each exercise. In that case, you might do one set of the coming exercise with lighter weights before you reach for the heavier weights.

Whatever type of warm up you choose, use the following tips for getting the most of your warm up:

  • Warm up for about 5-10 minutes. How long you warm up will often depend on what you're doing and how much time you need to transition into exercise. For example, if you're working out on a cold day or doing a very hard workout, you may need 10 or more minutes to warm up. If you're doing a light workout or you're already warm from doing other activities, you may need just a few minutes.
  • Stretch if you need it. There's some controversery over whether to stretch before or after your workout. I often recommend that my clients do the bulk of their stretching after the cool down. But, if you have chronically tight muscles (like your lower back or hips) doing a few stretches beforehand may make your workout more comfortable.
  • Take your time. The idea is to warm up gradually. Allowing your heart rate and respiration to increase slowly will make the transition into your workout easier and give your body time to prepare for what's to come.

Once you're through the warm up, it's time for the next phase, The Workout. It is here where you'll ramp up the intensity and begin to challenge your body and mind.

Next: Step 4 - The Workout


American Council on Exercise. ACE Personal Trainer Manual, 3rd Edition. San Diego: American Council on Exercise, 2003.

Shellock FG, Prentice WE. "Warming-up and stretching for improved physical performance and prevention of sports-related injuries." Sports Med. 1985 Jul-Aug; 2(4):267-78.

Related Video
Simple Exercise Warm Up

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