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March 22, 2019

By Raphael Bélice and Pauline LeCouteller, candidates for the Bachelor of Kinesiology degree at UQAM and interns for the My Active Health Program of the Quebec Breast Cancer Foundation.

Why warm up?

It’s important to warm up before exercising, to prepare your body both physically and mentally. Warming up also optimizes performance, by raising the body’s temperature, increasing blood flow (more efficient oxygen transport), boosting the efficiency of the lymphatic system and reducing muscle viscosity (greater nerve conduction speed1). Warm-up exercises improve performance during physical activity of short, medium or long duration (e.g. walking) provided that the person performs this activity in a state of non-fatigue and after warming up.2 What is more, warming up helps prevent musculoskeletal injuries because it gradually increases our attention and concentration, range of motion and muscle elasticity. It also reduces joint viscosity (less friction) and increases neuromuscular efficiency.1–5 For optimal effectiveness, structure your warm-up by adjusting intensity, duration, volume, recovery time and specificity based on the activity.2

How to Structure your Warm-up before Walking? 

1. Intensity

The intensity of the warm-up must allow the body’s temperature to rise gradually. Don’t push too hard because otherwise the warm-up will bring the opposite of the desired effect. More specifically, if the warm-up is too intense, it will reduce performance by decreasing the availability of energy substrates.2 A warm-up should be at 40%–60% VO2max (maximum heart rate) to be optimal for an effort of long duration at low-to-medium intensity (such as walking), depending on the person’s fitness level2 (ACSM, 2013).

2. Duration

The duration of the warm-up should also allow the body’s temperature to rise gradually. An optimal warm-up for walking, which is considered a long-duration activity, is between 5 and 10 minutes.2 If you keep going beyond 10 minutes at an intensity of 40–60% VO2max, your body’s temperature will stop rising. There is therefore no point in continuing. If the warm-up exceeds the recommended time, it will reduce performance by decreasing muscle glycogen levels.2

3. Recovery time

Recovery time is the period of rest between warm-up and main activity. For long-duration exercises like walking, you want to make sure your heart rate stays up and does not return to its resting rate.2 Optimal recovery time after a warm-up is three to five minutes. Resting fewer than three minutes may cause accumulated fatigue, due to a lack of recovery, while it would seem that resting more than five minutes cancels the physical and physiological gains of the warm-up.2

4. Specificity

A warm-up is specific when it contains exercises similar or identical to the exercise to come and when you warm up the muscle groups that you’ll use during the activity. So, for a physical activity like walking, adding specific (very short, very high-intensity) exercises to the warm-up will improve performance (e.g. doing 10 seconds of brisk walking every minute).1–2

Four warm-up exercises to do before walking

The warm-up should start with cardiovascular exercises to raise the body’s temperature and heart rate (e.g. brisk walking, slow jogging, jumping jacks, high knees, butt kicks, etc.). When the body is warm, do the following four exercises (two dynamic stretching exercises, one ballistic stretching exercises and two activation exercises):

1.  Quads stretches (while walking) to dynamically stretch the quadriceps (front part of the thighs).

2. Hamstring walk (while walking) to dynamically stretch the hamstrings (back part of the thighs) and calves.

3. Hamstring kick (while walking) to ballistically stretch the posterior chain (group of muscles on the back of the body).

4. Squat or drop jump to activate the posterior chain.

If you do not have much experience with this, do a squat. If you know what you are doing, do a drop jump to increase your nervous reactivity and muscle power.4

Dynamic stretches increase range of motion and muscle elasticity. They help prevent musculoskeletal injuries.5 Ballistic stretches play the same role, in addition to preparing the neuromuscular system for quick changes in muscle lengthen (plyometrics).5–6 The stretches’ effect on performance is amplified when performed while walking.6 Finally, activation exercises increase the transmission speed of the nerve impulses to the muscles, thus increasing their power.4 In short, the combination of brisk walking, stretches and activation exercise intervals during the warm-up more optimally improve performance when practicing a particular activity, in this case, walking.1–2

As for the specific exercise, do 10 seconds of brisk walking between each exercise above (four intervals).

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  1. Andrade DC, Henriquez-Olguin C, Beltran AR, Ramirez MA, Labarca C, Cornejo M, Alvarez C & Ramirez-Campillo R. (2015). Effects of general, specific and combined warm-up on explosive muscular performance. Biol Sport 32, 123-128.
  2. Bishop D. (2003). Warm up II: performance changes following active warm up and how to structure the warm up. Sports Med 33, 483-498.
  3. Allen K, & al. (2013).  ACSM’s guidelines for exercise testing and prescription. American College of Sports Medicine. 9th ed.
  4. Johnson M, Baudin P, Ley AL & Collins DF. (2019). A Warm-Up Routine That Incorporates a Plyometric Protocol Potentiates the Force-Generating Capacity of the Quadriceps Muscles. J Strength Cond Res 33, 380-389.
  5. Shellock FG & Prentice WE. (1985). Warming-up and stretching for improved physical performance and prevention of sports-related injuries. Sports Med 2, 267-278.
  6. Opplert J & Babault N. (2018). Acute Effects of Dynamic Stretching on Muscle Flexibility and Performance: An Analysis of the Current Literature. Sports Med 48, 299-325.