Is Your Warm Up Routine Sabotaging your Training?

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Years of research have demonstrated that warming up properly before exercise is essential if one hopes to reap maximal benefits from each training session.   However, the ways in which one can prepare for a training session is quite diverse and confusing.    

Early on in my fitness career, I was always fascinated by the many different approaches trainers would take in warming up their clients. Some trainers I worked with would simply have their customers pedal on a stationary bike for 10 minutes and then head right over to the weight room without even a thought of stretching.  Others would have their clients get on a mat and perform what seems to be an abbreviated yoga routine before allowing them to begin training.  Other colleagues of mine would have their clients moving about the gym performing walking lunges, inchworms, and other strenuous looking movements.

With this diversity in warm-up strategies, people have asked me the following:

Is one warm up strategy superior to others at preparing the body to receive maximal benefits from the training session?

You may be surprised, but extensive research in the last 15 years has been done and provided the answers to this question.  This research examined the effect of static stretching, dynamic stretching, and no stretching at all on various performance variables.  

Let’s first take a look at four general warm up styles:  

  • General Activity - light cardiovascular activity is used to warm up the client for 5-10 minutes, but no stretching is incorporated.
  • Static Stretching - a series of stretches that held in a challenging position for an extended period (typically 10-60 seconds) preceded by 5-10 minutes of general activity.
  • Dynamic (or Functional) Stretching - a controlled movement in which a muscle moves through its full range of motion without the end position ever being held (these stretches are usually preceded by 5-10 minutes of general activity). 
  • Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF) Stretching - a method of stretching performed with a partner that involves a series of contractions and relaxations with enforced stretching during the relaxation phase. 

So what does the research show?

For the most part, the research studies to the question on the acute effects of stretching on performance have shown the following three conclusions:

1. Dynamic stretching before exercise increased strength and power output while static stretching before exercise decreased strength and power output. 

  • Static stretching before exercise reduced maximal contraction force of the quadriceps in isokinetic testing by 9.5% when compared to no stretching (Power et al., 2004)
  • Dynamic stretching before exercise increased peak power output of the quadriceps muscle in isokinetic testing by 8.9% when compared to no stretching, (Marek et al., 2005)
  • Study on collegiate athletes found that static stretching decreased vertical jump height by 4.2% compared to no stretching while dynamic stretching before exercise increased vertical jump height by 4.9% compared to no stretching. (Hough et al. 2009)
  • Study on 97 professional rugby players assessing 20 m sprint time found that dynamic stretching produced a significant decrease in sprint time while static stretching produced a significant increase in sprint time. (Fletcher & Jones, 2004)

2. Static stretching in the warm up might produce poor performance.

  • A study compared the chronic effects of either four weeks of dynamic stretching before exercise or static stretching before exercise on performance in collegiate wrestlers, and the results showed that Dynamic stretching increased quadriceps peak torque by 11%, broad jump by 4%, underhand medicine ball throw by 4%, sit ups by 11%, and pushups by 3%.  Furthermore, dynamic stretching decreased 300-yard shuttle run time by 2% and 600 m run time by 2.4%.  On-the-other-hand, static stretching showed either no change or slight decrements in each of these performance variables. (Herman & Smith, 2004)

3. Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF) Stretching has similar effect to static stretching

  • PNF stretching in the warm up has a very similar effect to static stretching in the warm-up (Manoel, 2008).
  • Study on recreationally active men and women found that both PNF and static stretching produced a 3.2 decrease in muscle power when implemented in a warm up. (Marek et al., 2005).

So then what warm-up routine could you recommend for your client?

General Warm Up - 5-10 minutes of light cardiovascular activity (e.g. jogging on a treadmill).  Regardless of the style of stretching, the muscle used needs to be warmed before being stretched.

Dynamic Warm Up - Following up after a general warm-up, 5-10 minutes of dynamic stretches.  Remember, dynamic stretching is a style of stretching in which a joint moves through its range of motion without being in a statically held in a position for longer than 1-2 seconds. (e.g. leg swings, knee hugs, ankle grabs, etc.).  Ideally, these dynamic stretches should be specific to the movements used in that day’s training session.

Advanced Warm Up - Most studies show an efficient 10-20 minute warm up will sufficiently prepare most novice trainees for the upcoming training session.  However, a more advanced trainee may require additional warm up activities following the dynamic warm up depending on individual needs and the goal for that day’s training session.  For instance,

  • If moderate to heavy resistance will be utilized in the training session (>75% of 1 RM), additional warm up sets of the lift will likely be needed.
  • Additional warm up movement drills (i.e. high knees, heel kicks, etc.) will likely be needed if speed and agility drills are to be used in the training session.

But this warm-up seems kind of long!

Unfortunately, there aren’t many studies have examined what the ideal length of a warm-up should be.  The length of the warm-up will be largely dependent on the individual needs and the ability of your client.  As a trainer, it is up to your expertise to determine the appropriate warm-up duration for yourself or your client.  For instance,  the warm up may need to be closer to 10 minutes in duration for poorly conditioned clients to avoid fatigue before the “meat” of the training session.  On the other hand, an extended warm and other components may be needed if the client is an elite competitor.

In fact, a warm-up duration for many elite athletes such as Olympians and champion powerlifters often are upwards of 30 minutes or more!  

But a dynamic warm-up only improves strength and power and my client's goal is fat loss!

It’s true; a majority of studies performed looking at the effect of a warm-up on subsequent training sessions have done so with only the dependent variables being strength and power.  However, keep in mind, if a warm up promotes enhanced strength and power output during the training session, it will be beneficial regardless of the type of training that is used.  Providing optimal strength and power output during a training session will allow for a greater energy output and an improved ability to build lean muscle mass, both of which are essential to losing body fat.

Is there room to deviate from these guidelines?

Absolutely!  There will be many occasions throughout your career where your client presents a unique and limiting factor that requires you to deviate from the suggested warm up guidelines.  No “one-size-fits-all” approach has ever been effective when it comes to exercise program design.  With experience comes the ability to know when and how to tailor these guidelines to meet your client’s specific needs. These guidelines are a simple foundation from which to build your warm up design.  

The bottom line is while static stretching and PNF stretching are fantastic for improving flexibility, the research tells us for the most occasions you should attempt to incorporate dynamic stretching into your warm up and hold off on other styles of stretching until the end of the training session.  This one simple change just may improve the quality of your training sessions.


  • Published on December 28, 2015
  • References

    1. Fletcher, I., & Jones, B. (2004). The effect of different warm-up stretch protocols on 20 meter sprint performance in trained rugby union players. The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 18(4), 885-885.

    2.  Herman, S., & Smith, D. (2008). Four-week dynamic stretching warm-up intervention elicits longer-term performance benefits. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 22(4), 1286-1297.

    3.  Hough, P., Ross, E., & Howatson, G. (2009). Effects of dynamic and static stretching on vertical jump performance and electromyographic activity. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 23(2), 507-512.

    4. Marek, S., Cramer, J., Fincher, A., Massey, L., Dangelmaier, S., Purkayastha, S., . . . Culbertson, J. (2005). Acute effects of static and proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation stretching on muscle strength and power output. Journal of Athletic Training, 40(2), 94-103.

    5. Manoel, M., Harris-Love, M., Danoff, J., & Miller, T. (2008). Acute effects of static, dynamic, and proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation stretching on muscle power in women. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 22(5), 1528-1534.

    6. Power, K., Behm, D., Cahill, F., Carroll, M., & Young, W. (2004). An acute bout of static stretching: effects on force and jumping performance. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 36, 1389-1396.