Like brushing your teeth two times a day and changing the oil in your car, warming up before exercise is a necessity. People who are new to working out or who have never done a recreational sport might wonder why you need to spend an extra five to ten minutes out of your day to warm up the muscles. They might do a cursory stretch before getting right into their exercise routine.
Stretching is not a warm-up. Have you ever woken up, stretched, and all of a sudden, you have a kink in your back, neck, shoulder? You are pulling on muscles that are still cold and disconnected. Instead, warming up the muscles with dynamic exercises increases the flow of blood, oxygen, and nutrients to get the muscles ready for the more intense movements of a workout. You also prime the connection between the brain, nerves, and muscles that makes your exercises more efficient and effective.
The best warm-up exercises for the body will depend on what type of activity you are doing, but in general, you should try to warm up the whole body before exercise.
Best Exercises to Warm Up the Whole Body
Before your next workout, try a few of these active warm-up exercises to engage your whole body. Whole-body exercises work from the neck and shoulders to the ankles and calves. Use the exercises below are before your next weight training, cardio, spinning, cycling, hiking, skiing/snowboarding, or any other type of workout that works the whole body.
1. Twisting Lizard
The twisting lizard exercise works your arms, abs, and legs, but most importantly, it warms up your spine. Twists rotate the spine while stretching the abdominal and back muscles. Your spine needs to move to maintain its integrity.
To do the twisting lizard exercise:
- Start in a downward-facing dog.
- Step the right foot between your hands.
- Ground the left hand into the mat.
- Open the right arm in a twist to the right side of the room.
- Place both hands back onto the floor.
- Step right foot back into downward-facing dog.
- Repeat on the left side.
- Alternate sides for five repetitions on each side.
- Repeat three times
Twists increase spinal flexibility which leads to less pain and more stability during heavy lifts.
They also speed up digestion by aiding the process of peristalsis. If you are feeling full before your workout, a twist will help get your gut moving.
2. Air Squats
A squat is a dynamic strength exercise that warms up the upper and lower body simultaneously. Air squats are meant to be done before heavy squats to get the leg muscles warm.
To do air squats:
- Start with the feet hip- or shoulder-width apart.
- Squat until your hips fall below your knees.
- Keep your knees in line with your toes, and do not allow them to fall in towards the middle.
- At the same time, you squat, raise your arms over your head.
- Do not let your chest fall. Keep your gaze up toward the ceiling to keep from curling in the spine.
- Squeeze the glutes as you rise back up to standing, arms will swing back behind you to help build momentum.
- Repeat three sets of ten repetitions
Air squats are only meant to be done with bodyweight, no extra dumbbells or weights are required. Do them quickly for added cardiovascular benefits!
3. Lunge Twists
Lunge twists warm up the glutes, legs, spine, and core. This exercise improves your balance and proprioception to improve stability and efficiency of movement.
To do a lunge twist:
- Start standing with feet hip-width apart.
- Step forward with the right foot into a lunge, do not allow your knee to go over the ankle on the front foot.
- Keep your chest lifted, arms held out in front of you.
- Twist to the right, then back to the center.
- Push off the front foot until you are back to the starting position.
- Repeat on the left side.
- Do three sets of ten repetitions (one twist to the right and one to the left counts as one repetition)
Begin the movement robotically by moving slowly and focusing on keeping your chest lifted and legs strong. As you progress, you can make the movement more fluid, but always keep good form at the top of your mind.
4. Dead Bugs
Dead bugs are primarily a core exercise that also strengthens the muscles in your back, arms, and legs. Core exercises improve stability in the spine and enhance coordination in future movements.
To do dead bugs:
- Start by laying down on your back.
- Keep the core engaged throughout the exercise by pulling the belly button towards your spine and removing the space between the low back and the floor.
- Raise the arms toward the ceiling, wrists over shoulders.
- Lift the legs bent at a 90-degree angle, stack the knees over the hips.
- Reach one arm overhead while at the same time reaching the opposite leg out straight.
- Return to start and repeat on the other side.
- Do three sets of ten repetitions (one repetition includes both sides)
Dead bugs work all parts of the core, from the front and side abdominals to the obliques and low back muscles. Core strength is especially important if you are preparing for heavy lifting or compound movements like squatting that depend on whole-body stability.
5. Jump Rope
Jumping rope is a cardio warm-up that works the calves, hamstrings, and glutes. This exercise is a particularly useful crosstraining exercise for runners and is a verified method to help you run faster.
Jumping rope is pretty self-explanatory, but here are a few tips for a more efficient jump rope workout.
To jump rope:
- Jump straight up and down to keep good form.
- Hold the jump rope out to the sides with elbows held close to your body.
