What Constitutes a “Proper” Warm-Up?

Fitness “gurus” have done their very best to persuade you that you NEED their 45 minute warm-up in your life. Complete with stretchy bands, foam rollers, pvc pipe, and a personal massage therapist on standby, if you do not follow their warm-up to the letter…all of your joints are going to explode and then you will die…

What if I told you that you could complete a proper warm-up in as little as 5 minutes? What if I told you this warm-up could be as simple as a singular exercise but still provide you the same injury and risk reduction as the aforementioned 45 minute “guru warm-up“?

The topic of warm-ups has been completely blown out the water by those looking to make a quick buck, individuals ignorant to the science behind genuine injury risk reduction, and the continued spread of old and outdated information that you would have found in your 1980s health class textbook.

Warm-ups do not have to be some grand spectacle. You can still keep yourself safe and healthy without having to spend an hour “mobilizing” before even beginning your workout (nobody has this kind of time). With this goal in mind here’s everything you need to know about performing a safe, effective, and most importantly…efficient…warm-up, without all the extra fluff.

(Need warm-up ideas? Check out this video for a warm that can be done in as little as 2 minutes!)

1. What is a Warm-Up?:

A warm-up is any form of lower intensity exercise that gradually builds into higher intensity exercise.

That’s it. 

See how simple that is. No mention of foam rollers, no highly complicated exercise list, no stretching necessarily required (we’ll get to this don’t worry), simply “any lower intensity exercise that gradually builds into higher intensity exercise”. This means you have OPTIONS. There is no single way to do warm-ups, and a vast majority of what goes into your warm-up is going to be left up to personal preference.

2. What’s the Actual Goal Here?:

Cool. So we want to gradually build up from low intensity to high intensity…should be self explanatory.

But what’s the actual goal?

A proper warm-up should accomplish a few things for us…

1. Increase Heart Rate and Respiratory Rate: By warming up we are gradually ramping up both our heart rate (heart beats per minute) and our respiratory rate (breathes per minute). Both of these lead to increased blood flow in our body, which in turn means an increase in the amount of oxygen and nutrients our body will be capable of transporting to our working muscles

2. Increase Our Body Temperature: Increased body temperature is actually an after effect of your body trying to cool itself in response to physical activity but this is a good thing. This increased body temperature results in increased muscle temperature which can improve your overall range of motion, flexibility, and even lower the amount of time it takes for your muscles to contract.

3. Increase The Activity of the Muscles We Intend to Use: Finally, we want to increase the activity of and improve blood flow to the muscles we actually intend to use. Should go without saying, but your warm-up should be specific to whatever your intended physical activity is for the day. Example: Yes doing push-ups as a warmup for a squat workout will increase your heart rate, respiratory rate, and body temperature…but they aren’t helping us all that much in increasing the muscle activity of our legs. You’d be much better off sticking with a squat pattern to warm-up for squats…again…hopefully self explanatory.

3. The Secondary Goal (Prepping the Mind): 

Whenever warm-ups are mentioned our usual first thought is injury reduction. Makes sense.

However, there’s a less thought about component to our warm-up and that’s giving your mind some time to “switch over” into workout mode.

Your warm-up is your time to leave everything else at the door…forget the workday, forget what still needs to get done on your agenda, ditch the stress, and focus on the task at hand. Your warm-up is not only helping you reduce injury risk and achieve peak performance…it’s also your pre-workout ritual to get you in the right headspace.

4. So…Do You Need to Stretch?: 

No. Unless…

If you’ve read all the above information, you’ll notice none of the requirements specifically require stretching.

That’s because stretching isn’t a warm-up (but it could be part of yours)…

Stretching does nothing to reduce our risk of injury. Stretching’s sole purpose is increasing our overall range of motion. That means yes, it could be useful…but you may not need to add it to your routine.

For example, if you already have the required mobility to hit proper positioning in your squat…there’s no reason to add extra mobility work into your routine. You’d be fine just warming up with low intensity squats. However, if you couldn’t hit your positioning (let’s say you can’t squat to parallel without your heels lifting up) then maybe some very quick stretches would be a good addition to your routine.

Bottom line…stretches are for increasing ROM when needed…stretching DOES…NOT…REDUCE…INJURY…RISK.

Cool? Cool.

5. On The Topic of Foam Rollers, PVC Pipes, and Other Manual Therapies:

What about all the foam rolling, massage guns, and PVC pipes that trainers say are “absolutely necessary” to warming up and safety.

Spoiler Alert: They aren’t.

Anything that falls under the category of “manual therapy” (think foam rollers, lacrosse balls, peanuts, etc.) are not necessary for a safe and effective warm-up…but you can add them if you like.

Manual therapy devices are good for a short term improvement in ROM and potentially pain reduction, however…and this is a big however…they are not “healing” you. These are not the “recovery devices” they are marketed as, yes they can improve ROM, yes they can reduce your perception of pain, but the effects can dissipate in as little as 30 minutes. There is no long term benefit to the use of these products. I’m not totally against the use of these devices, I’m more so against the blatantly incorrect information that is spread about the use of them.

If you are going to use these spend no more than 5 minutes working with them and move on. All those 25 to 30 minute rolling routines you see online are not worth your time.

Joey Szatmary 2019 USS National Heavyweight Strongman Champion

6. The Bottom Line: 

When crafting your warm up, think about these things. You want to gradually increase exercise intensity over time. This gradual increase in intensity should result in your heart rate, respiratory rate, and body temperature increasing. Additionally, we want to focus on warming up and increasing blood flow and activity of the muscles we actually intend to use for the day.

All of this can be done in a short timespan think 5 to 10 minutes, and there’s no need for all the extra fluff of foam rolling, PVC pipes, and other manual therapy devices if you don’t have the time for it.

Just because a warm-up is simple does not mean it is ineffective, and highly flashy/ complicated warm-ups are largely done as marketing ploys to increase online traffic and sales.

At the end of the day, focus on what helps you feel best, what fits into your schedule, and overall just what works for YOU. Not what somebody else says works for you. 


Matt Molloy

Matt Molloy

I'm a graduate the University of Pittsburgh with a major in Exercise Science. I’m a local guy (North Penn) and athletics has dominated my life. I've led teams in basketball, baseball, soccer, golf and my passion, long distance running. I've been strength training for 6 years with a focus in power-lifting but have recently stretched to strongman since joining the pride here at the Den. When I’m not in the gym I enjoy, spending time with my friends, music, and relaxing and playing some video games.