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Why the Warm-Up Is Essential


Jan. 7, 2010 was going to be a big night. It was the night the number one NCAA football team (Alabama) and the number two team (Texas) were facing off in the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif. I was looking forward to watching these powerhouse football programs square off on the grid-iron. The problem was that our satellite TV at the station wouldn't carry the game. So, I was ecstatic when my boss authorized us to set up and run calls out of my house for a few hours that night, allowing us to watch the game in between calls.„

The high in Pasadena was 75-degrees F with a low of 46-degrees F that day, but in Butte, Mont., the high was 9-degrees F and the low 21-degrees F. Just before the end of the second quarter, we were dispatched to a residence where a 66-year-old female was in respiratory distress. The woman was a chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder/emphysema patient who was conscious, alert and oriented, but anxious because she just ... couldn't ... catch ... her ... breath. I set her up on the cardiac monitor and watched our paramedic, Mark McGree, skillfully warm the various pieces of equipment between his hands before using them on our patient. He even did this with the albuterol before administering her treatment.

"Mark, does warming the albuterol improve its effectiveness?" I asked him.

"No," he kind of chuckled. "But when the rig sits in the cold, everything takes longer to warm up. The back of the rig wasn't as warm as I'd like it to be; it's a good idea to take steps to make the patient more comfortable. A warm and comfortable patient is much happier and easier to deal with than a cold one."

Warm Body, Happy Body
The same can be said of exercise: It's a good idea to warm-up prior to exercise because a warm body is much happier than a cold one. Each and every exercise session should begin with a warm-up. Literally, the warm-up is the phase designed to increase the body's temperature and reduce the occurrence of injury and post-exercise muscle soreness. The American College of Sports Medicine's states: The warm-up phase consists of a minimum of five to 10 minutes of low- to moderate-intensity cardiovascular (aerobic) and muscular endurance activity that allows the body to adjust to the demands placed on it during the exercise session.1 This general suggestion allows for quite a bit of creativity when considering exactly what to do during your warm-up. So, you could consider different approaches.

Finding Your Routine
Here's one of my suggestions: Prior to beginning a strength training session, a simple but complete warm-up could include:

  • Five minutes on a stationary bike at a comfortable pace
  • 25 free squats
  • One set of 15 dumbbell lateral raises (light weight)
  • set of 15 lat pull downs (light weight)
  • One set of 15 dumbbell shrug (light weight)

During this warm-up your heart rate should gradually rise: it's higher than your resting heart rate but not quite as high as it would be during the more intense portion of the exercise session. Some people don't like to, or can't stop, and measure heart rate after the warm-up. A simple way to determine if your body is ready to for more intense activity is to simply feel your forehead. If it's covered with a thin film of sweat, then the warm-up has been effective in increasing body temperature. I use this technique quite often when leading training sessions with groups of younger (under age 30) folks. Not only does it help me determine if they're ready for more intense exercise, but it's an opportunity for me to teach them about the importance of the warm-up.

Another point to keep in mind regarding the warm-up is to be efficient in how you approach the training session. For example, if you're planning on a 30-minute cardio session as well as a strength training session, then it would be more time efficient to perform the cardio session first. Use the 30-minute cardio session to warm up the body prior to the strength training session.

There's nothing wrong with breaking up your cardio into different segments as well. For example, instead of 30 minutes at a low intensity, you could break up the cardio session into the following:

  • 15-minute warm-up and cardio session
  • Strength training session
  • 15-minute cardio session at a higher intensity

Or, you could split the cardio session into more parts; follow each cardio session with a segment of the planned strength training session. This example splits the cardio and strength sessions into three parts. Note that the first cardio session listed in each example would actually begin with five minutes of low-intensity cardio -- this is the warm-up.

  • 10-minute warm-up and low-intensity cardio followed by upper-body strength training
  • 10-minute intense cardio followed by core (abs/lower back) training
  • 10-minute intense cardio followed by lower- body strength training

Don't make the mistake of merely stretching to warm up. This is exactly what we do not want to do. Stretching alone doesn't warm the muscle; therefore, it should be done at the end of the exercise session when the muscle is warm and more pliable because it stretches easier. Next time, we'll address flexibility training during the cool-down period.

By the way, after we finished the call, we returned to my house to watch the rest of the game. The temperature was about -14-degrees F, and Mark suggested we keep the rig running with the heat on high.

"Yeah, that would be a good idea."

American College of Sports Medicine. ACSM's Guidelines for Exercise Testing and Prescription Eight Edition. Lippincott Williams & Wilkins Baltimore, MD. 153. 2009.


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