The Truth About Warming Up, Part 1

Why is it that some people can just launch right into a workout, while others are setting themselves up for poor performance, injury, or soreness if they fail to warm up first?

I know a secret about warming up: you shouldn’t need to do it. But before you assume that I mean you don’t need to, keep reading.

Nearly every fitness expert will tell you how important it is to properly warm up before exercising. (And to cool down afterward, but I’ll talk about that in another post.) Failure to warm up before a workout can increase your risk of injury, decrease your performance, and increase muscle soreness.

Yet one of my principles as a trainer and as a person is to look to nature as a guide. Animals, by and large, don’t warm up before engaging in vigorous activity. You don’t see wolves warming up before a hunt, and you certainly won’t see a herd of deer warming up before they bound away from those wolves.

So why do we believe so strongly in the importance of the warm-up? How can we reconcile what we see in nature with what we’re told to do in practice?

Well, what else are those wolves and deer doing differently from us? They’re moving. Regularly. Throughout the day. And when they rest, they’re resting in natural positions that are restorative for their bodies.

We Western humans spend so much time sitting immobile in positions that our bodies are not designed for. Many of us also sleep in positions that are not conducive to restoring elasticity and balance. And when we do move, it’s often with poor posture and mechanics. It’s no wonder that we need to undergo a formal warm-up to get our stiff, tense muscles ready for action!

Most animals don’t ever let themselves get to this disadvantageous position: they are always ready for action. Whether you’re predator or prey, you need to move when you need to move! Your cat can sleep in one position for ten hours, stretch for a second, and go tearing after a bug without a second thought. It’s not because she’s a different species. It’s because her body is in a state of constant readiness.

So what’s the takeaway? I don’t believe that warming up is a biological necessity for safe exercise across the board. But, it is a necessity for safe exercise for those of us who have let ourselves get too tight, too rigid, and too sedentary—which is most of us!

If you are moving frequently through full range of motion through all your major joints throughout the day, and your body is accustomed to exercising regularly, you might not need to warm up before you exercise. Always listen to your body, and remember: it won’t hurt you to warm up, but it could hurt you not to do it!

How do you really know whether you need to warm up or not, and when? How and why should you get your body into a state of constant readiness for exercise? We’ll talk about that next.