For most of us, the need to warm up is two-fold: to enhance performance and prevent injury. Yet it’s often deemed a necessary evil. We all know it makes sense to raise your body temperature, increase your heart rate and circulation, loosen your joints and stretch your muscles before you play sport or exercise, but how often do we really take it seriously? Are we getting the most out of our warm ups? Are they making us better?
It’s 1989 in Munich’s Olympiastadion and Napoli’s Diego Maradona is treating the crowd to a show. But he’s not terrorising Bayern’s defences or even scoring goals. In fact the game hasn’t even started yet. He’s just warming up.
With ‘Live is Life’ by Opus blaring on the PA system, Maradona puts on a mesmerising keepy-uppy performance. His boots are unlaced as he dances, claps, sings and showboats his way to kick off, while his teammates pass and stretch around him in more conventional fashion.
Now this far-from-textbook display refutes any research that warm ups are beneficial, or even necessary for that matter, but arguably the greatest footballer that ever lived is bound to be an anomaly. When it comes to sport and exercise, we mere mortals are unlikely to perform as well without the proper preparation.
For most of us, the need to warm up is two-fold: to enhance performance and prevent injury. Yet it’s often deemed a necessary evil. We all know it makes sense to raise your body temperature, increase your heart rate and circulation, loosen your joints and stretch your muscles before you play sport or exercise, but how often do we really take it seriously? Are we getting the most out of our warm ups? Are they making us better? The answer is frequently ‘no’.
If we are tight for time when it comes to training, the warm up is first thing to go. Even when there is time we don’t use it. Gym-goers stick a comfortable weight on the bar or do a few press-ups until their buddy has mixed his protein shake. Rugby players migrate into a circle and pass the ball around it waiting for the coach’s whistle. Footballers hoof it at goal. Miss. And fetch.
The stigma around warm ups is that they are dull. And too often they are – even at the professional end of the sporting spectrum. They tend to be the definition of going through the motions, and while autopilot gets the body warmer, it rarely allows you to make physiological or technical improvements. Skill level doesn’t seem to matter during the warm up. Lifting form is shelved; dropped balls are laughed off and poor passes accepted. It’s almost a coffee club compared to the main session.
So how do we make a warm up more worthwhile? Start by not calling it a ‘warm up’. Calling it so gives you an excuse not to do it. Design your session so it has the necessary preparation built into it. Start with lower intensity exercises to improve technique and skill. For example, superset your early lifts with prehab style exercises like shoulder or glute band series. Done properly, these should be hard work in themselves. Begin with injury prone areas in mind, so that they slowly strengthen and help improve your bigger lifts. If you have known areas of inflexibility, chase the range throughout these primer sets and realise the benefits over time.
Game day team warm ups are useful in that they act as mental trigger. These are often unchanging and generic and prepare the team mentally for the contest ahead. But away from competition most of the preparation should be individually tailored. Make it relevant - not only to the sport but also to your body. Use the time to work on your weaknesses so that your performance is enhanced for the long term as well as the session at hand.
The onus is on you to lace up your boots and use your warm up wisely. Make it individual for the right reasons – unless you’re Maradona.