Do I Really Need to Warm Up?
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Deep down, I know you know the answer to that question. It’s what your P.E. teachers, sports coaches, and dance instructors have been saying for years. They’re smart people who know what they’re doing, but we’ve all questioned it, haven’t we? At one point or another, you’ve probably thought something like:
Do I really need to warm up? I feel the same whether I do or don’t.
Warming up just makes me tired. Shouldn’t I save my energy for the show (exam, competition, etc.)?
Why do warm-ups have to take so long? Isn’t there a way to do it quickly?
How can having warm muscles keep me from getting injured?
In this post I hope to answer those questions and give you a basic understanding of why warm-ups are so important. That way you can stop thinking of warm-up as a chore and understand why it’s an essential part of your day. The examples I use will be geared towards dancers (cause it’s a dance blog, duh), but this is also applicable to any athlete, gym-goer, or person who likes to move!
Your Body in its “Cold” State
When your body is at rest, the blood flow to your muscles is only 15-20% of its capacity, according to this article from Active.com*. That makes sense, because daily life doesn’t push your body to its full potential. Sitting, standing, and walking don’t take a lot of power. If your muscles were at full capacity all the time, your heart would waste a lot of energy pumping blood where it’s not needed.
Put simply, when you’re at rest, your body expects you to stay at rest. If you stood up from reading this article right now and jumped into a hardcore dance routine, it would be a shock to your system. You’d be asking your muscles to do a lot of work that they weren’t prepared for, and your body’s systems would have to play catch-up.
Likewise, your muscles aren’t very stretchy at rest either. Daily activities don’t require much flexibility other than reaching, twisting, and bending, so that’s what your muscles are prepared for. When you’re “cold,” your muscles are like a brand knew hair tie: able to be stretched, but pretty stiff because all they’ve done up to this point is sit there.
What Happens When You Warm Up
As you start your dancing day off with some light cardio, your body increases blood flow to your muscles, getting them ready for more intense physical activity. You also increase your body temperature, which leads to a lot of useful things: (Citing the article above* as well as this one from Physiology.org*)
- Faster muscle contraction and relaxation
- Steadier flow of oxygen to the muscles
- Faster nerve transmission
- Improved muscle metabolism
Basically, it all boils down to improved muscle efficiency, which means less effort for more results. Warming up gets your muscles fired up to run, leap, plié, whatever you need them to do, with ease.
Cardio is usually followed by stretching in a dance warm-up. This is not the time to improve your flexibility (that’s for the end of the day), but simply to prepare your body for what will be asked of it. For example, if you’re getting ready for a show with lots of leaps, make sure to do your splits. The American College of Sports Medicine* recommends holding stretches for 15-30 seconds.
Stretching is a gentle warning to your muscles that you’re about to put some strain on them. Like “breaking in” a new hair tie, you’re increasing your range of motion so you won’t snap when stretched too far. And speaking of snapping, let’s talk about injuries.
Why Injuries Happen
Many factors can cause injuries while dancing, some of which have nothing to do with warming up. Tripping on an uneven stage, getting dropped during a lift, or getting kicked by a teammate could happen at any time. Often, though, injuries happen when you perform a step incorrectly. Consider the following scenarios:
- The stage is smaller than expected, so while trying to dance tightly in-between two people, you miscalculate a weight shift and roll your ankle.
- Someone bumps into you while you’re trying to do a trick, causing you to do it wrong and fall.
- While practicing a new step that’s not yet embedded in your muscle memory, you throw your body into a weird position and pull a muscle.
- Exhaustion causes your limbs to be floppy, and you don’t catch yourself how you expected to, twisting your knee.
- You’re not warmed up, so your body thinks you’re still at rest. You overstretch a muscle or “forget” the proper alignment for a trick and throw something out of whack.
All of those situations involve messing up a step that you would have otherwise done correctly. Just because you’ve “mastered” a skill doesn’t mean you’ll do it perfectly every time. When I sprained my ankle six years ago, I was practicing a leap that I had probably done a thousand times. But I hadn’t warmed up. My ankles were weak to begin with, and I hadn’t reminded them how to not sickle before I started jumping on them. Trust me, I know from experience that not warming up can lead to injury!
“But warm and cold feel the same to me!”
Maybe you believe all this stuff you’ve been reading, but you can’t feel it happening in your own body. You could drop down into a split right now just as easily as you could after a full ballet barre. Warm-ups don’t do anything for you except make you tired. It’s the reason you came to this article in the first place. What’s up with all that?
If the above applies to you, I would bet money that you’re under 20 years old. Why? There are two reasons:
- Age 20 is around the time when you start to feel the subtle effects of aging.** (At least that’s when it hit for me.) Dancers in their 20s are only half-joking when they say, “I’m getting old.” It takes longer to warm up, and you lose flexibility more quickly. If you’re over age 20 and still feel like you don’t need to warm up, you must be a super hero.
- The older you get and the more dance experience you gain, the better your bodily awareness. You know your body well and can tell whether it’s warmed up or not, where you might not have been able to before.
So if you don’t feel like warm-ups do anything for you, that’s probably due to a lack of awareness of your own body, combined with being a springy youth. Don’t take offense; when I say “lack of awareness,” I’m talking about the very subtle, very advanced levels of awareness that comes from years and years of moving, stretching, and working your own body. (And possibly a few college-level anatomy/physiology classes.) As a dancer, you’re probably much more aware of your body than your peers already!
Even if you can’t feel the difference, though, you still need to warm up! (As you should know after reading this article.)
This is why, in my opinion, it’s hard to stress the importance of warm-ups to young and teenage dancers. They have to trust the word of us “old” folks who can actually feel our bodies change from cold to warm. To the students reading this article I say, trust your teachers. They know what they’re doing. To the teachers I say, set a good example for your students. Be smart about warm-ups and explain why they’re important.
I hope that, no matter your age, this article helped you understand the importance of warm-ups and answered some of your questions. As always, leave a comment below to continue the conversation!
*I trust these articles because they cite academic sources and come from websites whose focus is relevant to this topic.
**I’m not talking about being “past your prime” here. Most athletes hit their peak level of performance in their mid-20s, depending on the sport. I’m simply saying that you can’t spring into action like you did when you were 16. Your muscles get stiffer when you’re idle. You start needing a longer, more thorough warm-up to feel like you’re ready to move.