Pitfalls of a Traditional Warm Up
We all know we should warm up before we train, but how many of us actually go through a complete routine versus just getting it over so we can move on to the fun stuff? Traditionally, warming up consists of some light aerobic exercise, static stretching, and some sport-specific movements (if applicable). However, such strategies are a bit outdated. Now we know that static stretching before exercise will actually hurt your endurance performance without even offering much, if any, protection from injury.
We actually studied this exact topic while I was getting my BS degree. In trained distance runners (average VO2Max of 64.9), we had them either perform 6 lower-body stretches for 30 seconds each or not stretch at all prior to a 1-mile time trial at a 5% grade. When the athletes stretched prior to running, they had increased muscle activation, ground contact time, and flexibility (1). Each of those variables indicate a decreased running economy. The real killer, though… stretching cost them 13 seconds on their time trial. Ouch.
So I Can Actually Do Nothing and Be Faster?
Actually in this case, yes. Nearly all of the data indicates that static stretching will result in either no change or worse performance than nothing at all. But you can be faster still. Probably.
I say probably here because all signs point to yes, but if the research on dynamic stretching prior to an endurance activity has been conducted, it’s yet to cross my desk. However, strength, vertical jump, sprint, and sport specific measures all show improvement following dynamic stretching (2). Let me give you some of my rationale on why running performance will also be improved.
Remember that in the study we just described, runners had increased ground contact time? This is because the muscle acts as a spring during running. When it is stretched out, much like a spring, it loses its bounce. The muscle is then left without as much elasticity, so it must exert force (muscle activation) to then push the foot into the ground and take the next step forward. If dynamic stretching behaved in the same manner, it would decrease jump, sprint, and strength performance, yet each of those activities benefit from dynamic stretching.
Are you interested in dynamic stretching yet? Good! You should be. Let’s talk a little about what it actually is and how to do it!
What is Dynamic Stretching? A Dynamic Warm Up?
The light aerobic and sport specific movement components of the warm up need NOT change, so we will principally be discussing dynamic stretching as a replacement for static stretching in the traditional model. Dynamic stretches are stretches performed while moving. As an example, the hamstrings are often stretched (statically) by the classic, “bend over and touch your toes,” but a dynamic hamstring stretch would be 20 yards of high kicks.
Make note of the distance component. Dynamic stretches can be prescribed a distance and cadence instead of just a duration because you won’t be standing still. That being said, the existing research suggests that at least 90 seconds of dynamic stretching is much more beneficial than less than 90 seconds. Also, cadences of 100 beats per minutes is more advantageous than 50 beats per minute – so if you don’t bring your metronome to the gym, interpret this as a little faster is a little better. Cadence will also depend on the movement, as some movements are intended to be a little slower. The third and final component of dynamic stretching is reaching a point that approaches slight discomfort. Don’t overdo it, but don’t underdo it either (2).
Why Does Dynamic Stretching Work?
The answer to the “why” question will delve into the thick of the science without an elaboration on technical terms (that is an article all on its own), so there’s no shame in skipping this paragraph and heading for the “how” section! Briefly, dynamic warm ups are thought to be effective due to one or more of the following reasons:
- Increased muscle & body temperature
- Post-activation potentiation
- Nervous system stimulation
- Decreased inhibition of antagonist muscle groups
Personally, I attribute the effects to temperature and nervous system stimulation, which actually encompasses the other 2 points. Warmer anything has more mobility. In this regard, we don’t just care about joint mobility, we care about cell-to-cell interactions, nutrient delivery, and waste removal, among other factors.
Also, by forcefully contracting one muscle, you simultaneously and unconsciously relax its antagonist. Up until that muscle is on stretch. Then, it begins to contract so it does not tear apart. The body is smart like that. Practicing contracting and relaxing muscles in a dynamic manner prepares the muscle to perform.
How to Perform Dynamic Stretching and Some Examples
Remember these three rules for dynamic stretching:
- Perform a full routine, about 1-2 sets of 6 exercises (90 or more seconds of stretching activity)
- Move quickly (i.e. fast cadence. Don’t be a sloth!)
- Use a range of motion that approaches a slight discomfort
Apply them to the following exercises:
High Knees (beginner) – High knees are performed with short, choppy steps, driving your knee straight up towards your chest to stretch your hamstrings and glutes then let it come right back down.
High Kicks (advanced) – High kicks are performed similar to high knees, but with a slightly slower cadence and a straight leg for even more of a hamstring stretch.
High Knee Skips – Performed like High Knees, but instead of staying on the ground, use the high knee leg to generate upward momentum and your support leg to jump!
Butt Kicks – Short, choppy steps trying to kick your heel back into your butt for a quadriceps stretch.
Deep Lunges – Big, long steps. Keep most of your weight on your front leg to stretch the adductors/groin while simultaneously stretching the hip flexors of your rear leg.
Jump Lunges (advanced) – Performed like deep lunges, but add a plyometric element. After achieving the stretch, jump up as high as you can and switch your back and front leg while in the air.
Karaoke – no singing involved! This is a lateral movement to fire up the abductors, adductors, and core. Twist your hips on every movement. Moving to your left to start, do a high knee with your right leg and move it to the other side of your left leg. Shuffle your left foot back out to lead the right leg again, shuffle your right leg behind your left leg, shuffle your left leg back out to the lead again, and repeat. Face the same direction on the return to lead with the right leg. It’s a lot of text, but it makes sense. I promise!
Single-Leg Deadlift to High Knee – Put all of your weight on one leg, keep your back and non-weight-bearing leg in a straight line while you bend over until your torso is parallel with the ground. On the way up, drive your free leg up like you would with a high knee and use it to take a step forward. Repeat on the other leg.
Single-Leg Deadlift to High Knee to Deep Lunge – Perform the Single-Leg Deadlift to High Knee as written, then before you repeat, descend into a deep lunge, rise up on your front leg and repeat.
A Dynamic Wrap Up
I don’t know about all of you, but I sure was happy when I learned I didn’t have to do all that stretching anymore! If you have range of motion deficiencies, you may still want to perform static stretches, just not before you train. Do them after training when you’re warm and mobile. To enhance your performance with a dynamic warm up, be sure to use a thorough routine (90+ seconds), maintain a fast cadence, and get a stretch!
A dynamic warm up for runners might consist of 6 of the above exercises for 2 sets of 20-30 yards. A sprinter may want to add the plyometric type movements, such as jump lunges and high knee skips. A dynamic warm up for cyclists would also consist of 6 exercises for 2 sets of 20-30 yards, but the cyclist would want to focus on the lunge movements. Keeping your warm up specific to your activity will make the activity that much better!
- Lowery, R. P., Joy, J. M., Brown, L. E., de Souza, E. O., Wistocki, D. R., Davis, G. S., ... & Wilson, J. M. (2014). Effects of static stretching on 1-mile uphill run performance. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 28(1), 161-167.
- Behm, D. G., & Chaouachi, A. (2011). A review of the acute effects of static and dynamic stretching on performance. European journal of applied physiology, 111(11), 2633-2651.