Everyone knows we should warm up before intense physical activity but few of us do so properly, or at all.
Even those who engage in some light cardio and a few stretches miss the mark in terms of an adequate warm-up, particularly when we want to perform at our best and reduce our injury risk.
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Get the blood flowing
Every comprehensive warm-up session should start with some light cardiovascular activity to increase blood flow to the legs (or arms) and raise the temperature of working muscles.
This preparation also helps to improve mobility in joints and increases range of motion by making connective tissue more pliable, which reduces injury risk.
A few stretches usually follow before we dive into the workout or line up on the start line. But a proper warm-up should include more than a few old-school static hamstring holds.
Jolt muscles back to life
Just like your favourite pre-workout supplement or caffeine fix, a proper warm-up should give your body – specifically your nervous system and muscles – a ‘wake-up call’ before the impending exercise session.
This is particularly important in the context of our modern lifestyles because periods of extended sitting can ‘shut down’ or deactivate important muscles like our glutes – a primary mover muscle for most movements.
This can cause movement dysfunction as other muscles must pick up the slack to compensate for the lack of glute activation. And when weaker muscles like your quads and lower back muscles are called on to perform functions they weren’t designed for, pain and injuries soon follow.
Activating our neuromuscular system before a workout can rouse specific muscles from ‘sleep mode’ and ensure they fire optimally. The proper drills can also fully engage all the relevant muscles and get them firing in the right sequence so that they perform their jobs right from the start.
And the best way to turn on everything is with dynamic pre-workout activation drills. A pre-workout activation routine should consist of various general mobility drills, in addition to specific movement preparation drills and dynamic stretches that are designed to enhance the communication between your brain via your nervous system and your muscles.
Functional movement patterns
The drills you perform should also be specific to the activity you’re about to perform. These movement drills should target the neuromuscular system by activating specific muscles and movement patterns to ensure primary movers and all the stabiliser muscles are ready to fire in sequence.
Running, for example, will require the muscles and joints around your hips and in the legs to function optimally.
As such, glute and hip flexor activation drills are ideal before any workout or race, as are hip mobility drills. Examples include high knees, pull-throughs, heel-to-glute kicks, walking lunges with arm swings, toe touch walks, and front-to-back and side-to-side leg swings.
And it’s important to include dynamic stretches as research shows that static holds activate a protective neuromuscular reflex that temporarily reduces a muscle’s ability to produce maximal force.
Pre-workout activation guidelines
Keep your pre-workout activation routine brief – no more than 10 minutes. The idea is not to fatigue muscles, so keep the intensity light, or perform only a few reps of intense explosive movements.
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It is also important to focus on both the contraction (concentric) and the lengthening (eccentric) phases of every drill or dynamic stretch.
And aim to complete your activation session at least 10 minutes before your high-intensity workout or race to clear any residual fatigue. This approach should ensure you’re all fired up and ready to go when that start gun goes off!