One of the most frequently omitted components of a complete workout is the warm-up. A proper warm-up is tremendously beneficial, but not for the reasons you may think.
Contrary to popular belief, warming-up has never been shown definitively to decrease injury rates, though some isolated studies do suggest it. Rather, the benefits of warming-up lie in your performance. The primary benefits of a warm-up are decreased intra-cellular acidosis, increased circulation to the working muscles, reduced resistance to movement, and increased psychological readiness. Let’s explore these.
Decreased intra-cellular acidosis is a fancy way of saying your cells won’t accumulate lactic acid as quickly from strenuous exercising. Lactic acid accumulation plays a key role in muscles fatiguing during a workout, and the soreness experience during and immediately after workouts (as opposed to the soreness one typically experiences 24-48 hours later). Warming-up has been shown to decrease the accumulation of that lactic acid, allowing for longer, more intense workouts before fatigue sets in and reduces lactic acid related soreness.
When one works out without having warmed-up, the muscles don’t yet have the blood supply required to deliver the oxygen needed for energy production and to eliminate carbon dioxide and other wastes. This is why those who workout cold will frequently notice that their performance in their first set of an exercise isn’t as good as the second. Blood has to get re-routed from other areas of the body, including the digestive tract, to get to the working muscles to give them what they need to perform. Warming-up gets the oxygenated blood to your muscles in advance so your performance is at its best from the very first set.
Due to a quality of your connective tissue known as thixotropy, increased temperatures results in a softening and increased fluidity of your tissue. Also, the increased temperature stimulates the secretion of a nourishing, lubricating fluid into the joints known as synovial fluid. This means that having warmed-up, literally, your muscles, joints, tendons, and ligaments will all move easier, smoother, and more comfortably, decreasing the likelihood of developing compensation patterns.
For reasons that aren’t quite clear, warming-up has been shown to increase one’s sense of motivation and drive to take on the subsequent workout. As a result, workouts are frequently more intense and longer, as exercisers who start out motivated are likely to stay motivated longer into the workout.
To get the maximum benefit, a warm-up must include three things: your tissue temperature should increase (literally get warmed-up), your heart-rate should elevate, and your breathing rate should increase. Warm-ups should consist of 5-10 minutes (or longer) of light to moderate aerobic exercise and be done immediately before the exercise bout in question. For example: warming up, then stretching for 10 minutes, then working out will lose you the benefits of the warm-up.