An active or dynamic warm-up is a crucial part of athletic readiness. The right warm-up should accomplish two things: loosen muscles and tendons to increase range of motion of various joints, and literally warm-up the body so that it is at its full potential. When your muscles are “cold” there is less blood flow to the muscles and tendons and they stiffen. They will then be less responsive and make you more prone to injury.
We all grew up with “traditional static” stretching/sustained holding type warm-ups in gym class. The latest research over the past 10-15 years points to the fact that holding a series of 20-30 second stretches prior to sport is not only ineffective but can be potentially dangerous! The evidence shows that aggressive static stretching can cause a reflexive tightening of a muscle and can also cause as much as a 30% decrease in muscle strength or activation for a period of time after stretching (the exact opposite of what you want to achieve). This means that not only can static stretching create a window where you are more prone to injury, but may also affect your sports performance negatively.
So how do we warm-up correctly? The best way to achieve actual muscle flexibility and to thereby reduce your risk of injury is by dynamic warm-up activities and through what is termed “inhibitive” or “fascilitated” stretching.
Inhibitive or Fascilitated Stretching
One way to increase the flexibility in muscles is through inhibitive stretching. This is accomplished by gentle isometric contractions of any muscle you wish to be more flexible. This sends a signal from your nervous system to a sensor in the muscle called the Golgi Tendon Organ and it signals the tight muscle to release. This form of stretching can be incorporated into any “old school” stretch position. For example, obtain the position for a static hamstring stretch, but instead of actually stretching the muscle and holding this stretch for 20 seconds, gently contract the muscle instead for 10 seconds and repeat 3 or 4 times. This sends a signal to your hamstring from your brain to relax the hamstring and is has been proven to be much more effective than static stretching:
Inhibitive Hamstring Stretch
Lean forward until you just start to feel a stretch in your hamstring. Then lightly press your heel down into the floor or bench. Hold this isometric contraction of the hamstring for 10 seconds. Repeat 3 to 4 times on each leg.
Inhibitive Groin Stretch
Place the soles of your feet together and your elbows on your knees. Then gently press your knees up into your elbows to contract your groin muscles (do the exact opposite of static stretching in which you would have tried to get your thighs to the ground). Hold this contraction for 10 seconds and repeat 3 to 4 times.
Inhibitive Quad/Hip Flexor Stretch
Standing upright grasp front of ankle and gently pull heel to buttock until you begin to feel a pull in your quadriceps muscle on the front of your leg. Keep shoulder, hip and knees in a straight line. Then gently press the top of your foot down into your hand and hold for 10 seconds. Repeat 3 to 4 times with each leg.
Inhibitive Calf Stretch
Place a towel or a yoga strap around the ball of your foot. Then gently press into the towel like you are pressing on a gas pedal. Hold for 10 seconds. Repeat 3-4 times with each foot.
This exercise is good for relaxing all of the major leg muscles. Stand with a wide base of support. Squat down keeping your back straight and making sure your knees don’t go past your toes. Hold this position for 10 seconds. Repeat 3 to 4 times.
Some great examples of dynamic warm-up include light jogging and jumping rope for 10-15 minutes to increase blood flow to the muscles and tendons. Actual dynamic “stretches” may also be performed after jogging or jumping rope. This involves actively training a muscle to lengthen through movement. The benefits include increased power, flexibility, and range of motion.
Rules of dynamic stretching
- You should always warm-up prior to dynamic stretching (jogging, inhibitive stretching exercise,etc.)
- Movements should always be pain-free.
- Start with shorter, smaller motions and progress to larger motions later in the set (again in pain-free range).
- Perform 3 to 4 sets of 12 repetitions with each movement.
- Do not force anything – the flexibility will come over time.
Examples of a dynamic stretching routine
- Leg Swings: Flexion/Extension (increases flexibility in hip flexors and back extensors/gluteals): Holding onto something for support, gently swing your leg forward and back, gradually working your leg up higher and higher. Let you body gently lean forward as you are taking your leg toward the back. Repeat 12 times on each leg for 3 to 4 sets. Do not force the movement. Your leg should be relaxed and act like a pendulum.
- Leg Swings; Abduction and Adduction (increases flexibility in groin muscles and outer hip): Holding onto something for support such as a chair or wall, begin gently swinging your leg out to the side and then back across your body. Once again, gradually swing your leg up higher and focus on pulling down in the downward portion of the leg swing. Be sure to keep your toes pointing straight ahead/ do not let you leg roll out from the hip.
- Standing Trunk Twists (increases spinal flexibility): Gently swing your arms side to side and allow your trunk to twist back and forth. Slowly increase the range of motion or the size of the swing. Repeat 12 times each way for 3 to 4 sets.
Utilize these simple but effective active warm-up exercises to enhance your flexibility and reduce injury risk. Happy Trails!