How Long to Warm Up Before Exercise

woman doing glute bridge exercise on floor for warm up
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All experienced athletes know the benefits of a good warm-up before beginning intense exercise. But just what is the best way to warm up? And does the length or intensity of the warm-up affect sports performance?

The pros and cons of warming up before exercise have been debated among experts and athletes for years, but nearly all experts agree that a pre-exercise warm-up does, in fact, improve sports performance and can even reduce the risk of injury during intense exercise. But the question remains — what is the best way for an athlete to warm up? The length and intensity of the ideal warm-up are still being debated and researched.

Before a competition, many athletes perform a lengthy warm-up. For example, before a cycling time trial, you will often find the top cyclists warming up at a high intensity for 30 to 60 minutes or more. But could such a warm-up routine do more harm than good? A study from the University of Calgary offers a new twist on an old concept.

The Physiology of the Warm-Up

Most athletes use the warm-up to prepare the body for intense exercise and to prevent injury. The physiology behind the warm-up is related to the post-activation potentiation (PAP), which is a biochemical change in muscle activation response that is caused by brief bouts of strenuous physical activity. The trick for athletes and coaches has always been to find the optimal length and intensity of the warm-up phase, as well as what specific exercises should be performed during the warm-up.

Shorter Warm-Ups May Be Best

A study done by the University of Calgary Human Performance Laboratory found that certain types of warm-up activities may be better than others when it comes to improving performance, and delaying fatigue. Their research showed that shorter, less intense warm-ups may be better than long, more intense warm-ups, particularly for cyclists.

The study looked at ten elite track cyclists doing two types of warm-ups: a long, high-intensity warm-up of 50 minutes that brought the athletes all the way to 95% of their maximal heart rates, and a shorter, 15-minute warm-up that had the cyclists peak out at only 70% of their maximal heart rates. The researchers measured the muscle contractile response and peak power output of the cyclists before, during and after the warm-ups.

The research found the shorter warm-up resulted in less muscle fatigue and a greater muscle contractile response than the longer warm-up. This, in turn, resulted in more peak power output among the cyclists doing the shorter warm-up. The difference was fairly dramatic—peak power output was 6.2% higher, and total work was 5% higher in cyclists who did the shorter warm-up.

According to study co-author Elias K. Tomaras, the study shows that "an even shorter warm-up might be better for athletes who want to tap into PAP.”

Any athlete who participates in sports that require short, high-intensity efforts, such as sprint-distance events or power events, may want to give the shorter warm-ups a second look. The ultimate goal of the warm-up is to tap into the ideal amount and intensity of activity to promote PAP without creating muscle fatigue.

Sample Warm-Ups

In general, the best warm-up for a given sport is to perform the movements used in that sport at a slow pace, and then build up the intensity and heart rate slowly over several minutes. A good warm-up will leave you breaking into a sweat.

Other styles of a warm-up include dynamic exercises that simulate the movements of your sport as well as other, full-body and muscle activation movements. Examples of muscle-activation warm-ups include the glute activation routine and the core warm-up.

For a sample short warm-up routine, check out the ACL injury prevention program warm-up. Add the skip with a twist to begin increasing the heart rate and blood flow.

Until more research is done that establishing ideal norms, it seems that the best warm-up is entirely dependent upon the athlete. Individual athletes should experiment with different lengths, styles and exercise intensity until they find what works best for them.

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  1. Tomaras EK, Macintosh BR. Less is more: standard warm-up causes fatigue and less warm-up permits greater cycling power output. J Appl Physiol. 2011;111(1):228-35. doi:10.1152/japplphysiol.00253.2011

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