Warming Up: Should You or Shouldn’t You?


You just got to the field, trailhead, or road. Your friends are waiting and ready to go. You start to move, excited to show off the new skills you’ve been practicing. But wait, do you take a few minutes to warm up or just jump in?

There is plenty of debate about whether or not warming up is really necessary. First of all, let’s make sure to distinguish between stretching and warming up. Stretching is when you hold a position in order to increase flexibility (think touching your toes). While stretching is very helpful after exercising, stretching before you exercise can actually decrease muscle strength by up to 30 percent. Warming up is, well, what it sounds like: moving your body to make it feel warmer (think walking or a slow jog).

The essential benefit of warming up is to increase blood flow throughout your body. This causes your muscles to use oxygen more efficiently, and allows them to stretch farther before straining or tearing (yay for going back to work without an ankle brace on Monday!). Warming up also loosens tendons and ligaments, increasing their capacity to stretch and respond quickly. Lastly, there is this goopy stuff you make called synovial fluid, which protects and lubricates your joints. When you’ve been less active, you have less synovial fluid and it’s not moving very well. As you use your joints, synovial fluid production increases and flows more smoothly. This is a big reason why you feel less stiff once you’ve been moving for a few minutes.

You should always take a few minutes to warm up. Warming up not only decreases your chance of injury, it also improves your muscle control and performance. And it doesn’t have to be complicated or extensive. Take 5-10 minutes to warm up (err toward 10 minutes if it’s cool outside) right before your activity. Here’s how.

Jumping Jacks: These are a great, maybe perfect, warm up. You get your shoulder and hip joints moving, your heart rate up, and I challenge you to not feel happier after doing 50 jumping jacks.

Slow Jog with Arm Circles: Yes, you’ll feel a little self-conscious while doing this, but just channel your inner Richard Simmons and rock the parking lot.

After about 3 minutes of one or both of these, spend about 3-5 minutes doing:

Slow Version of the Sport You’re About to Do: If you’re biking, bike slowly and gently. Hiking, hike slowly and gently. Basketball, play basketball slowly. You get the idea.

A couple more things before you go tear it up and impress all your friends (or just yourself). A warm up that is too vigorous will tend to tire you out. Aim for about 50 percent of the exertion rate you’ll use while exercising. And don’t wait too long between warming up and exercising. This can have the opposite effect and make you more prone to injury than if you hadn’t warmed up at all.

That’s it! Super simple, no fancy equipment necessary. So warm up, enjoy yourself, and let us know how it goes.

Mercy Strongheart grew up in Northern New Mexico. The child of radical, hippie folk musicians, she spent her childhood making up stories and searching for sugar. Mercy is currently working on her second novel and writing freelance articles about things she likes, including hiking, bicycling, health, and watching extreme sports from afar. She has also been a Licensed Massage Therapist for the past 13 years (hence her know-it-all fitness articles). She lives in Portland.