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What exactly should a warm-up be?

Posted Oct 10 2012 11:06am

The warm up is such a fundamental part of exercising that I think it is easy to overlook the exact purpose of doing it or what exercises constitute the best warm up activity. I even have my doubts as to whether a warm up is really necessary.

Last week we started the class with breakfalls. No warm-up. I was dubious about the wisdom of this at first, thinking that we might get some injuries but I actually enjoyed breakfalling from cold – it warmed me up much more quickly than a usual warm-up and I felt ready for action all session. No one suffered any injuries or pulls. So did the breakfalling constitute the warm-up?

Last night I arrived late for class and the other students had already done their warm-up. I arrived just as the class was about to start a round of breakfalls, so I just did them – from cold again. They went well and I felt fine – I felt warmed up and ready for action. So does this mean that breakfalling was my warm up again?

Usually our warm-up consists of either running around the hall for a couple of minutes or jogging on the spot, star jumps, press-ups, burpees, sit-ups and straight leg raises followed by a few dynamic stretches. This lasts between 5-10 minutes. Occasionally we warm-up with some fast kihon moves or sparring moves followed by stretching. When I used to do my kobudo classes the warm-up was similar.

When my husband used to belong to a jujitsu club the warm-up lasted for 45 minutes and consisted of many static stretches as well as a cardio-vascular warm-up.

Whichever way I have been asked to warm up I have not suffered any injuries as a result of not warming up sufficiently. However, I usually feel more ready for action if I have ‘warmed-up’ doing the activity I am participating in (i.e. karate moves/breakfalling) than if I have warmed up doing ‘warm-up exercises’ (i.e. running, star-jumps, press-ups, stretching etc). This begs the question – what’s the purpose of the warm-up?

My understanding of this question is that the warm-up is designed to prepare the body for action by increasing the heart rate and warming up the muscles. Well, I don’t need special exercises to increase my heart rate – just doing karate does that. Also, my muscles are at a constant 37 degrees centigrade whether I’m exercising or not – it’s called body temperature. So perhaps I’m trying to increase blood flow to the muscles rather than increase their temperature…

Doesn’t it make more sense to increase the blood flow to the muscles you’re actually going to use rather than a random selection of them? I mean, if I’m going to punch and kick doesn’t it make sense to warm up my punching and kicking muscles? I don’t need to isolate them out with special exercises I just need to start punching and kicking – but more slowly and carefully until the blood flow has increased. If the session is going to be mainly a throwing one will breakfalls warm me up better than jogging and press-ups? If I’m doing a kata based session then wouldn’t doing some kata warm me up best?

Runners run best when they warm up by jogging a couple of rounds of the track. It has been advocated that weight trainers warm up by lifting the empty bar or going through the range of weight exercises they propose to do but without the weights first to warm up the correct muscles. They should then add half the weight they want to lift and repeat the range of movements before finally getting onto the full weight they intend to work with.

In other words, you warm-up best by getting on with the activity you intend to be doing but at a slower and gentler pace until your heart rate has increased and the blood flow to the correct muscles has increased.

This makes more sense to me. I don’t feel I get any real benefit from jumping and jogging around doing ‘warm-up’ exercises, despite what conventional wisdom tells me.  I’m all for starting my karate sessions with a round of breakfalling, kihon, kata or kumite – starting at a steady pace and increasing the intensity as I warm-up.

What about you? Do you swear by your warm-up routine or does it just get in the way of doing your main activity?

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