When I was a rower in Cambridge I was astonished at the way we ‘warmed up’. Basically the first four people in the boat (of eight) complete their warm up drills while the other four in the boat sit there with oars out to balance the boat. The same then happens with the back four people while the front four rest and balance the boat. But when it’s 6am, it’s four degrees outside and you’re struggling to stop icicles forming on your hair, what happens to the front four in the boat after their ‘warmup’ – they’ve done their warm up drills but now they are on the way to an icy hypothermic episode. They cool down…alot.
Clearly, in this instance, the point of my rowing ‘warm up’ wasn’t to physically warm the body at all. This made me think, how many people actually know what a warm up is?
Getting your eye in
One of the purposes of a warm up is to switch on the neuromuscular pathways that connect your brain to the working muscles so that when it matters your muscles are firing in the right order and you are able to be 100% awesome straight away. This could be done in a variety of different ways. In my rowing warmup, we would row with just the arms, then the arms and body, then the arms, body and legs halfway, then the arm, body and legs at full range. This meant that the foundations of rowing technique had been instilled into our warmup routine.
Another example could be a BodyPump class, where in the first track you do the exercises that you are going to do in the main session, just with a much lighter weight.
Another potential reason why warm up drills happen is because many people simply do not believe that they can perform to 100% unless they do some sort of warm up routine beforehand.
Warming up the body
Although my rowing warmup example doesn’t really have this in mind, one of the points of a warmup routine is to increase the core temperature and the temperature of the joints.
Imagine a stick of chewing gum. If it’s not been chewed and then you try and bend it, stretch it (basically put an amount of force through it that it’s not used to), it will likely at some point break in half. However, if you have the same stick of chewing gum and chew it for a minute or so and you try and put the same forces through it as the un-chewed stick, the gum is pliable and will take most of the punishment you give it. This is similar to what can happen in the muscles when they are physically ward compared to cold – they are more elastic meaning that range of movement will be increased, which could lead to a decrease risk of things like muscle tears.
Challenges when considering a warm up
In my rowing boat on a grey, damp and cold morning in Cambridge, thinking about getting my core temperature up is the only thing that I am worried about then going through the warm up. But it isn’t what the coaches are most concerned with. It would have been silly to make all eight of us row at the same time as part of our warm up, we would of most likely rocked the boat so much we would have fell in (yes, I’ve left it until this late to reveal that I am NOT a rowing superstar and was, at the time, very much a novice). The coach was thinking – let’s get these rowers into a good rhythm safely, which meant that four of us had to sit there, in our heads freezing to death, while the other people completed their drills. Once we start rowing as a whole crew it would be really unlikely to suddenly row flat out, full speed … the warm up would actually carry on for a while, but the coach wouldn’t call it that, signaling to us that if we hadn’t been concentrating properly during the warm it, it was time to switch our focus on too.
What if your chosen exercise/sport actually relies of muscle elasticity? Some studies have found that runners with tighter muscles can use this to their advantage by using muscle a little bit like an elastic band. So would warming up the muscles beforehand be beneficial or detrimental? That’s something to consider.
Lets take another example – 400m swimming. If you did a long warm up routine and then did a race would you perform to your absolute potential max? A warm up drill requires energy to complete – energy that may be better served in the actual race.
So what is the best type of warm up?
It’s a hard one; there isn’t a clear cut universal answer, as in, it is very much sport specific. One thing that can be agreed on, though, is that it is beneficial to take part in some sort of pre-sport/exercise routine that needs to be specific to the task that you’re about to do and have similar movement patterns with less intensity. Getting the core and joint temperatures up is generally a by-product of this anyway, but if it isn’t, it’s likely that you’ll have a coach that knows what they are doing.
(And if you’re exercising in the cold – wear enough layers and a hat until you’re hot. And be aware that in a rowing boat at 6am on the River Cam, you may never get warm!)