Ah one of my favorite topics to talk about! Dancer or not, you NEED TO READ THIS POST because warm ups are crucial for anyone who exercises.
Warm ups can often be overlooked as part of your routine, but in reality no exercise session or competition should happen unless you have properly warmed up first. Even if you are just trying to get a quick sweat sesh in, you still need to block out a few minutes for a good warm up. Not only will it reduce your chance for injury, but it also could be the missing link to improving your overall performance.
One of my favorite things to tell my patients is “Don’t dance to warm up, WARM UP to dance!”. Although I use the word dance, this concept can really be applied to any activity. You need to warm up before getting into your high intensity activity, not do the activity to warm you up.
For example, It is fairly common to walk into a gym and see a whole slew of people jumping right into lifting weights as their “warm up” or hopping right on a treadmill at 6mph. The same happens in the dance studio, where the classic dancer warm up is getting right into a deep stretch, like a straddle or split, and sitting there for a few minutes before class starts. Even if you don’t think you are doing your body any harm, your mistake will likely catch up to you sooner or later!
Knowing how to do a proper warm up has so many health benefits so, before you lace up your shoes, let’s break it down.
Here’s what’s happening physiologically during your warm up:
Gradual increase in body temperature
Gradual increase in heart rate
Gradual increase in circulation, which means more oxygen and nutrients being delivered to your muscles
Increase in nerve conduction velocity
Warming of the muscle so it is more elastic and flexible
Here’s what it means in real simple terms:
INJURY PREVENTION. All of these physiological changes need to take place so you don’t get hurt during your higher intensity activities. We need the muscles and other body systems to gradually adapt to higher levels of stress so they don’t fail. Performing on a cold muscle creates the perfect storm for sprains, strains, muscle spasms and much more. Let's think about a tootsie roll- because who doesn’t love a tootsie roll!? If you put a tootsie roll in the refrigerator and then try to bend it, you’re probably not going to be very successful. BUT if you let it warm up first it becomes much more malleable and therefore less likely to break under stress.
BETTER PERFORMANCE. When muscles are warm and nerves are firing more rapidly, our overall athletic performance improves. We are able to produce stronger contractions, have more motor control, balance, coordination and flexibility. All of these elements are important for any activity, so why would you not want to make sure your body is best prepared to do them!? You may be a dancer and your performance depends largely on flexibility, or a powerlifter whose performance depends on lifting the heaviest loads, OR maybe you are just going to go for a 1 mile run outside. Warm ups are equally important across all scenarios to reach your peak performance.
Here are a few simple rules for a proper warm up:
Keep in mind, there is a lot of room for variability here and not every warm up needs to look the same.
Budget it into your work out time. Warm ups are not something extra that you maybe do, it is a full blown part of your work out so account for it!
Start with low intensity, small and slower movements àgradually increase intensity to bigger and faster movements as your body warms
Focus on dynamic stretching rather than static stretching (not sure what this means? Check out my blog post about stretching here)
Do not push into movements that are painful or feel restricted, only go as far as your body is letting you at that moment.
By the end of the warm up you should feel warm- starting to sweat a little, heart is beating faster, etc.- this is how you know you have warmed up enough
As long as your follow these general rules, you can choose how you want to make it happen. Some days I warm up by walking then ramping up to a slow jog, other days I use a spin bike and sometimes I just complete a dynamic warm up full of trunk rotations, walking lunges, jumping jack, etc. Have fun with it and do what you like!
As a side note, I often get asked if using a heating pad counts as a warm up. The answer is- sort of. It does cause an increase in tissue temperature and localized circulation, but there is no overall change in heart rate or full body effects. An active warm up is always more effective than a passive one! Of course, there are always exceptions and if you have an injury be sure to check with a professional health care provider first.
A brief mention on cool downs:
This is brief because it is the easy part. Take all that stuff I just said above and reverse it! A cool down is just the opposite of a warm up. It gradually returns your body back to baseline temperature, heart rate and circulation. This is going to help reduce buildup of waste product in the muscle after activity, otherwise known as delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). This is the perfect time to complete your static stretching. Not only are you your most flexible after a good workout, but you can focus on breathing and resetting your body back to a relaxed state. Again be creative, as long as you are actually allowing your body to slow down!
Here are a few ideas to try:
Next time you step into the gym or dance studio don't forget to make this part of your routine. I can promise you that it will feel easier to move, lift, jump and stretch. This could be the key to unlocking your powerhouse potential!