Walk into any fitness center or onto any playing field and you will see athletes preparing for practice or competition by stretching one muscle group at a time for 15-30 seconds. The traditional standing toe touch to stretch the hamstrings and the calf muscle stretch using a wall for support are forms of this ‘static stretching’. However, this form of stretching can be counter-productive because it may actually cause the muscles and nervous system to relax rather than to prepare for exertion. A sport-specific warm-up that works the entire body is a more beneficial way to prepare for the demands of practice or competition.
A study featured in a recent NY Times article entitled “Stretching the Truth” was led by kinesiology researchers at the University of Nevada. The study participants performed a regimen of static quadriceps and hamstring stretches. The power output of those muscle groups was then measured. The study revealed that less force was generated from leg muscles after a static stretching program than from muscles that were not stretched at all.
Stretching muscles while moving increases power and flexibility. This form of ‘dynamic warm-up’ is most effective when it is sport-specific. Some examples of the dynamic warm-up are arm circles, leg swings (from side to side and front to back), side shuffles, jumping jacks, walking knee hugs, and walking lunges. A series of these moves should be performed for 5 – 10 minutes just prior to practice or competition. Ideally, exercises for both upper and lower body should be included, starting with lower intensity and progressing to higher intensity.
A dynamic warm-up raises the body temperature, heart rate and blood flow, thereby increasing tissue extensibility in joints and muscles. The nervous system is stimulated to improve coordination and reaction time. Optimum mobility and stability in the joints minimizes the risk of injury and maximizes performance. Traditional static stretching is still important for maintaining joint range of motion and flexibility, but it should be done at the end of a workout.
For more information on how you can make your warm-up more dynamic, contact The Physical Therapy Connection.