It has been said countless times that warm-ups are probably the most important part of an athlete’s training regime. The importance of warm-ups has been proven limitlessly and still, a couple of athletes occasionally choose to skip warm-ups. But, what is a warm-up?
Any activity that increases one’s body temperature by a few degrees Celsius
is defined as a “warm-up.”
Specifically, a warm-up in a sport is defined as a period of preparatory exercise used to enhance subsequent competition or training performance. Warming up increases your heart rate and therefore your blood flow. This enables more oxygen to reach your muscles. A warm-up also activates and primes the connections between your nerve and muscles, which improves the efficiency of movement. The benefits of warming up before a workout can provide many positive outcomes such as:
- Increased blood and oxygen to the muscles that are in use.
- Dilates blood vessels to pump blood easier.
- Less strain on the heart to pump blood throughout the system.
- Increased body temperature increases elasticity in the muscles.
All these benefits facilitate the prevention of injury. A warm-up basically prepares the body for high-intensity training, which in turn prevents injury to the muscles.
A warm-up can be classified into two modalities – a dynamic warm-up or a static warm-up. During a dynamic warm-up, body temperature is elevated due to the energy released from contracting muscles. This type of warm-up helps to increase blood flow, and also increases baseline oxygen consumption and leads to the breaking of actin and myosin bonds, which improves flexibility.
During a static warm-up, external methods such as thermotherapy, diathermy, and hot packs are used to raise the tissue or body temperature, relieving pain and increasing the elasticity of connective tissues. This can help to increase muscle flexibility and the joint range of movement. In addition, it helps to increase oxygen release from hemoglobin and myoglobin, which in turn increases the metabolism of the energy system and decreases the peak tension time in muscles.
So, which is better? A static stretch with an aerobic warm-up, or dynamic stretching? Unfortunately, the answer is not so simple.
Dynamic stretching is actively moving joints and muscles with sports-specific motions for around 10-to-12 repetitions, targeting certain muscle groups. Dynamic stretching mimics the activity or the movement that you’re going to do in whatever sport or activity you’re about to start. It helps rehearse the movement patterns so the muscles tend to get excited a little bit earlier and faster which can help improve power and increase coordination. In fact, dynamic stretching has been shown to acutely increase power, sprint, jump and improve performance. In terms of warming, when you’re actively moving the muscles, you’re improving blood flow circulation. It increases muscle temperature, which then reduces resistance and increases flexibility
Static stretching involves moving a joint as far as it can go and holding it for a length of time, typically 30 to 90 seconds. Static stretching fell out of favor as a warm-up routine because research found that static stretching induced some detrimental effects, like reducing maximal strength, power and performance after a single bout of a static stretch. When you’re static stretching she notes, the muscles aren’t warmed up. It’s really more of a relaxation movement. So the better recommendation would be to do static stretching as part of the cool-down process instead.
It has been suggested that dynamic heating by means of dynamic stretching produces superior physiological performances, compared to static stretching, due to the increase in corticospinal excitability. However, O’Sullivan et al in 2009 reported that static stretching followed by an aerobic warm-up obtained superior improvements over dynamic stretching in terms of the range of motion. The results of this relatively small study indicate that a gentle aerobic warm-up alone significantly increased hamstring flexibility. Static stretching also significantly increased hamstrings flexibility, whereas dynamic stretching did not. The effects of stretching reduced after 15 minutes, but flexibility remained significantly greater than at baseline. The short-term effect of warm-up and static stretching on hamstring flexibility was greater in those with reduced flexibility post-injury.
Blazevich et al in 2018 reported it to be unlikely that the inclusion of short-duration static or dynamic stretching in a global warm-up could affect sports performance when this was performed as part of a comprehensive physical preparation routine.
According to Javier Gutierrez et al, no statistically significant differences were shown between the static warm-up and dynamic warm-up groups in terms of the range of motion and improved perceived pain intensity. Nevertheless, a considerable decrease in the joint repositioning error and bigger effect sizes were seen in the dynamic warm-up group, suggesting that running has superior clinical advantages as compared to using hot packs for the purpose of warming up a recreational sports player.
The clinical bottom line is that dynamic stretches are preferred for warm-ups because of the proven benefits, and static stretches are to be utilized during the time of cool-downs. Static stretching has earned something of a bad reputation for being used prior to the activity. But the most recent studies say that it’s still a very effective way to stretch and increase the range of motion of a joint and it can be used in a short duration stretch as part of a complete dynamic warm-up. There’s still absolutely a role for static stretching, but the longer you stretch, the more there’s going to be a negative impact on performance. So if it’s part of a complete dynamic warm-up, you’d hold the stretch for around 15 to 30 seconds, not 60 to 90 seconds. Static stretching after exercise can also help prevent post-workout stiffness because it can help put muscles back at their pre-exercise length.
Overwhelming evidence indicates that participating in a dynamic warm-up can provide the benefits athletes are attempting to achieve with static stretching. Benefits of a dynamic warm-up include reduced injury rates, improved strength, agility and muscle flexibility. A dynamic warm-up includes briefly stretching muscles towards their end-point, while completing a functional task such as a lunge, skip, or shuffle. This type of warm-up often takes about 10-15 minutes to complete and should induce labored breathing and some sweating to achieve the desired benefits.
Although static stretching prior to activity may not be recommended, it is not entirely useless. Flexibility is still important to improve athletic function, especially in sports where an enhanced range of motion can benefit athletic performance, such as gymnastics. Enhancing flexibility via static stretching can benefit athletic performance in the long run, but is best to be avoided prior to activity and instead conducted afterwards or during a separate training session. Instead, undergoing a dynamic warm-up prior to practice and competition can provide the benefits that athletes are attempting to achieve with static stretching, such as improved performance and injury prevention.