How to Warm Up Before a Winter Exercise

Warming up before exercise is especially important when the weather is cold. Get-Fit Guy, Dr. Jonathan Su, shows you how to prepare your body for exercise with a proper warm-up in just a few minutes.

Dr. Jonathan Su, DPT, CSCS, TSAC-F, C-IAYT
4-minute read
Episode #563
The Quick And Dirty
  • The quickest and most effective way to warm up is to perform movements similar to the exercises you’re about to perform but at a lower intensity.
  • With aerobic exercises, start off at a lower intensity level and gradually increase your intensity over 5 to 10 minutes.
  • With resistance exercises, start off with lighter resistance and perform 2 to 3 sets of these same exercises using progressively heavier resistance.

The equinox is here and it’s officially winter this week. Cold weather will be the norm over the next few months, unless of course you live in Hawaii. With temperatures dropping, warming up your muscles before exercising is even more important.

The benefits of a warm-up are pretty obvious to those who perform higher intensity exercises such as interval training, sprinting, or heavy resistance training. Perform these activities without a proper warm-up and you’ll notice that your performance drops faster than the temperature during a blizzard in Antarctica.

I know it may be tempting to skip a warm-up and jump right into your workout if you’re not performing higher-intensity exercises. I feel that way all the time! That little voice inside says, “It’s not that important and you don’t have time.” 

And I always regret it when I do end up skipping out on the warm-up because I notice a huge difference when I do it versus when I don’t do it. Spending just a few minutes preparing your body for exercise with a proper warm-up, especially when it’s cold, will improve your performance and reduce your risk of injury.

Benefits of a warm-up

Have you ever wondered what actually happens to your body when you warm up? It turns out that one important change, among many, is an increase in muscle temperature. 

Now, this may be pretty obvious to you because why else would a warm-up be named as such? But research shows us that changes in muscle temperature are associated with important mechanisms that lead to improved physical performance. 

For example, one study demonstrated that a 1 degree celsius increase in muscle temperature enhanced exercise performance by 2 to 5 percent. Of course, this connection between temperature and performance doesn’t mean we should be exercising in Death Valley during the summer or training in blizzard survival jackets in the winter.

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The reason we see increased performance is because there’s a difference between muscle temperature and core temperature. If core temperature increases too much, performance is imparied and could result in hyperthermia—a dangerous overheating of the body that could quickly turn into a medical emergency. 

In addition to improving physical performance, a review that included 13 studies published this year found that active warm-up strategies are effective for preventing lower extremity injuries in athletes. 

Passive warm-up versus active warm-up strategies  

Generally, there are two warm-up strategies you can use: passive and active. Passive warm-up strategies use external heating methods such as taking a hot shower, wearing heated garments, or wearing a blizzard jacket to increase muscle temperature.

Active warm-up strategies use exercises, typically performed at a submaximal intensity level, that target the muscles involved in your workout. These can include aerobic exercises, resistance exercises, balance exercises, core exercises, plyometric exercises, or a combination of the above. 

My preference is for active warm-up strategies because although both passive and active warm-up strategies are effective for increasing muscle temperature, active warm-up strategies can also improve your nervous system’s ability to fire your muscles. 

When you fire your muscles with active warm-up strategies, your ability to generate muscular force is enhanced when you fire them again. This is known as “post-activation potentiation” and is the added benefit that active warm-up strategies provide.

Don’t get me wrong, passive warm-up strategies are useful and are most frequently used by athletes during prolonged transition periods between their active warm-up and competition to maintain muscle temperature. But only active warm-up strategies can provide the added benefit of improving your nervous system’s ability to fire your muscles. 

How to warm up before exercising

So how do we put this knowledge into practice? Well, it depends on the type of exercise you’re performing. I’ll provide you with a few suggestions for different types of exercise. But generally, the quickest and most effective way to warm up is to perform movements similar to the exercises you’re about to perform, but at a lower intensity. 

Aerobic exercises 

One of the most frequent questions I get is how to warm up before walking. My advice is to start off at a lower intensity level and gradually increase your intensity over 5 to 10 minutes. 

The same advice goes for running, cycling, or swimming if your goal is to perform these activities at a moderate or high intensity level. If you’re performing these activities at a low intensity level, there’s really no need for a warm-up. 

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Resistance exercises 

When it comes to resistance exercises, it depends on how much resistance you’re using. If you’re performing bodyweight exercises such as push-ups, pullups, or lunges without added resistance, a warm-up is not typically necessary if you’re able to perform 15 or more repetitions of the exercise. 

However, if you’re struggling to perform 10 repetitions of these exercises, it’ll be wise to start off with a lighter resistance and perform 2 to 3 sets of these same exercises using progressively heavier resistance. For example, you can perform a few sets of push-ups on your knees instead of regular push-ups or chair squats instead of lunges. 

If you’re strength training using dumbbells or barbells and you’re performing 15 or more repetitions, there’s no need for a warm-up. However, if you’re performing 12 repetitions or less, start off with lighter resistance and 2 to 3 sets using progressively heavier resistance. 

5-day warm-up challenge

Let’s put this knowledge to use with a 5-day warm-up challenge! Over the next five days, your challenge is to try the warm-up suggestions provided. Give it a try and let me know how you feel by emailing me at getfitguy@quickanddirtytips.com or leaving me a voicemail at 510-353-3104. 

All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own health provider. Please consult a licensed health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Dr. Jonathan Su, DPT, CSCS, TSAC-F, C-IAYT

Dr. Jonathan Su is the host of the Get-Fit Guy podcast. He is a physical therapist and fitness expert whose mission is to make fitness accessible for everyone. Dr. Su is author of the bestsellers Six-Minute Fitness at 60+ and Six-Minute Core Strength.

Got a question for Dr. Su? You can email him at getfitguy@quickanddirtytips.com or leave him a message at the Get-Fit Guy voicemail line at (510) 353-3104.