How many times have you heard this statement, "why don't you walk on the treadmill or ride the bike to warm up?" To be honest, after eight years of training clients, there are times that I still say it. It used to be the first thing I'd say to clients after "hi" when they walked in for their sessions. And, before I knew of an effective alternative, I'd do the same thing before I started my workouts. If you've ever read an article or tips about fitness, you know that a "warm up" is synonymous with "breathe" or "don't drop the weights on your foot." It's ingrained in us all that you must get a 5-10 minute warm up to prevent injuries, start your sweat, and get yourself ready. But, do 5 minutes of repetitive walking or cycling REALLY prepare your body for the demands of a training session?
And what about time your constraints? Do you really want to be spending, or rather wasting, time walking on a treadmill when you could be five minutes into your workout? If you needed a warm up for everything, how would you start your morning? Would you warm up before getting out of bed? The next time a call comes in, tell your officer to delay your response because you need to warm up. Imagine that scenario. The warm up IS a necessary block of your training session because it is a time for you to prepare your body for the demands of the training session. It also:
- Increases the pliability of your muscles allowing them to stretch easier
- Excites your nervous system for more efficient muscle contractions
- Increases your circulation to bring necessary nutrients to your working muscles
- Begins the caloric expenditure you need to burn fat and build muscle
But that's not all. Your warm up can also serve as "the calm before the mental storm." It can help you gain your focus and turn your attention away from your life-stressors. It can make you concentrate on your training session and connect your body and mind for even greater results. So, with the importance of warm up out of the way, do you still think the treadmill does that for you? If so, keep doing it, but then you'll need to prepare your body for the ground reaction forces that occur within the workout itself. Ground reaction forces are the forces generated through your body when you make contact with the ground in walking, running, jumping, squatting, etc.
In a time crunch, the warm up phase of your training session can also serve as a great tool to effectively challenge your coordination, balance, and flexibility. The warm up I'm about to show you won't tell you to stretch your hamstrings for three sets of thirty seconds each. As a matter of fact, according to a study published by the National Strength and Conditioning Association, researchers at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln found that stretching before a workout or physical activity can actually decrease the power in that muscle. As a matter of fact, stretching even depleted the power in the same non-stretched muscle on the opposite side of your body. The type of stretching used in the study was static (holding a muscle in a position of stretch for 20-30 seconds), which has long been used as a warm up method.
There are two modes of stretching: active and passive. Active stretching is when you, the individual stretching, provides the force used in the stretch. Passive, on the other hand, occurs when a partner supplies the force for the stretch. Take for example the lying hamstring stretch with you in a supine position on the floor. An active stretch would occur if you actually lift your leg up and grab it while pulling gently towards your head. The passive version occurs when your partner kneels between your legs, puts your stretched leg on his/her shoulder, and gently pushes your leg towards your head. There are also different types of stretching methods which can be used to increase your flexibility. The types are static (slow and constant), ballistic (bouncing-type movement), PNF (passive and active movements), and dynamic (using sport-like movements to stretch).
We have found that each type of stretching serves a different purpose within the goal of increasing joint flexibility. For example, static helps calm an overused muscle and PNF improves neural (nervous system) activation but needs an experienced partner. Ballistic stretching can be used when muscles around specific joints are nicely balanced. Dynamic stretching is the "most bang for your buck" here since it falls between static and ballistic stretching. Some dynamic stretches closely mimic actual exercises such as the lunge. As you'll see later on, the in-place or walking lunge can be an excellent way to stretch your hips while preparing your lower body for a challenging workout.
As with any warm up, you should start slowly and build intensity as you get to the end. Going too fast will cause muscle strains, muscle cramps, and even tighter muscles. Your dynamic warm up should stimulate the entire body and start from the ground up. A dynamic warm up can start as simply as toe taps and move all the way up to neck movements. You can start in place and then integrate movement. As your body's temperature increases, you can start adding balance type movements. Towards the end of your warm up, you can incorporate marches, skips, and calisthenics. Below is an example of a dynamic warm up which targets the 7 important regions of your body: foot/ankle, knees, hips, core (abs and low back), upper back, shoulders, and neck.