Prepare for a workout by doing a warm-up that will prime the muscles and nervous system for peak performance. Don’t make the mistake of doing too much so that you tire yourself out, or of doing passive stretching—both will only compromise performance.
A few new studies show why and how to warm-up. A general warm-up promotes sympathetic activation of the heart, improves blood flow, and increases muscle temperature—all three factors that will aid physical performance. The purpose of a more specific warm-up is to activate the performance-limiting muscles by stimulating the nervous system. Doing so will allow the muscles to contract more rapidly, while reducing the elastic resistance in the muscle. This reduces risk of injury and prepares you to produce power and force.
Neither a general or specific warm-up will include passive stretching because stretching reduces neural drive, particularly in type II motor units. A new study shows the negative effect of stretching on performance is large: Trained cyclists had a very significant 26 percent decrease in time to exhaustion and lower exercise efficiency after doing 30 minutes of stretching. This means that stretching not only leads to poorer performance in maximum strength tests but also in those that contain an endurance element.
A new German study showed that prior to a sprint workout, a brief warm-up should be used to “jazz up” the central nervous system. This study found that a warm-up of jogging, three dynamic coordination exercises (high knees, heeling, crossovers), and three acceleration runs produced the fastest short sprint times.
Additional activation warm-up exercises did not provide any performance benefit. Researchers write that “coaches should use the limited time available for warm-up to work efficiently,” and to “pass” on functional exercises.
The take away, of course, is to warm-up in a way that primes you for what you are about to do. For sprinting or sports, this should include movements to warm the muscles and activate them to produce high force and power. Dynamic coordination exercises are fine as are the short acceleration sprints used in the German study.
Performing a few heavy weight lifting repetitions can activate the neuromuscular system for faster sprint times. For example a 4 RM squat allowed female college athletes to run the 100 meters significantly faster.
Another option is to do a short 40-second cycle sprint to prime the muscles. A study showed that doing a lower-body cycle sprint for warm-up resulted in greater maximal strength performance in the squat and bench press. This warm-up also produced a higher testosterone response compared to a jogging warm-up.
Finally, if you prefer to simply warm-up with low-load lifts when training, be sure you don’t wear yourself out before getting to the “work sets.” For example, if you are warming up for a heavy bench press, you might do so as follows: 135 lbs x 5, 205 x 2, 225 x 1, 255 x 1, 275 x 1, 300 x 1 (or even 300 x 1 and then 315 x 1, so the following working sets feel lighter), and then 300 x 5 reps for x 5 work sets.