Don't Warm Up? You're Going to Get Injured

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If you’re the guy who breezes into the gym and immediately sits down to start lifting, bad news: You’re putting yourself at serious risk. “Warm-ups are crucial to heating up muscle tissue, improving tissue extensibility, decreasing internal tissue resistance, and increasing the amount of tissue deformation that can occur before you break the threshold into injury,” says Dr. Bill Kelley, a doctor of physical therapy, athletic trainer, and strength coach.

Unfortunately, there aren’t many studies that look specifically at the link between warming up and injury prevention, which is why you don’t hear enough about it. That said, the evidence is there — take, for instance, a 2012 review study that found a well-implemented warm-up consisting of stretching, strengthening, balance, agility, and landing techniques helped reduce the incidence of knee injuries. The trick is understanding what makes for an effective warm-up.

“An effective warm-up focuses on a gradual increase in intensity, waking up the muscles that will be used in the workout,” Kelley says. “The focus shouldn’t be on static stretching, but on moderately paced movements that work each muscle to provide a more functional stretch and a firing pattern that closely mimics sports and workout activity.” It’s this type of functional, dynamic warm-up routine that helps limit the risks of injury.

The benefits of warming up don’t end there. A solid warm-up can also reduce post-workout soreness and improve performance. Kyle Kranz, a running coach, points to two of his all-time favorite studies to prove the point. “My favorite was titled ‘Warm-up Reduces Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness But Cool-Down Does Not,’ ” he says. “Researchers had groups do a warm-up and/or a cool down with a soreness-inducing workout, and they determined that the warm-up was most effective at reducing soreness.”

The other study Kranz cited found that runners who did a higher-intensity warm-up before a workout ended up performing better than those who hadn’t warmed up as well. “The reason warm-ups help is pretty simple,” says Richard Wilcock, a strength coach and owner of Flagship Fitness. “A good warm-up helps you prepare for exercise in the same way that preparing for a meeting, job interview, or wedding proposal helps. Preparation stops you from being caught off guard and lets you physically and mentally prep for the challenges ahead.”

Using the RAMP Protocol to Prevent Injuries

A good warm-up is so important that Wilcock won’t allow his clients to start a workout without one. “If there isn’t enough time to warm up, then there isn’t enough time to work out,” he says. He points to the RAMP protocol — Raise, Activate, Mobilize, and Potentiate — to guide his clients through their warm-up routine: 

Raise. A warm-up should raise your heart rate, breath rate, and body temperature, and it doesn’t require much — just a short jog or a few minutes on a bike. “Raising the heart rate and breathing rate allows you to pump more oxygen around the body, stopping you from developing an early oxygen debt that leads to fatigue,” Wilcock says. Likewise, increasing your body temperature helps warm up the muscles, making them more pliable.

Activate and Mobilize. You should activate your muscles, and mobilize your joints, focusing on those you plan to use during your workout. Move them through a full range of motion, and prep them for more challenging work. For instance, a lunge matrix is an excellent warm up for runners, and unweighted exercises, like a round of bodyweight squats before you load up the bar, are perfect on lifting days. “Your brain wants to protect you by preventing full range of motion, but in preventing this movement it can cause injuries when you overextend [during exercise],” Wilcock says. By mobilizing at a lower-intensity, you alert your brain to the exercise to come, giving it time to assess range of motion and effectively prevent overextension.

Potentiate. “Potentiate is just a fancy word for working the muscles you’re about to use in the same way you’re about to use them,” Wilcock says. Warm-ups should be specific to the exercise you’re about to do. It’s why basketball players warm up with running, sliding, and shooting exercises before a game, while runners do lunges, quick steps, butt kicks, and agility drills.