Occasionally, I attend group exercise classes at different gyms or at different outdoor locations. It’s a fun way to meet new people, to add some variety to my workout regimen, and to learn some new drills or exercises to bring into one of my classes. (I teach high-intensity group exercise classes in my free time.)
I’m often impressed by the creativity and energy that many group exercise instructors bring to their classes. However, there are also times when I’m shocked by the way that many instructors begin the workouts that they lead.
A couple of summers ago, I attended a high-intensity interval training (HIIT) class where the instructor asked us to begin the workout with sprints. I thought the guy was kidding at first, but he was serious.
Another time, I attended a class where the instructor had us begin the workout with heavy deadlifts, a weightlifting movement in which you lift weight (usually a heavy barbell) off the floor.
Another time, I attended a 6:00 a.m. class (indoors) on a cold winter day. The instructor wanted us to go “all-out” less than three minutes into the workout. When I took a few minutes on the side by myself to warm-up more thoroughly, she actually asked me if I was hurt. “I’m fine,” I said. “It’s 6:00 a.m. and it’s 12 degrees outside. My body needs more time to warm-up.”
The worst way to start a workout
Over the last 20+ years, I’ve spent thousands of hours exercising at various gyms. It amazes me how often people come in off the street and launch right into a workout without warming up properly. This is one of the worst and most common mistakes that you can make with exercise.
As mentioned above, there are even many group exercise instructors and personal trainers who fail to recognize the importance of a solid warm-up.
If you ever attend a workout led by someone else, and they ask you to push yourself before you feel warmed-up, remember it’s your responsibility to take care of your own body. Never launch into a difficult workout until you feel ready- physically and mentally. Take a few more minutes on the side by yourself if you need to.
Why is a thorough warm-up so important?
A thorough warm-up serves two key purposes. First, it helps you prepare mentally for the exercise to follow. If you are like me and typically work out early in the morning, a proper warm-up helps you get focused and helps ensure that you are fully awake before you move onto physical activity that is more intense or more complex.
If you work out later in the day or after work, a proper warm-up serves as a buffer between your workout and whatever you were doing beforehand. It helps you get your mind right, so that you can get the most out of the workout to follow.
Secondly, a thorough warm-up helps you prepare physically for the exercise to follow. Easing into your workout carefully will significantly reduce your chances of injury, while also enabling you to train at a higher intensity and/or for a longer period of time. After you are warmed-up, you will be able to move faster and more gracefully and perform heavier lifts and more complex movements- all without hurting yourself.
The world’s best athletes are incredibly strategic about their warm-ups. Usain Bolt doesn’t just walk onto the track and run 100-meter sprints at full speed. Lebron James doesn’t just walk onto the basketball court and start throwing down windmill dunks. Tom Brady doesn’t just walk onto the football field and start throwing 60-yard passes.
And, those are world-class athletes. The older or less fit/athletic you are, the more important it is for you to take your warm-up seriously.
How to Warm Up
The best warm-up is a lower-intensity version of the exercise(s) that you plan to do that day. Use the start of your workout as the cue to warm up for at least five minutes.
Start slow and easy, build gradually, and target your entire body, or at least the major muscles that you plan to use that day. If you are going for a light jog on a hot day, your warm-up might only need to be a few minutes and can be pretty simple. However, a cold-weather workout or a higher intensity workout (i.e. sprints or heavy strength training) demands a longer, more strategic warm-up- generally at least eight to ten minutes.
Regardless of the workout that you have planned for that day, focus on warming up your entire body first. For example, you could start by walking/jogging slowly, riding an elliptical, and/or doing some light plyometrics or simple body weight exercises, such as jumping jacks and body weight squats.
Then, you can get more targeted- based on the workout you plan to do. For example, if you plan to do barbell squats that day, start with a couple of body weight sets and 2-3 sets with lighter weights before you move onto heavier weights. As another example, if you plan to do some sprints at 90-100% effort, it’s wise to do a few slower rounds first.
Just be careful not to wear yourself out with the warm-up sets. They are designed to get you ready for the more difficult sets to follow, not to gas you before the real work begins.
Can you skip or shorten the warm-up if you are in a rush?
If your time is limited, warm up anyway. Then, train harder and use your time more efficiently during your workout.
A proper warm-up helps you prepare mentally and physically for the exercise to follow. It helps you focus more intensely, and it helps you train harder or for longer, all while reducing your chances of hurting yourself. Make sure you warm-up properly before any workout- even if a trainer makes the mistake of asking you to go “all-out” from the start.
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About the author: Pete Leibman is the creator of StrongerHabits.com and he’s the author of Work Stronger; Habits for More Energy, Less Stress, and Higher Performance at Work. Before writing Work Stronger, Pete worked as an executive recruiter for Heidrick & Struggles, a leadership advisory firm who serves the majority of the Fortune 500. In his free time, he teaches one of the largest group exercise classes in the Washington, D.C. area, and he has competed in the Obstacle Course Racing (OCR) World Championships.