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The importance of warm up exercises in being able to avoid stiffness and injury

23rd March 2017

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Before you start any form of exercise it’s vital that you carry out a warm up routine, which prepares your muscles and joints for the activities ahead and helps to prevent you suffering from stiffness afterwards or causing yourself an injury.

Those who jump straight into an exercise routine, whether it’s running, playing football or using gym equipment, without warming their body up first, can do serious damage, and what you do before you start your exercise can be just as crucial as what you do during the session.

The Importance of warm up exercises

When you warm up your body you not only prepare physically for the task ahead, but you also set yourself up psychologically as well. This enables you to perform better and minimises the risk of injuries.

By conducting a warm up routine you are increasing the amount of blood that flows to your muscles and helps to loosen them up, so you are gradually preparing your body for the exercise rather than giving it a massive shock by starting off cold. This increase of blood flow also raises the amount of oxygen that is getting to the muscle cells. By preparing your body in this way it will perform more effectively when you’re exercising.

When your body temperature is higher the nerve impulses can move at a faster pace, which increases the force and speed of muscular contractions so they don’t get as stiff and are more pliable.

Even for those who exercise regularly, beginning an energetic routine when your body is cold can still cause a shock and it is far more effective to warm yourself up gradually, to give all your organs time to acclimatise.

It’s important to increase your heart rate gradually, which will ensure that the metabolic and circulatory systems build up slowly as well. These systems transfer blood from certain body parts, like the digestive system, towards the muscles during exercise, and it is much safer if this demand is built up at a gradual pace.

This initial warm up session is also good for improving your co-ordination and neural function, as well as protecting your main joints by building up the synovial fluid which causes the articular cartilages to thicken. These act as natural shock absorbers for the body.

Benefits of warming up

Alongside these elements, there are a number of other benefits to the body of conducting a good warm up routine.

As well as warming yourself up it will also activate your body’s sweating mechanism, which enables you to cool down effectively during the exercise and prevents you from overheating too early on.

There are various hormones in the body that are responsible for ensuring it produces enough energy and these are increased when you warm up correctly, which provides more fatty acids and carbohydrates for use during the exercise session. That means you’ll have enough energy to continue.

An effective warm up routine

In order to be effective, your warm up should leave you perspiring but not overly tired. You should be able to continue with the planned exercise routine, but feel as if your body is prepared. You should base the length and intensity of the warm up on the type of activities you are planning on. The start of your session should typically last around five or ten minutes and should also be appropriate to your fitness level and age. For instance, if you are just starting an exercise programme, your warm up will be less exerting than that of a long distance runner, but as you become fitter you can build this element up as well.

Some good examples of warm up exercises include jogging or walking (light cardiovascular work), which raise your body temperature and are normally combined with stretching. Carrying out stretches will reduce the problem of stiff muscles, and focus your stretches on the main muscles you will be using.

With a thorough and effective warm up routine you are preparing your body properly for the demands you will be placing on it. Experts suggest that a standard warmup should last anywhere from 20 to 30 minutes, giving your body plenty of time to build up to a point where the true physical activity will begin. The BBC has put together an example of a warm up routine you may consider.

With an effective warm up routine you are preparing your body properly

Expert opinion

Online you can find a whole host of advice and guidance on the best and most effective ways of warming up your body, but it is important to get some expert help on what is best in your particular situation. This is especially critical if you’re completely new to exercise and the last thing you want to do is cause yourself an unnecessary injury.

If you’re a member of a gym, then you should be able to get support from one of the personal trainers or fitness instructors.

Sports physiotherapists have a wealth of knowledge when it comes to planning good warm up routines, and they understand the importance of preparing your body in order to avoid injuries and stiffness.

If you haven’t prepared properly, then during a training session your tissues – including muscles, nerves and tendons - won’t be working at the optimum level straight away, so you are running the risk of causing avoidable damage to them. When you warm up correctly you are closing the gap between what you want your body to do during the exercise and what it was doing prior to this.

One of the most crucial elements of any warm up routine is that it is based around the type of exercise you will be doing and focuses on the core muscle groups that will be worked.

For instance, the warm up needs to include some element of cardiovascular activity if this is going to be the focus of the session, whereas if you are going to be doing yoga then gentle stretches would be more suitable.

A warm up needs to include some element of cardiovascular activity

Scientific Studies

There has also been a range of scientific studies concentrating on the effectiveness of warm ups on both injury levels and performance standards.

For example, a 2015 systematic review of the effects of upper body warm-up on performance and injury by McCrary, Ackermann and Halaki, which was published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, looked at 25 different forms of warm up exercises, to rate the benefits of each.

The study found that there was strong evidence for high-load dynamic exercises to improve strength and power performance, but that static stretches for short periods of time had no link to power outcomes.

Government Guidance

Through the NHS, the government has issued plenty of guidance on how you can warm up your body effectively to enable it to perform at its best throughout your exercise routine.

If you’re searching for the best types of warm up then the NHS Choices website has a range of good advice. It suggests that your warm up session should be at least six minutes long, to give your body time to build itself up, but if you think you need longer then adjust this time accordingly.

There are a number of activities laid out which you can incorporate into your warm up, including marching on the spot, heel digs, knee lifts, shoulder rolls and knee bends, to get you started.

There are many different ways in which you can prepare your body for the strains of exercise, but there is no doubting the importance of doing some type of warm up each and every time you start a session. The aim of a warm up should always be to improve the mobility of your joints and ensure your body is working at an optimal level for the full duration of your routine, so that you can exercise safely and efficiently.

Remember, once you’ve finished your route it’s important to complete a full cool down in order to minimise the risk of injury.

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