The Ultimate Guide to Warming Up – For Greater Performance and Injury Prevention

By on August 15, 2023

Attention! This is not just a boring post about warming up! I’m about to completely change the way you think about warming up and potentially help you unlock permanently greater performance. This is your comprehensive guide to what actually happens when you warm up. Why you need it. And how to optimise it.

Glute Bridge

Warming up is always treated as an after-thought. You’ll receive a workout program to follow and in small text at the top it will say something like “remember to warm-up!”

We all know it’s something we should do. We’re told that it prevents injury and enhances performance. Then we’re shown a bunch of random movements – people swinging their arms around and hopping on the spot.

What does warming up even mean? How should someone go about warming up? How do we get the most out of it? Do we actually have to do it?

Could it be that some of our assumptions about warming up are very wrong?

Warming Up: The Basics

First: an admission.

I rarely warm-up. I will very often run straight over to the chin-up bar and start bashing out pull ups. I used to head straight to the bench press and start doing reps with 130kg. 

This never led to injury, but I learned very quickly that not everyone is the same, in this regard. 

Today, aged 36, I wouldn’t do the bench thing. I’d work up to that highest number. But I’d still start pretty heavy and I can still do pull ups from cold. 

That’s the first mystery, though. Why am I able to do this and most other people are not? One answer is that I have, it turns out, a high resting level of adrenaline. This means that I can very quickly shuttle blood to the muscles AND allows me to send stronger signals to the muscles, as well.

Adrenaline, or epinephrine, triggers blood flow to the muscles by acting on a-adrenergic and B2-adrenergic receptors in vascular smooth muscle; but it has different effects depending on the precise area it’s acting on. Most vascular beds contain more a-adrenergic receptors which lead to vasoconstriction when interacting with adrenaline: tightening the blood vessels. Skeletal muscle tissue, however, contains more B2-adrenergic receptors, leading to vasodilation. This essentially creates a pressure differential and “squeezes” the blood into the muscles, ready for action. 

But what’s more is that – as anyone who watches this channel regularly will know – I also train in a way that encourages increased angiogenesis (the creation of new blood vessels) which in turn means greater potential blood flow to the muscles.

So, I have a high propensity to start shuttling blood where it’s needed AND a lot of in-roads to get it there once the process starts. 

Warming up

That’s great for me, but what does it mean for you?

Well, caffeine will actually stimulate the release of more adrenaline throughout the body, triggering this process. This is why so many pre-workouts rely on huge doses of caffeine to get us stimulated, going into the gym. And it’s why there’s plenty of evidence showing that caffeine produces enhanced performance. 

Better yet, though, we just need a good five minutes of aerobic exercise which will also stimulate the release of adrenaline. We can further enhance this effect with motivating music and even imagery.

I would argue that this is preferable to relying on caffeine for a few reasons. And we’ll get to that in a moment. 

We can stimulate yet-more adrenaline in other ways, too: by listening to music that gets us pumped, by watching action movies, and by engaging in aerobic exercise. 

A great protocol is to start jumping rope. This is a light form of exercise that gets blood flowing around the whole body. We can also combine this with music. Interestingly, some evidence suggests that the BEST workout playlist is one that starts with a slower beat and gradually works up to being high-tempo. So, structure your playlist that way and gradually elevate intensity as you get ready to train. 

(All this is also why you shouldn’t eat right before a workout. Blood is being shuttled to the muscles at the expense of other processes, like digestion. Think of your body like a starship and you’re shouting “all power to thrusters!”)

This will also have a number of additional benefits. For example, the increased adrenaline also expands air passage into the lungs and even increases focus. 

How long do you need to jump rope for, before starting your training? An issue with a lot of warm-ups is that they take far too long. The good news is that 5-10 minutes is more than enough for most people to elevate their heart rate ready for exercise, especially if they then follow this up with a warm-up set.

Jogging warm up

Better yet, though, is to look at your heart rate. Once you reach 50-70% of your max heart rate, you’re probably ready to start your more focussed preparation. In my case, this can take as little as two minutes. Just make sure you’re keeping the intensity low enough that you aren’t expending serious energy on the warm-up and taking away from the main workout!

Working Sets

Once we begin moving the area, this will further encourage the delivery of blood to the working muscle. If we’re doing bench press, for example, we want blood delivered to the pecs, triceps, shoulders, etc. 

