Eastbourne Physiotherapy and Sports Clinic 38 Lushington Road, Eastbourne. BN21 4LL.
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About warming-up for sports

In my opinion there is a lot of confusion and mis-information about warm-ups. What I see most often is a confusion between warming up and stretching. If I have to define stretching and warming up I end up with entirely different definitions! Some people have read or heard that "stretching is not good before sports" (which is almost true) but then interpret that as "warming up is not needed before sports"! In most cases however, a well thought-through warm-up is very very helpful indeed. 

But why warm-up? Many people think only of injury, and indeed a good warm-up can help avoid injury but it can also help improve sport performance and that is a very good reason in itself to warm-up. You can get more from your training session, or more from yourself in competition.

Going into more depth then, let's ignore stretching for now and talk about warming up.

In my definition:


"A warm-up is a set of movements or exercises which safely, efficiently and gradually prepare the body and mind for safe and peak performance in the exercise that follows." - Paul Mealling.


Warm-ups must be specific to the activity that follows. Another way of saying this is to ask "what is demanded of the body in the activity for which I'm warming up?". Each different system or process in the body which is needed for the following activity must be included in the warm-up. And did you notice my definition above included the mind.

Demands don't just vary by sport, but also with the different types of training session within a sport. For example, a speed session will require a different warm-up to an endurance session.

As well as knowing what is demanded from your body you also need to be VERY AWARE of what state all those systems are in before you start your warm-up. This can change day-by-day. For example, if you've been sitting down all day your warm-up will need to be different than if you had been active during the day. Or if you've been exercising regularly over the last week you might need less of a warm-up than if you've been sitting at work the whole week.

Conscious awareness of feedback from your body is essential during a warm-up because ultimately you need to adjust your warm-up as you go, depending on how your body feels it is responding. Adjust until you feel ready for your sport.

Another factor that will affect what you do for warm-up will be the weather. If it's colder you probably don't want to stand around doing joint specific movements but would rather focus on controlled exercises which also raise heart rate moderately: pressups, heel-raises, jogging etc.

Specific goals of a warm-up can include:

Think carefully about how the above apply to your sport. Have you been missing any areas out? Had you been aware of how, why, and what you were warming up? Have you been focusing your mind fully on the movements in the warm-up or letting it drift?


Structure of a good warm-up

Of course, to develop a perfect warm-up you need a good theoretical understanding of the biomechanical and physiological demands of your sport, a good knowledge of movement theory and an honest appraisal of your movements, fitness and flexibility. This clearly needs one-on-one assessment and guidance, but thankfully here are a few general rules. Remember to adapt these considering what is written above.

  1. Start your warm-up very smoothly, slowly and deliberately. 
  2. Progress the intensity of movements/exercises/heart rate very gradually over the warm-up period. A good way to do this is to devide warm-up exercises into sets or repetitions.
  3. Start by briefly getting all the muscles you need "woken up": smooth, controlled, FULL RANGE contractions.
  4. Focus on good posture, technique and quality muscle contractions throughout your warm-up. Aim to control all movements smoothly and fluidly. Try to eliminate juddering or shaking.
  5. General movements and exercises first, more sport specific ones last.

What about stretching?

Now let's clear up the confusion between stretching and warm-ups. When people talk about stretching they most often mean STATIC stretching specifically. For a start, understand that DYNAMIC stretching also exists. (These include exercises such as leg swings). The answer in which to include in your warm-up (if any) lies in what is needed for your sport.

Let's take running as an example. Are there any static postures adopted in running? No - so don't static stretch in the warm-up. Leave it for after. In fact, static stretching can slow down muscle reaction times and decrease maximal force production from muscles - not ideal before running. Are there dynamic flexibilities needed in running? Yes - from the hip flexors, the shoulders, ankles, and if you're tight probably from the lateral rotators of the leg etc. These can all be encouraged with dynamic flexibility exercises: leg swings, shoulder rolls, arm circles, dynamic glutes stretches etc. 

If despite this you're arriving at a training session so tight that you feel you need static stretches, then that is telling you something else: you need to find times in your day and week to work on your flexibility specifically. If you're arriving at a training session as stiff as a board it's somewhat too late.

Now for gymnastics as an example. Are there any static stretch postures adopted in gymnastics? Yes - so they need to go in the warm-up. Dynamic demands on flexibility? Yes - so also include dynamic stretch exercises.

When both dynamic and static stretches are required in a warm-up it's best to do the dynamic ones first and then the static. Then, since static stretches have the adverse effects mentioned above, get moving carefully again in continued warm-up after the static stretches are done.

There is another way to stretch a muscle and that's through full range contraction. This is useful for injury prevention in the calf and can be applied to many muscles. Gently lower the heels (or single leg) off the edge of a step and as soon as you get to full stretch, smoothly and fully contract the calf into a full heel raise. You only need to do this once or twice close to the start of a warm-up if you feel you need it. Note that it's not a static stretch but more of a controlled full-range movement in a muscle where dynamic stretches are not really possible.

Summary

Think about the demands of your activity and gradually build up from where you were (ie sitting in a car) up to the very similar demands to that activity. Listen to your body's response and adapt the content and length of your warm-up as needed. Don't static stretch unless your sport specifically requires it.