Imagine a solid lump of Crisco, right out of the can. Its congealed appearance is very like your muscles as you leave the office at 5. You can comfortably read the paper or putter around the house. But if you plan to work out, your muscles will protest as they contract sluggishly while attempting to do your bidding.

But it’s easy to warm your muscles by one degree to the ideal for efficient movement. With warmed up muscles, you can cut your best running time, increase the weight you lift or dance longer. For one 16-year-old whom I advised, a 10 to 15 minute low-level aerobic warm up prior to his 100-yard sprint gave him the champion’s winning edge at a district track meet.

Benefits

There is less resistance to contraction when the muscles are a degree or two warmer. While heating up your muscles may sound a bit obscure, you’ll actually be able to feel the benefits. For example, if you are new to exercise, you will feel better as you progress to peak condition.

All athletes, even the weekend variety, will notice improved endurance and aerobic capacity.

And warming up makes exercise safer. You’re less likely to tear muscles and ligaments or stress the cardiovascular system. For people with chronic conditions like cardiac patients, warm up is essential to reduce the risk of a hypertensive response to exercise.

Which Warm Up Is Best?

As a general rule, warm up the muscles you plan to use in your exercise program. This is done by gradually increasing the intensity of exercise which, in turn, gradually increases muscle temperature.

The simples routine: do a slow version of your workout. Here are specific warm up tips.

* For jogging or running: Alternate walking and jogging for 5-10 minutes. Or just walk, gradually increasing the pace.

* For tennis: Walk or walk/jog for 5-10 minutes or perform 5 minutes of rhythmic calisthenics, focusing especially on the legs. Or, hit a series of easy volleys progressively pick up the tempo. Then stretch the shoulder, upper back and trunk muscles.

* For aerobic dance: For 5-10 minutes, dance at a slow, easy tempo, adding rhythmic calisthenics to limber the muscles you’ll use later.

* For swimming: Walk several tips at the shallow end in waist or chest-high water.

* For weight training: Prepare your cardiovascular system with 5-10 minutes on a stationery bike, followed by easy range-of-motion calisthenics. Or perform your usual weight routines but with 20% or less your initial weight. If you do 3-4 sets of weights, perform six, the first three with very little weight.

* For stretching: Briskly walk and do arm circles for 5-10 minutes. Or perform 5 minutes of low-level aerobics before beginning to stretch.

* For heavy yard work such as mowing, edging, spading: Take a 5-10 minute walk this is especially important if you are over 40. Then begin work slowly and gradually pick up the pace or level of difficulty.

Remember, patience improves performance. By taking time to warm up, you will enjoy your workout more, psychologically and physiologically.

Ralph LaForge, M.Sc., teaches exercise physiology at the University of California-San Diego and has written on warm up routines for several textbooks. He is also the Director of Health Promotion at the San Diego Cardiac Center.

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