Fortunately, simply beginning the exercise takes care of this. That’s thanks to a few more processes in the body. For example: metabolic factors play a role as activating the muscle causes it to produce byproducts such as carbon dioxide, lactic acid, adenosine, and potassium. These have additional vasodilatory effects. Moreover, the muscle itself works like a pump: contracting the muscle squeezes blood out, and then allowing it to rest causes those blood vessels to dilate, letting more blood back in again. 

This is why working sets make a lot of sense: by doing light repetitions of the exercise you’re about to do, you get the blood flowing straight to that area. 

But very light versions of an exercise you’re familiar with aren’t likely to trigger a lot of adrenaline in the same way that an aerobic activity like jump rope or running on a treadmill might.

Thus, the logical order is to start your workout with some jump rope to get the heart rate up, and then to focus that blood flow to the intended area with lighter reps that build up to your working sets. 

This is one reason I prefer not to use caffeine. Caffeine works by blocking adenosine receptors and, in theory, this can dull one of the signals telling the body to deliver more blood and oxygen to a specific muscle. 


Now, to be clear. This isn’t backed up by any evidence and the increased adrenaline caused by caffeine likely overrides this, predominantly. It’s also true that caffeine is overwhelmingly shown to be ergogenic overall – meaning it enhances performance.

But my point is that the body is an extremely delicate and complex machine. There are countless interactions happening inside the body, at all times, and while caffeine might be big and loud in terms of the signal, it also lacks nuance. Like trying to fix a pocket watch with a sledgehammer. Wherever possible, I prefer to let the body produce the chemicals it needs naturally.

And you know what? Perhaps if that results in a weaker signal, then that’s what the body needs on that day. But there’s theoretically no reason you can’t theoretically get equally as amped up using a workout as you can using a pre-workout. 

Working sets aren’t the only option, here. All that’s important from the perspective of warming up the muscle and encouraging blood flow, is that we are using the muscle groups we’re going to use. 

So, if you want to hit military press, doing some kettlebell halos or Gama casts, can be a good strategy. This way, you aren’t “wasting time” by performing a redundant exercise with light weight.

With that said, there is benefit to practicing the specific movement, as well. We’ll get to that in a moment. 

Literally Warming Up

Jumping rope and performing working sets will also have the added benefit of warming the body up in a literal sense. Warmer muscle and tendon is more pliable, just like warming up a viscous material like honey. Increased body temperature also improves nerve conduction velocity, helping the nerves transmit signals more rapidly and resulting to quicker reflexes. Enzymatic reactions supporting muscle contraction, such as ATP hydrolyzation and the breakdown of glycogen and glucose, etc.  

Sauna benefits

Heat even increases muscle metabolism, such that more ATP is produced and reduces stiffness to enhance range of motion.

To get more benefits from your jump rope then, wearing a thick hoodie might have some advantages. But keep in mind that excess heat will eventually have the opposite effect and may lead to muscle fatigue or central fatigue. 

So, if you’re cold and stiff, jump rope for five minutes with a hoodie on and then take it off to start your training. 

Neurological Factors

So far, our warmup consists of five minutes of jump rope, followed by a warm up set or two. 

Depending on your workout, this might be all you need.

But for many, the next part is the most important: establishing the “mind muscle connection.” Before you accuse me of bro-science, hear me out.

Because what happens for most of us, is that we sit in the office for 8 hours or more, then sit in the car for 30 minutes, then hit the gym. During this time, our bodies have been locked into a single position: hunched over and squashing our glutes by sitting on them.

We then walk over to a 100KG barbell and hope to perform a clean deadlift. Even with a bit of adrenaline and blood flowing to the muscles, if you maintain the hunched position you had all day, you’re inviting injury.


Doing light warm-up reps can help a bit. But ultimately, if you’re stiff and fatigued, you might be performing these with sub-par technique. 

This is why it can be important to “activate” the muscles. Since becoming savvier with my training, I will now start leg workouts with some glute bridges in order to remind myself how to properly engage the glutes and hinge the hips. I might then move on to some good mornings, deep squats, and banded abductions and leg flexions. 

The result is that I’ve “woken” up the muscles and rehearsed the movements. Now it’s much easier to perform this correctly.

Is there any science to back up this convenient-sounding notion? Why yes there is, actually!

The Science of Activation

For starters, we are reducing inhibitory signals. Over time, lack of use and rigid posture can cause certain muscles (the glutes being primary culprits) to become “inhibited.” Think of it a bit like tuning out a clock ticking in the background so that you no longer hear it. By sending deliberate, strong signals to the glutes, you can help to overcome this.

