How Long to Warm Up Before Exercise

woman doing glute bridge exercise on floor for warm up
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Experienced athletes know they can benefit from a good warm-up—especially before beginning intense exercise. But 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. Still, the he 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 there is some concern that a warm-up routine do more harm than good.

In fact, in a study from the University of Calgary researchers examined the warm-up practices of 10 cyclists and discovered that less is more when it comes to warm-up practices. They concluded that a shorter warm-up led to less muscle fatigue and increased a cyclist's race performance. Here is what you need to know about warm-ups to help you determine what is right for you.

Benefits of Warm Ups

Most athletes use a warm-up to prepare their 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.

A warm-up—whether it's active or passive—can help raise the body temperature, promote metabolic changes, and get the body ready for increased movement. Similarly, dynamic stretching has been found to increase range of motion of joints and reduces muscular stiffness before 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 determine what specific exercises should be performed during the warm-up.

For example, one study examined how a warm-up, mixed with a post-warm-up session and a potential re-warm-up, impacted an athlete's performance in a match. In the research, authors found that paring a 10- to 15-minute warm-up with a short period of rest and a quick 2-minute re-warm-up right before the match led to better explosive performance.

Along with the length and timing of a warm-up, the intensity of a warm-up can have different benefits. Another study found that a warm-up performed at 80% of the workout's intensity led to increased peak performance of a squat and bench press workout when compared to a workout of 60% intensity.

Ideal Length of a Warm Up

The optimal length of a warm-up may vary depending on the exercise you're doing. Furthermore, a warm-up can consist of dynamic as well as static stretching and moves. This will depend on the type of workout and the length of the movement you'll be doing.

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 researchers 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 choosing a shorter warm-up may result in higher post-activation potentiation. 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.

Additional studies, including research on the effects of short versus long warm-ups on running, found that shorter warm-up periods are not only more efficient but also more effective. However, more recent research showed that it may not be the length of the warm-up that matters, but rather the specific moves you perform.

The study, which followed 12 male soccer players, examined the different effects long general, long specific, and short specific warm-ups had on sprinting performance in soccer. The researchers determined that the specificity of the warm-up moves matters far more than the length of the warm-up period.

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.

For example, for a 5K race, you may want to do a few minutes of brisk walking followed by knee drives, lunges, leg swings, and short sprints. For a resistance workout, try shoulder mobility stretches, jumping jacks, squats, and twists.

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 a glute activation routine and a core warm-up.

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.

A Word From Verywell

While it's easy to skip a warmup, even a short targeted session can help prepare your body for more intense movement. The best warm-up for you depends entirely on the workout you're doing.

For now, research suggests that it's best to make your warm-up a shorter and slower version of your ultimate workout. Focus on raising your heart rate, improving mobility, and preventing injury. It also may help to work with a coach or personal trainer to determine what is best for you and your activity.

8 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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Additional Reading

By Elizabeth Quinn
Elizabeth Quinn is an exercise physiologist, sports medicine writer, and fitness consultant for corporate wellness and rehabilitation clinics.