Is warming up ACTUALLY important when exercising?

It’s a question that has been asked at least a million times and in a variety of ways. Why do I have to do any warming up before I exercise? Usually, there is an excuse attached:

  • I am only doing light exercise.
  • I am on a tight schedule.
  • I am pretty flexible anyway.
  • I am not flexible enough.
  • I don’t know the right techniques.

What all of these boil down to is an overall excuse for harmful behavior. Why?

Because if asking “is warming up actually important when exercising?” the answer is a resounding YES!

There really is no arguing about it. But if I just left it at that, it would be the shortest blog I’ve ever written. So, here are a few reasons that warming up IS actually important when exercising.

Preparation

Have you ever had to stop what you’re doing and immediately pivot to something else? Maybe you were in the middle of a project at work and got something more important with a deadline dropped on you? Or you’re in the middle of cleaning your house only to find a new mess in a place that you already cleaned, so now you have to go back and re-clean, which throws your schedule off?

It is sometimes difficult to switch our minds to focus on something new without a little bit of prep.

Warming up is a way of relaying information that we are switching gears, and it allows both the mind and the body to take actions that prepare us for the exercise ahead.

Muscles

Think of your muscles as being like a rubber band. If you stretch a rubber band to beyond its limits, it snaps, right? But if you pull the rubber band a few times, it gets stretched out and is much more flexible for use.

That’s what can happen with your muscles.

Not to get too sciencey, but a warm-up stimulates the blood flow through the muscles (and tendons, ligaments, etc.) to wake them up, making them looser and more flexible.

Lungs and heart

Just like muscles, your lungs need to be aware that they’re going to be increasing their oxygen intake while you’re exercising. Warming up is the proper way to prepare them. And that increased blood flow to the muscles? That’s the heart getting ready to work harder.

Mind

Just like switching work tasks or chores, your mind needs to be informed that your body is going to be doing something different. This allows you to focus on the exercise instead of being distracted.

Clearing up the confusion

You may have noticed that I didn’t say “stretching,” I said, “warm-ups.” That’s because there is a difference between the two.

Let me explain that.

Stretching will wake your muscles up and do all the things that I mentioned above. However, if you only stretch, you may not be waking up the correct muscles, and that could be just as harmful to your body.

Warming-up should generally be a lighter version, targeting the same muscles that you will be using during the exercising itself.

Think about it. You wouldn’t stretch your quads and glutes, and then go work on an upper-body machine that targeted your arms and upper back, right? So, those stretches did nothing to wake up the proper muscles.

Now, obviously, warm-ups can (and probably should) involve stretching, but be sure you’re warming up the right way.

Cooling down

While I’m at it, I want to mention something else that often gets overlooked. Just as your body needs to be awakened and told it’s going to exercise it also needs to be notified that the exercise is ending, and it is time to go back to “normal” processes.

And, also just like warming up, this doesn’t necessarily mean stretching. A correct cool down might involve a gradual slow down of movement (from a run to a jog to a walk, for example) that gives the muscles a chance to recover from the strain of the exercise.

One way to think about it is as bookends to your workout. You need to warm up, then exercise, then cool down – it’s an entire process.

Preventing injury

Stock photo of a young woman with a painful leg injury

As you probably have already figured out, the main goal of warming up is to prevent injury. Jumping right into strenuous exercise is a sure way to pull a muscle or strain a tendon, which could seriously derail your exercise regimen.

So, in answer to those excuses that I listed at the beginning?

  • Any form of exercise requires a warmup.
  • Figure out how to fit the warmup into the schedule – it is a vital part of the routine.
  • Flexibility has nothing to do with preparing your muscles, lungs, and mind. Remember, it’s not about stretching.
  • See the point immediately above.
  • The correct technique is most likely a light version of your chosen exercise.

If you’re still unsure about why warming up is important when exercising, talk to your doctor or a certified trainer and ask them what you can do to be sure that warming up is the healthiest and most effective way possible.

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