And this works both ways: not only will you improve the strength of signals to the muscles, you will also improve proprioceptive feedback: the ability to listen to the muscles and to thereby paint a more accurate picture of where your body is in space. These features combined will not only result in more efficient performance, but also improve biomechanics and reduce the likelihood of injury.

This also helps to reduce “synergistic dominance.” This is a phenomenon in which the supporting actually take over the job of what should be the primary movers. For example, the glute bridge can be performed with minimal involvement of the glutes by activating the quads and the lower back, instead. This can carry over to other movements – so by focussing on correct movement patterns and engagement, you can actually override this issue. 

Crab reach warmup

The school of somatics refers to something similar, called “somatosensory amnesia.” While this terminology is not generally used by mainstream sports science, the theory is effectively the same. 

Put it this way: poor posture and movement mechanics can creep up on anyone over time. If you jump straight into exercise, you can end up reinforcing these poor movement patterns or injuring yourself as you move from a dysfunctional starting point. Correct direction and activation exercises can help to put you on the right track so that you move correctly and do good, rather than harm.

I also find that more generally trying to release tension with light, circular movements, and warm-ups such as the spinal wave can help. This is especially true if you have spent a lot of the day hunched over. And it’s another reason that caffeine can be counter-productive under certain conditions: it certainly won’t aid with a mobility workout, for example, where excessive tension can be an obstacle to performance. 

Even a body scan meditation can be useful to this end: sitting in a relaxed position and actively contracting and relaxing each muscle throughout the body. 


These activation exercises may also help in “priming” the body for activity, too. Essentially, by rehearsing movements and specific movement patterns, it becomes easier for us to perform them in working conditions. 

Here, it is important to recognize the difference between post activation performance enhancement and post activation potentiation.

Post activation potentiation shows us that we can prime the neural pathways responsible for particular movements in order to get more power out of them. For example, if you squat 140KG, then squatting 100KG is going to feel relatively light. This is because you’ve been firing strong signals to all the muscles involved in squatting and now it’s much easier for you to recruit those muscles again. This is also why you may feel as though you’re floating when you step off a trampoline. 

This works, because the neurons return to a higher resting potential and thus are more easily subsequently fired. BUT it’s also important to note that this effect only lasts for about a second following activity. So, if you want to get benefits from “contrast training,” by using heavy squats to improve box jumps, for example, you need to go directly from one exercise to the next. 

Deep Squatting

But “post activation performance enhancement” can last significantly longer – and may be mediated by factors such as increased blood flow to the necessary brain areas (along with all the “warm-up stuff” we’ve already discussed). Chemicals and dynamical synapses also play a role in this. Neurotransmitters released in the brain can also impact on the likelihood of certain neural pathways becoming active. Short-term synaptic facilitation shows us that, following presynaptic neurons releasing certain neurotransmitters, an increased Ca2+ concentration makes it more likely for those neurotransmitters to be released going forward. Again, this means that we can “wake up” certain neural pathways corresponding to certain types of movements, like revving up a car engine. This process may even contribute to working memory – meaning that by rehearsing correct movement you then make that movement “fresh” in your mind and ready to go. 

Synaptic depression, however, can occur when the readily available neurotransmitter “vesicles” (the sacs that contain the neurotransmitters) become depleted. This is one mechanism that contributes to fatigue, over time, and it’s reason to not “overdo” the workout.

For all these reasons, warm-up-sets and activation exercises can have a profound impact on your performance. Moreover, this can also impact on the important psychological elements of training – putting you in the right “headspace” as it were. Dynamical synapses can have a profound impact on brain function by essentially altering the flow of information around the flow chart that is your mind. As certain networks become more accessible and others are depressed, this can totally change the route of traffic. Again, the use of exogenous stimulants may actually interfere with this subtly nuanced process.

 An interesting consideration is that by watching other people perform certain movements, you may be able to prime your brain for activity in a vicarious manner. For example, before training you could watch someone else train who influences you. This would not only increase adrenaline and help get you in the mood for working out, but potentially could help activate some of the right brain areas through “mirror neurons.” That is to say, that when we see someone else perform a movement, our brain makes sense of this by firing the same motor neurons in our own brains: priming us to repeat those movements. 

Recently, I was feeling particularly demotivated to workout. I was tired, recovering from illness, and stressed. I was seriously considering skipping it, which would have compounded a few previously-skipped workouts.

Then I watched a clip of Jackie Chan’s outtakes from the recent movie: Ride On. Here, I saw a childhood hero of mine, aged 69, still performing some of his own stunts. At one point, he fell off a horse, did a breakfall, and got up unscathed. 

