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How Long to Warm Up Before Exercise

How long and how hard should you warm up before exercise?


Updated June 11, 2014

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How long to warm up

How long to warm up

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All experienced athletes know the benefits of a good warm up before beginning intense exercise. But just what is the best way to warm up? And does the length or intensity of the warm up affect sports performance? The pros and cons of warming up before exercise have been debated among experts and athletes for years, but nearly all experts agree that a pre-exercise warm up does, in fact, improve sports performance and can even reduce the risk of injury during intense exercise. But the question still remains--what is the best way for an athlete to warm up? The length and intensity of the ideal warm up is still being debated and researched.

Before competition, many athletes perform a lengthy warm up. For example, before a cycling time trail, you will often find the top cyclists warming up at a high intensity for 30-60 minutes or more. But could such a warm up routine do more harm than good? A new study from the University of Calgary offers a new twist on an old concept.

The Physiology of the Warm Up
Most athletes use the warm up to prepare the body for intense exercise and to prevent injury. The physiology behind the warm up is related to the post-activation potentiation (PAP), which is a biochemical change in muscle activation response that is caused by brief bouts of strenuous physical activity. The trick for athletes and coaches has always been to find the optimal length and intensity of the warm up phase, as well as what specific exercises should be performed during the warm up.

Shorter Warm Ups May Be Best
A study done by the University of Calgary Human Performance Laboratory found that certain types of warm up activities may be better than others when it comes to improving performance, and delaying fatigue. Their research showed that shorter, less intense warm ups may be better than long, more intense warm ups, particularly for cyclists.

The study looked at 10 elite track cyclists doing two types of warm ups: a long, high intensity warm up of 50 minutes that brought the athletes all the way to 95 percent of their maximal heart rates, and a shorter, 15-minute warm up that had the cyclists peak out at only 70 percent of their maximal heart rates. The researchers measured the muscle contractile response and peak power output of the cyclists before, during and after the warm ups.

The research found the shorter warm up resulted in less muscle fatigue and a greater muscle contractile response than the longer warm up. This, in turn, resulted in more peak power output among the cyclists doing the shorter warm up. The difference was fairly dramatic--peak power output was 6.2 percent higher and total work was 5 percent higher in cyclists who did the shorter warm up.

According to study co-author Elias K. Tomaras, the study shows that "an even shorter warm up might be better for athletes who want to tap into PAP.”

Any athlete who participates in sports that require short, high intensity efforts, such as sprint-distance events or power events, may want to give the shorter warm ups a second look. The ultimate goal of the warm up is to tap into the ideal amount and intensity of activity to promote PAP without creating muscle fatigue.

Sample Warm Ups
In general, the best warm up for a given sport is to perform the movements used in that sport in a slow pace, and then build up the intensity and heart rate slowly over several minutes. A good warm up will leave you breaking into a sweat.

Other styles of warm up include dynamic exercises that simulate the movements of your sport as well as other, full body, and muscle activation movements. An example of muscle activation warm ups include the glute activation routine, and the core warm up.

For a sample short warm up routine, check out the ACL injury prevention program warm up. Add the skip with a twist to begin increasing the heart rate and blood flow.

Video: Basic Exercise Warm Up
Video: Army Exercise Warm Up Drills

Until more research is done that establishing ideal norms, it seems that the best warm up is entirely dependent upon the athlete. Individual athletes should experiment with different lengths, styles and exercise intensity until they find what works best for them.


American Physiological Society, news release, June 16, 2011

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