Why do we warm up? It’s something you might know, vaguely, reduces the likelihood of injury during exercise. You probably see lots of people in the gym, or athletes on television, doing jumping jacks, jogging on the spot or stretching before a bout of strenuous exercise.
But how necessary is warming up – and what’s the best way to go about it? We’ll walk you through how to warm up, why we do it, the difference it makes to your exercise routine and loads more.
Research, like one study published in the journal Sports Medicine (opens in new tab), has told us warming up and stretching is very effective as an injury deterrent. This is because the process of warming up begins to, quite literally, warm you up. It raises your body temperature and increases blood flow to your muscles, preparing them for exercise.
Bone & Joint Research (opens in new tab) shows us the warmer your muscles, the more energy is required to damage them. This means if you warm up properly, you can exercise hard and not worry about the risk of injury.
It’s not just about avoiding injury: warm ups also help improve your workout. A study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research (opens in new tab) found warming up before working out actually improved performance in 79% of exercises.
By taking a few minutes before your workout begins, you’ll actually improve your performance, whether you’re beginning a strength training programme or you’re preparing for some vigorous walking.
There are several components in a good warm-up: joint rotations, to prepare our muscles and joints to work, some light aerobic exercise and stretching. It’s not advisable to stretch at the start of the warm up, as putting too much strain on “cold” muscles can tear and damage them.
However, a study published in the Journal of Sports Rehabilitation (opens in new tab) showed warm ups involving aerobic stretching are beneficial, and helps joints like your knees and hips to perform better during your workout. Stretching before each workout will, over time, improve your range of motion, helping you stay mobile well into later life.
Below, you’ll see a series of exercises that are often used to prep your joints, warm up your muscles and limber up, so you can exercise safely.
- With your feet shoulder-width apart, stand up tall with your hands resting at your side. Relax, but retain good posture. This exercise can also be performed with your hands on your hips .
- Close your eyes and slowly rotate your head to the right, using your neck muscles to power the movement.
- Do this for 10-15 seconds, then rotate in the opposite direction. If you get dizzy, rotate more slowly.
- Place your feet shoulder-width apart and stand up tall, holding your arms out to the side and slightly in front of you.
- Roll your shoulders back, together, in a circular motion. Let the movement come from the joint; the rest of your body should be still.
- Repeat this for 10-15 seconds. For a longer warm-up, repeat the exercise, but roll your shoulders forwards.
- Alternatively, concentrate on one shoulder at a time. Alternate between left and right
- shoulder movements while the other rests.
- Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, arms out to the side at shoulder level.
- To begin with, your arms should be parallel to the floor. Move them forward in a circular motion, making progressively bigger
- After 10-15 seconds, repeat the motion in reverse.
Everyone has done jumping jacks at some point, either in PE at school or before a sweaty workout down the gym. Since they offer an all-over workout for the arms and legs and get your heart rate pumping, they should be a staple of most warm-ups.
- Stand with your hands by your side and your feet together.
- Jump up a little, just enough to kick your legs out wide while raising your arms above your head.
- Quickly reverse the movement, jumping back to your starting position with legs together and arms by your side.
- Without pausing, repeat steps two and three for at least 30 seconds. Perform the movements quickly and smoothly – the idea is to get your heart pumping.
The inchworm is a classic warm-up exercise that loosens many different muscles at once, including those around your hips, thighs and core. To perform it properly requires good flexibility. If you’re not quite flexible enough to begin with, you can bend your knees a little. Before you start, make sure there’s plenty of space in front of you.
While you’re walking your hands forward, your core, particularly the abdominal muscles at the front of your body, should be braced (pulled in). Your hips shouldn’t sag at any point. Concentrate throughout on retaining good form.
By the time you’re at your most extended, your feet should be on tiptoes.
- Stand with your hands by your sides and feet shoulder-width apart.
- Bend at the core (the area around your hips, stomach and lower back) until you can place your palms on the floor. Your fingertips should be pointing forwards.
- Keeping your legs straight, walk your hands forward. Try to make small, controlled movements in order to retain your balance. Keep the balls of your feet planted on the floor, not your heel.
- Continue walking your hands forward, making slightly larger movements if your control and balance enables you to. Soon, you should be in the ‘plank’ position used in push-ups.
- Walk your hands out as far as you can – don’t let your hips sag as you do so. When you think you’ve reached your maximum stretch, walk your feet back towards your hands. Take tiny steps, ensuring maintaining control throughout, until you’re back in the bent over position.
- Once you’ve returned to a standing position, that’s one repetition.
- Stand with feet shoulder-width apart. Stretch your right arm across your chest, clamping it in place with your left arm, which should be bent at the elbow. Hold this pose for 10-15 seconds.
- Switch arms and repeat the stretch, clamping your left arm in place with your right.
Over the shoulder stretch
- Stand up tall, with your feet shoulder-width apart. Reach behind your head with your right arm, and behind your back with your left arm. Both arms should be bent at the elbow.
- Try to lock the fingers of each hand together. If this is too tricky, touch your fingertips together, or find something to hold (for example a tea towel). Hold the position for 10-15 seconds, then swap arm positions and repeat.
Knee hugs and heel raises
This classic lower body stretch loosens the glutes and hamstrings. After one repetition, repeat the motion for other leg.
- Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and your arms straight down by your side.
- Raise your right leg towards your chest, grasping it between your hands just below the knee.
- Pull it in towards your chest. Hold for 5-10 seconds, then release and return to the standing position.
- Raise your right leg towards your backside, grab your ankle and pull it in for 5-10 seconds, then release.
Lying leg raise
- Lie on your back, arms outstretched, palms touching the floor. Your legs should be straight and your feet together.
- Slowly raise your legs up straight as far as is comfortable. Focus the movement in your hips and core.
Lying leg raise (side)
- Lie on the floor on your left side. Rest your top leg (the left) on top of the right. Place your right hand on your hip, and support your head with your left hand.
- Slowly raise your right leg as far as you comfortably can, keeping it straight. Slowly bring it back down. With your repetitions done, roll onto your right and repeat with hand and leg positions reversed.
- Keep your leg straight throughout the stretch.
This bodyweight exercise warms up the core, thighs and calves. Here, the beginner’s version is shown. Once you’ve been training for a few weeks, you should be able to change the starting position so that your backside is further in the air, and your arms, legs and core form an inverted ‘V’ shape.
- Get into a push-up position, arms down and palms flat on the ground, fingers pointed forwards. Now, bring your feet forward a pace or two, bending at the core.
- Without moving your upper body, bend at the hips and knees, drawing the latter towards the floor. 3. Pause for a moment then straighten your legs to return to the start position. That’s one repetition.
Matt Evans is an experienced health and fitness journalist and News Editor at Fit&Well, covering all things exercise and nutrition on the Fit&Well website. Matt originally discovered exercise through martial arts: he holds a black belt in Karate and remains a keen runner, gym-goer, and infrequent yogi. His top fitness tip? Stretch.