I was so motivated by this, that I headed straight to the gym and had an awesome workout.


The final area of warming up I want to address is stretching and mobility.

And, perhaps surprisingly, this has become a rather controversial subject matter!

Stretching used to be considered a staple of any good warm up. Then it transpired that static stretches could actually increase chance of injury. This somewhat makes sense, when you consider that a more relaxed and limber hip is more likely to abduct against your will, for example. Likewise, it has been suggested this might impair power output and lead to decreased performance. 

Now the advice is to never stretch before a workout, other than to use dynamic stretches like high kicks or arm windmills. 

But I think there’s another side to this and we risk throwing out the baby with the bathwater, so to speak. For one, there are certain exercises that I can only do well after some static stretching. For example: handstands. My shoulder mobility is not the best but my handstand performance is significantly better after I’ve done some shoulder-openers. 

Cossack Squat
I do Cossack squats because Sonic and Goku do them…

Likewise, my squat-based exercises work better after I’ve held some deep squats. And what counts as a static stretch, anyway?

It was actually functional training legend and friend of the channel, JC Santana, who first got me to question this. He pointed out that most athletes still stretch in the changing rooms. And that got me thinking: we stretched for decades prior to this more recent research, and it clearly wasn’t a problem that often or we would have cottoned-on sooner.

So, there’s nuance here. What are you stretching, and why? Are they the working muscles? The supporting muscles? Antagonists? 

What kind of stretching are you doing? Passive stretching – i.e. getting someone to bend your leg over your head – is very different from active stretching with a strength component, such as holding a weight and getting into a deep squat or ATG split squat. 

And how long are you holding the stretch for? Most studies that recommend against static stretching focus on stretches with a duration of around 60 seconds. There is some evidence suggesting that even 30-second holds can lead to reduced power output – but what if we were to only stretch the antagonist muscles, for example? How might that impact the results? This could theoretically improve performance and there have been some studies to this effect, but likewise it might also reduce our ability to slow and control movement – hypothetically leading to greater injury.

What, though, if we only used weighted stretching or active mobility? Research shows this is generally less likely to negatively impact on power output.

And, of course, we have to consider your pre-existing mobility AND the type of workout that is to follow. 

I don’t have a simple recommendation for you, here. All I WILL say, is that the jury is out. It’s not quite as straightforward as a long of videos would lead you to believe. You may need to do some digging to find out what kind of stretching is best for you and your workouts, if any. 

And, for what it’s worth, I personally use a couple of specific static stretches in my own warm-ups. 

Final Thoughts

Warm-ups can seem like a waste of time, for many. If you only have half an hour to workout, spending the first ten minutes doing your warm-up might be frustrating. 

But this is not the way to think about your warmups. Instead, we should think of them as a vital part of the training.

For example: jump rope is not just a way to get the heart pumping. It will also increase hand-eye coordination, keep you light on your feet, and develop ankle stiffness for greater athletic performance. It’s a skill to learn, too.

If you’d rather work on something else, you can try bouncing a reaction ball against a wall. 

Likewise, performing glute bridges is far from a waste of time if it helps you to move more powerfully and safely in everything you do. In fact, we might even consider this to be a top priority for anyone’s training! What good are 16” biceps if you can’t safely squat?

Another point to consider is that, naturally, we shouldn’t need to stretch at all. It’s a common refrain at this point, but when your pet dog sees a bird it doesn’t have to stop and do lunges before it can give chase!


What they do tend to do, is a full-body stretch, often with a yawn, called a “pandiculation.” This simultaneously relaxes the muscles and re-establishes any lost connection. 

If we move more throughout the day, we reduce the chances of losing our ability to move in the first place. As I write this, I’m waiting for my car to be serviced. I’m stuck in this sleepy town called Kiddlington and it’s been chucking it down with rain most of the time. 

As such, I’ve been stuck going between two coffee shops to work. To avoid my back completely seizing up, I’ve been going for short, wet walks between cups of coffee. And performing light squats, toe touches, and a few other stretches. It’s small, it looks weird, but if I needed to squat or run or jump… I’d be ready!

This way, your entire day becomes one long “warmup!”


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About Adam Sinicki

Adam Sinicki, AKA The Bioneer, is a writer, personal trainer, author, entrepreneur, and web developer. I've been writing about health, psychology, and fitness for the past 10+ years and have a fascination with the limits of human performance. When I'm not running my online businesses or training, I love sandwiches, computer games, comics, and hanging out with my family.

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