The idea of warming up before physical activity has been utilised for many years by both elite and recreational sportsmen and women. Warming up is generally performed with a short bout of aerobic (light exercise) activity such as a five minute jog followed by stretching and then sport specific drills. This is theorised to physically warm muscle tissue to prepare it to contract quickly and forcefully, to speed up nerve transmission from the brain to the muscle and to psychologically prepare the athlete for the sport. It is proposed that warming up can help prevent injury, reduce soreness and improved performance, however, theory and scientific evidence don’t always agree and in this article I will examine if warming up is actually necessary.
Does warming up prevent injury
In theory, the warm up period would heat the muscle tissue which would literally make the muscle more elastic and ready to contract forcefully without the risk of tearing. Imagine a warm vs a cold elastic band, the colder elastic band would be easier to break which in this case would be a pulled muscle and resultant injury.
In 2006 a study by Fradkin and colleagues which was titled “Does warming up prevent injury in sport? The evidence from randomised control trials?”. The study concluded that “there is insufficient evidence to endorse or discontinue a warm up prior to physical activity”. However, the study did note a slight trend towards warming up reducing injury.
Interestingly as the previous publication shows, there is not enough evidence to recommend warming up to prevent injury. However, the Fifa 11+ is a warm up programme for footballers designed to reduce the risk of knee ligament injuries and this has been found to be very effective. Although, this may have been due to the hip strengthening component as opposed to the actual act of warming up itself.
Does warming up reduce DOMS
“DOMS” or “delayed onset muscle soreness” is the soreness that you feel after going to the gym for the next day or two. The actual origin of DOMS and its cause is contested but it is theorised to be because of eccentric loading (the lowing section of a bicep curl, for example). DOMS is a common issue among sporting population as having DOMS reduces muscle power and therefore reduces performance and increases recovery time.
In 2012 Olsen and colleagues examined whether a warm prevented DOMS in the quad (front of thigh) muscles. The warm up proposed was 15-20 minutes of cycling which completely warmed the muscle tissue. The study did find a trend towards decreased DOMS in the warm up group, however, this was only a small trail of 36 participants and is far from conclusive.
Does warming up improve performance
Warming up has been theorised to improve performance by again warming up the tissue to prepare for contraction and the psychological action of warming up may also prepare the athletes mind to compete.
A study Andrade and colleagues in 2015 showed a trend towards an improvement in performance if the warm up was specific to the activity being done after it. However again, this trial only examined 10 participants which is an insufficient number for concrete conclusions to be made.
There is insufficient evidence to suggest that warming up is beneficial. However, warming up, if done correctly is never going to cause harm. In my opinion, it would be prudent to continue warming up, unless new studies specifically show no benefit.
If you choose to warm up, what should and shouldn’t be included
In general, a warm up should be specific to the sport you are taking part in. For example, if you are preparing to run a sprint, then stretching should be done in a dynamic fashion (stretching with movement such as butt kicks or high knees). In contrast to this, if you are preparing for Yoga, you may start with some static stretching (not moving such as a basic seated hamstring stretch) to prepare for deeper stretching during the class. It should be noted that for explosive sports, such as weightlifting and sprinting, static stretching should be avoided. Static stretching relaxes the neuromuscular system when in reality you would want to wake up this system before performance. In fact, relaxing the muscle system before an explosive activity may lead to an increased risk of injury as the person would gain more movement from the stretching and therefore work outside their “comfort zone”.
In general this should be an outline for a warm up:
- 5 minutes aerobic activity (running, cycling etc)
- 5 minutes stretching (dynamic or static, must be specific)
- 5 minute Drills (footwork drills for football, for example)
- Warm up should take no longer than 15 minutes and should not include activities that are high in intensity