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Over a year and a half ago, I wrote this article on my personal blog and attracted much attention.  It is in regards to people who do not warm up and the reasons why this can be damaging to ones well being.  This is one of the most overlooked portions of any workout.  And the worst part is that it can make or break anyone’s future progress by sidelining you.

In the middle of winter, do you instantly start up a cold engine and make it go 0-100km/h? Most, if not all of us, would say no since the engine has not warmed up and the risk of having mechanical issues increases. The same is true about your body; you shouldn’t make it attempt to go from zero to hero without an adequate warm up.

I work at a gym, and far too often do I see individuals run out of the change room, set the weight stack, and push or pull out 12 reps with the final one being to failure.  The same is true for cardio, people set the speed of the treadmill to what they aspire to continue at for the duration of  their workout.  Let`s take a second so I can explain and walk you through whats going on in your body when you do not warm up.

Firstly, your body was in a slightly elevated resting state since you were essentially running out of the change room.  Your heart rate (HR) may have been elevated 5 beats per minute (BPM) while your blood pressure remained relatively constant.  You set up the appropriate weight or speed and commence.  Initially, stretch receptors in your muscles are shocked.  They send a signal to your brain immediately which it then relays to the working muscle through the sympathetic nervous system, saying to contract!  This message is not as fast as it would be after a warm up since your neurons did not expect this rapid signalling.  Now the metaboreceptors in the muscles are noticing that there is inadequate blood flow to the working tissue.  This signals the heart to contract rapidly and cause your blood pressure (BP) to increase.  Imagine a wrecking ball hitting a building, your blood is the wrecking ball and it is pounding away at your arteries. This drastic change in BP  and HR can cause many physical implications (heart arrhythmia for example).  during resistance training, your BP can reach levels as high as 480/350, which is approximately 4x resting state (average is 120/80).

Now since you have increased your HR immediately to increase blood flow, your body is shunting blood from places where it needed it most at rest.  This is now depriving those areas of nutrients such as oxygen so that your muscles can complete the task.  You may become lightheaded because the blood flow to your brain has decreased.  Furthermore, since your respiratory system has not had the chance to catch up to your immediate straining of the body, your blood pH will decrease slightly since inadequate blood flowing through the working muscle has not transported ample nutrients or removed waste products.

Finally, your muscles are tight initially, and when you commence immediate strain, the stretch reflex occurs where they do not want to contract easily and efficiently.  This reflex originates with the stretch receptors.  Essentially, your muscles are stiff.  If you attempt to work the muscle, without increasing its elasticity, you run the risk of injuries to your muscle, tendons or bones.

TO RECAP, you shock your neurons, mostly your stretch receptors and neuromuscular junctions (neurons which relay message to muscle to contract), your BP skyrockets and pounds on your arteries like a wrecking ball, and you fatigue faster since your body has not had a chance to adapt, which may result in less oxygen getting to your brain.  In addition, you run the risk of physical injury to your muscles.

If you warm up appropriately, you avoid all these problems because you have given the body a chance to catch up.  You elevate your HR gradually, which increases your BP gradually as well.  Ultimately, your increase in HR will increase the blood flow through your body so that adequate nutrients (oxygen) can be brought to your muscles, and waste products (carbon dioxide) can be removed.  At rest, your heart pushes 5L of blood per minute through the body, but during exercise it can push upwards of 25L of blood through the body.  With a warm up, you gradually increase the speed of your heart safely.

Warm ups do not need to be long, but a gradual increase in heart rate is what you are trying to achieve.  5-10 minutes of light exercise is all it takes to elevate your heart rate 30-40 BPM.  Furthermore, its best to do a warm up which suites the desired workout.  For example, you would not go on a bike for 5 minutes to warm up for an upper body resistance training day.  Match the warm up to the proper muscle groups you wish to work later.

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