- Only move wrists and forearms to move the jump rope.
- Stay on your toes and only jump a few inches off the ground.
- Do three sets of 30-60 seconds.
Even on a “leg day,” you work out more than your lower body. Your core, spine, and arms all come into play on leg day. Your leg muscles, including the glutes, quads, hamstrings, and calves, are also the biggest muscle group in your body. So focusing attention on the lower body for your warm-up will help get your whole body ready to workout.
Inchworms are a dynamic stretch that works your hamstrings, core, glutes, chest, triceps, and shoulders. As the name implies, the movement looks a bit like a caterpillar as you walk your hands in and out from a forward fold.
To do inchworms:
- Start in a forward fold.
- Keep a slight bend in the knees if you have tight hamstrings.
- Place the hands on the floor and walk the hands out until you are in a high plank with shoulders lined up over your wrists.
- Keep the core engaged as you move so your hips stay steady instead of moving from side to side with every movement.
- Hold for a moment in high plank before you walk your hands back to a forward fold.
- Repeat three sets of ten repetitions
Inchworms are a great full-body exercise because they work a mostly neglected muscle group: the hamstrings. The hamstrings are essential for knee and hip health, and they can cause a variety of problems when not properly warmed up. But the more time people spend sitting at their desks, the more they need hamstring exercises. When you sit, your hamstrings remain in a shortened position which over time could lead to a perpetually tucked pelvis, tight hips, and poor posture.
7. Front Kick with Twist
Front kicks with a twist are a dynamic stretch that mainly warms up the lower body muscles and core. Adding a twist refocuses the exercise to improve both mobility and balance.
To do front kicks with a twist:
- Start in a standing position.
- Take a step and kick one leg up in front of you.
- Reach the opposite hand out to meet the foot as it raises in front of you, twist in the torso.
- Keep the chest lifted and both hips facing toward the front of the room throughout the movement.
- Do not stain to kick as high as you can. Instead, go to about 80% of your max height. If your bottom knee is bending too much as you kick, you are probably kicking too high.
- Let the first foot come back to the floor, then kick the other foot forward as you reach the other hand out to meet it. Your hand and foot do not need to touch.
- Repeat the movement for three sets of ten repetitions (a kick on both sides counts as one repetition).
Move quickly to get the heart pumping until you start to break a sweat, or move slowly to engage the muscles of the lower body more.
Warm Up FAQs
Here are a few frequently asked questions about warming up that will help you choose the best warm-up for your workout.
Is running or walking on the treadmill a good warm-up?
Many people like to start their workout on the treadmill because it helps them break a sweat. Walking on the treadmill is a great way to warm up, especially for the lower body and core. Keep the speed low, between 2.5 and 3, and go for five to ten minutes.
However, if your focus is on weight training for specific muscles, you should focus your warm-up on those muscles. Arm day should incorporate arm exercises, leg day leg exercises, etc. Warming up on the treadmill does not get your shoulders ready to move the same way inchworms do. Always be sure to include a few targeted exercises as well.
What about a cool down?
Some of the exercises listed above can be modified into cool-down exercises for post-exercise stretching. A cool-down is generally more passive than active. For example, instead of a twisting lizard, you could do a prone twist where you hold the twist while lying on your back. And instead of moving in a lunge twist, you could stay in a low lunge while breathing into the hips and quads to release any tension built up during exercise.
The idea is to lower your heart rate while maintaining movement in the muscles you worked. This prevents lactic acid from building up. Lactic acid is a natural result of working out and is a good indication that you worked out hard enough. However, it also makes you feel sore after a hard workout. When you stretch after a workout, your body can remove some (or all) of the lactic acid to prevent post-exercise soreness.
When is the best time to stretch to improve flexibility?
Post-exercise is the ideal time to stretch to improve flexibility. Your muscles are warmed up and the connection between the brain and muscles is active. Warm muscles can stretch further than cold ones while the body-mind connection prevents injuries from overstretching.
What is a passive warm-up?
A passive warm-up uses a sauna, massage therapy, heat pads, or hot showers to warm up the whole body. The term “warm-up” is apt since the idea behind the whole-body exercises above or passive warm-up techniques is to bring heat to the muscles. Heat in the muscles leads to ease of movement, blood flow, better oxygenation, and more nutrients where they are needed.
Form Over Repetitions
The best exercises to warm up the whole body are the ones that work best for you. If you are beginning to work out for the first time or getting back in the swing of things after a long absence, be sure that your focus is on quality over quantity. The number of repetitions above is a suggestion. Your form is more important to prevent injury during your warm-up. Choose two or three exercises, or at least five minutes worth of activity, to get your body ready to move!