Illustration of an oversized woman crouched in an apartment
Illustration by Elnora Turner
Health

How to Properly Warm Up Your Stiff, Cramped Body

Whatever mobility exercises you choose, warmups are a low-stakes way to get your blood flowing by fulfilling the requirement of “moving around.”
April 29, 2020, 8:05pm

How do you warm up at home? At the gym I would elliptical for 10 minutes but now I’m lost.
-Cassidy

What warmups or warming-up stretches do you prefer?
-Cicely

The thing about warming up is that there is no universal, agreed-upon answer about how to do it, but there’s universal agreement it’s important. There are a lot of options, such as static stretching (holding a stretched position, like touching your toes, for a sustained amount of time); dynamic stretching (using mobility movements to get warmed up, like leg swings or arm circles); muscle “activation” (movements that are meant to wake up an athletes’ particular “weak” muscles); foam rolling; cardio; “prehab.”

Mobility has become a huge topic since CrossFit and “functional fitness” got popular, and warming up is a huge part of maintaining that, as well as preventing injury and making sure your workouts go as safely as possible.

Warmups don’t need to be complicated, because if you have no particular bodily needs—-no injuries you are nursing, no particular stiffness or lack of mobility you’re trying to tease out—all your warmup needs to do is get your blood flowing by “moving around.” Warmups tend to skew more complex when athletes start feeling some of their muscles are tighter than others, or some muscles more underused than others, or they’re managing an injury, and they begin adding in movements or positions that address their particular issues.

Now, in recent weeks, we have the added complication of “we’re all stuck inside and there’s maybe not even a lot of room to move around.” But basic warmups are extremely easy to do at home, and unless you have some sense of your specific needs, you can do whatever appeals to you. If you’re still trying to build the habit of working out, you might try just committing to a short warmup routine every day for a week, and then rolling that into a more rounded-out workout. Here are some recs for the lower-stakes varieties of warmups that pretty much anyone can do.

Static stretching

Static stretching gets a bad rap because there was one study a while ago that reverberated throughout the fitness world that suggested static stretching, an extremely common warmup go-to, caused weakness in subsequent exercise. But this study centered on subjects who attempted a high-exertion movement immediately after a stretch, which is generally not how anyone does anything. Subsequent studies of static stretching before working out have shown it does not have a significant weakening effect.

My warmups until recently were almost exclusively static stretches, because I liked them, I was a little more mobile during the day when I was actually leaving my house a lot, and if I was looking to get some stretching into my routine generally, the few minutes before a workout made for a convenient time. Now I’m cooped up all day and feeling much stiffer, and stretching doesn’t feel adequate (it’s important to be careful of overstretching stiff muscles). But stretching is important to maintaining my mobility, so I try to keep doing it.

Some places to start with stretching, if you’re completely in the dark, are Joe DeFranco’s Limber 11, this collection of stretches from Self, or this “World’s Greatest Stretch” sequence from Equinox, which is recently everywhere, and is not unlike a sun salutation for non-yoga people.

Dynamic stretching/warming up

This involves a lot more moving around, which I feel like I need lately. These kinds of warmups are increasingly popular among actual athletes, but they feel slightly more dangerous and/or annoying to do in, say, a cramped apartment. I can usually fold myself into a fairly small space to static-stretch, but to go around swinging one’s arms or legs with so many walls and ceilings and floors and objects and sharp corners seems like begging to get more hurt than I would by simply not doing anything.

But the internet provides: Here is a “small space dynamic warmup” that involves some jumping, but is pretty compact. I like this follow-along sequence from RedefiningStrength, and this is a dead-simple dynamic stretching routine from Self (you could swap jumping rope for jumping jacks). I have also liked this routine from @thephysiofix on Instagram.

Cardio

I know many people are afraid to go outside right now, but a 5-minute jog outside is not that high-stakes of an activity. I have also taken this opportunity to look extra-weird to my neighbors by doing some butt-kicks/high-knees/grapevines/running backwards, like the good old days of gym class and/or sports practice, because some classics cannot be beat.

I’ve also found “trying to learn any dance at all” to be an extremely great warmup. In the safety and privacy of your home, this is an excellent roundup of TikTok dances, a genre that has the particular advantage of stemming mostly from teens who are working with the creativity constraint of their own bedrooms.

Warmups are a little tricky because they could theoretically be endless. There are a lot of muscles in your body, and warming up activating and stretching each one could literally take all day. (This is thoroughly unnecessary.) But my goal is to start my workout without feeling tight or stiff, and as I’ve moved toward being a little less of a beginner, primed to do my workouts’ movements a little more optimally than before because I targeted my warmup correctly.

Warmups can evolve continuously, too. My warm ups have been as simple as running a few blocks around my gym, and as complex as 20 minutes of stretching and prehab-type movements. The warmups of other members of my gym (before it closed) were, to be absolutely romantic about it, like fingerprints; no two were alike. Now that I'm stuck at home, I haven't been as good about warming up because I dread at-home workouts more than going to the gym. But when I don't do it properly, I always pay for it.

For me, this evolution process involved learning to pay attention to my body, but also getting advice from coaches and physical therapists about pains or issues I was having in order to address this or that problem. I add in movements as I need them and retire others, and while I’m sure I’m not doing this as perfectly as I could be, I’ve caused myself no serious injuries by following a mix of professional and casual advice, and doing what feels good.

It’s completely natural for personal physical challenges to evolve; as some muscles get stronger, they can be overtaxed, strained, or tight. In other cases, maintaining fitness or pursuing progress may mean addressing weaker areas. As one example, piriformis syndrome is a fairly common problem with many possible causes, one of which can be overly aggressive exercise or weak supporting muscles. Some ways of addressing it involve rehab to activate those supporting muscles, or relieving tightness in the muscle itself by stretching; if you’re having developing or nagging issues, a sports medicine doctor or physical therapist can be an amazing help in figuring out more customized ways to address problems that arise as you continue to work out.

Warming up is not something to stress a ton about, particularly if your workout is more of the moving-around-for-a-while variety than the intense-progress-of-your-physical-prowess variety (Stronger By Science has an even-more scientific breakdown of warm-up activities, if you’re interested to read more about it). Barring some risky condition or injury, that you do it at all is more important than what you do specifically.

Disclaimer: Casey Johnston is not a doctor, nutritionist, dietitian, personal trainer, physiotherapist, psychotherapist, or lawyer; she is simply someone who done a lot of, and read a lot about, lifting weights.

You can read past Ask A Swole Woman columns at The Hairpin and at SELF and follow A Swole Woman on Instagram. Got a question for her? Email swole.woman@vice.com .

This article originally appeared on VICE US.