Food for Thought: Winter Is Coming... Time To Up Your Warm-Up Game

A timely read from Breaking Muscle.

Winter is coming.  With cold weather on its way, your warm up is about to become even more important. That brisk fall feeling is about to usher in a season of tight, cold muscles and decreased mobility.  For optimum performance all winter long and an injury-free return to spring, a serious warm up is your best friend.  It’s time to step up your warm-up game.

Here are three explanations of why warm ups improve your performance.

Icy Temperatures, Frozen Performance

Cold tightens. Cold slows. It freezes you up, making your muscles sluggish and unprepared. This has two major implications for your strength-training routine:

  1. Cold, tight muscles are more prone to injury. Constricted into limited mobility, muscles tend to strain and pull under stress. Imagine trying to stretch a rubber band over a very big box. If you pull it hard and fast, it’ll snap in half. Slowly warm it up, and it will stretch to take the force of your pull. Now imagine putting that rubber band in the freezer for a while first. That’s your muscles in the winter. Flash-frozen rubber bands.
  2. Cold muscles don’t perform as well. They don’t operate at maximum range of motion, they don’t access their full potential strength, and they’re generally less ready for action. Consider your warm up a gentle awakening for your sleepy muscles, followed by a slow cup of coffee, chased by a jolt of espresso. Warming up muscles is the wake-up call that lets you get the most out of your workout.

Turn Up the Heat

Much of the power of the warm up, especially in the winter, lies in the “warm” part. Increasing muscle temperature loosens muscles for injury-preventing flexibility and mobility. It also eases them into movement so they can access their full range of motion. Properly warmed up muscles can execute exercises with proper form, for better results and fewer injuries. Warm muscles are also more responsive. They contract and relax more quickly, allowing for better performance.

Proper warm ups also increase all-over body temperature, so your body can work according to its amazing integrated design. If you’re the tin man, a good warm up is your oil can, getting the joints and muscles flowing so they can work together at maximum efficiency. Not only is this key for building functional, full-body strength, but it’s also vital for injury prevention. Nothing in the body works in isolation, and one unresponsive link in the chain can cause a major malfunction.  A good warm up keeps your body running like a well-oiled machine.

Light a Bonfire, Not a Match

Warming up only works if you do it right. I hate to break it to you, but a couple static stretches and a five-minute jaunt on the treadmill isn’t going to cut it. In fact, static stretching can actually decrease the efficacy of your strength-training workout, though to what degree is up for debate. Some studies conclude that while static stretching doesn’t hurt, it doesn’t help either. Others, however, fall firmly in the anti-static stretching camp, concluding it’s actually detrimental to power output and prevents maximum performance.1,2 Either way, sitting and doing a couple half-hearted attempts at touching your toes isn’t going to cut it.

Neither is that just-enough-to-break-a-sweat treadmill run. A recent study found that as far as performance is concerned, a five-minute cardio warm up had the same effect as no warm up at all.3A high-intensity, fifteen-minute warm up reduced strength. The lower intensity fifteen-minute workout, however, created a strength increase. Long and mellow trumps quick and intense, bringing the desired increased body temperature without the pre-routine fatigue.

Bodyweight Is Best

Bodyweight mobility exercises make the ideal warm up. As dynamic stretches, they provide the kind of movement proven to enhance muscular performance. They increase heart rate, but are of adjustable intensity, so you can craft the kind of longer, lower-intensity warm up found to be most effective. Best yet, bodyweight exercises are inherently focused on functional strength and mobility, making for an excellent full-body warm up. 

While it might seem like a lot of effort for a warm up, it’s worth spending some time preparing your body for your workout. Whatever warm up you choose this winter, treat it with the importance it deserves. After all, without this vital part of your workout, you might quickly find your results frozen solid all winter long.