It’s generally understood by most that warming up before exercise or competition (i.e., that 5K fun run) is essential in performing your best while warding off potential injury. What may not be universally understood, however, is what truly constitutes a proper warm-up regimen, says Seattle physical therapist Izette Swan. 

“I find that a lot of people either don’t truly appreciate the necessity of warming up, or they don’t quite know how to do it properly,” said Swan, owner of Real Rehab Sports + Physical Therapy in Seattle. “Some of this is understandable when you consider ‘the warm-up’ has evolved quite a bit over the last couple of decades due to changes in our understanding of what the body needs to perform optimally and safely.” 

The days of static stretching prior to workouts, for instance – the bend-and-hold type stretches you may remember from gym class – are in the past, Swan says. Instead, studies have shown that the better and safer way to “loosen up” before a workout is through what’s called a dynamic warm-up. 

“A dynamic warm-up stretches the body through active movements that take the muscles and joints through their full range of motion, ideally mimicking movements related to the activity you’re about to do,” Swan said. “Exercises like high-knees, arm and hip circles, lunges, squats, and even light jogging or brisk walking would be part of a dynamic warm-up.” 

Exercises such as these do more than just help you break a sweat, Swan adds. A good warm-up ensures your muscles are well-supplied with oxygen, leading to optimal flexibility and efficiency. This helps extend your range of motion, which can ease the stress you put on your joints and tendons. 

The benefits of a good 10-to-20-minute warm-up include: 

A Lower Injury Risk: Research shows that by increasing the flexibility and efficiency of your muscles, warming up before exercise lowers your risk of muscle injuries. And, when your muscles are performing optimally, the benefits cross into improved form and technique, which leads to reduced impact on your joints. 

Improved Performance: According to a 2010 study published in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, a proper warm-up regimen improved sports performance in 79 percent of those analyzed. Sports reviewed in the study spanned a broad spectrum – from cycling, running and swimming to softball, basketball, golf, and even bowling. 

Mental Preparation: Hall of Fame catcher Yogi Berra once said, “Baseball is 90 percent mental, and the other half is physical.” While his math was a little off, the point that physical activity and competition can be mentally strenuous is spot on. The time it takes to warm up, then, is also time that can be used to shake off nerves, visualize performance and get yourself into a competitive mindset. 

“The main things to keep in mind when warming up are to keep the process short, keep the warmup light, stick with dynamic stretching, and to try to make your warm-up exercise-specific,” Swan said. “In other words, the ideal warm-up for a runner wouldn’t be the same for someone who’s about to golf 18 holes.” 

To establish a warm-up regiment specific to your exercises and/or activities, and which takes your personal goals, abilities and history into consideration, Swan suggests consulting with a physical therapist.