Warming up: the dynamic alternative to static stretching

What is the best way to prepare an athlete for performance – mentally as well as physically?

Strength and conditioning coaches and trainers are engaged in a constant search for the best ways to improve sport performance. All things being equal, a bigger, faster, stronger, more conditioned athlete will rule supreme on the playing court or field. While there is constant debate over techniques for boosting sport specific speed, power and strength, I believe we tend to overlook the importance of a comprehensive warm-up, and the role it plays in optimising performance in each and every workout, practice and game.

This leads to the obvious question: what is the best way to prepare an athlete for performance – mentally as well as physically? For many years the accepted norm has been to perform a light warm-up followed by some static stretching. In fact, almost anywhere in the world you will see athletes – from schoolchildren to elite competitors – starting their practice sessions with ‘a couple of laps’ and some light stretching. So ingrained is this type of routine in almost every coach’s head that it tends to go unquestioned.

But is this approach really beneficial? Does it adequately prepare an athlete for the workout ahead? Is there a better way? I believe there is. In my view, an active or ‘dynamic’ warm-up is an infinitely superior way to prepare for physical activity.

Although this type of warm-up has been used by track and field athletes for years, it is not widely practised within other sports – eg football, basketball and baseball – at junior, senior or professional levels.

The great thing about a comprehensive dynamic warm-up is that it doesn’t take any more time than the more traditional stretching method, but is much more focused, effective and productive. Since your warm-up sets the tone for the entire workout, these are just the qualities you should be looking for.

The specific advantages of a dynamic warm-up, by comparison with the more traditional ‘sit and stretch’ routine, are as follows:

  1. Because it involves continuous movement, it maintains warmth in your body and muscles. I have found that many athletes drop their core temperature by 2-3° after sitting and stretching for 10-15 minutes;
  2. It prepares the muscles and joints in a more sport specific manner than static stretching;
  3. It enhances coordination and motor ability as well as revving up the nervous system – benefits which are particularly important for younger athletes who are still ‘learning their bodies’;
  4. Finally, and possibly most importantly, it prepares the mind for the workout ahead. Proper mental preparation for any sport is vital and, in my considerable experience with teams and groups, I have found that while many sit-and-stretch routines are an excuse for daydreaming, the dynamic warm-up forces athletes to focus and concentrate on the task at hand.

Your starting point should be a general cardiovascular warm-up lasting 5-10 minutes (or until you have broken a light sweat). This raises the body’s core temperature enough to enhance the elasticity of muscles, tendons, ligaments and overall joint structures and prepare you for the workout ahead.

This portion of the warm-up can be accomplished in several ways, including light jogging, skipping (jump rope) or even performing different footwork patterns in a speed ladder. My personal preference is for skipping because it also warms up the upper body, doesn’t take much space and uses several different footwork drills and patterns to keep you psychologically stimulated.

Another purpose of this initial warm-up is to prepare the mind for the workout ahead. It is a time to focus and concentrate, leaving all outside distractions and stressors (school work, relationship problems etc) at the door. It is vital to make sure your initial cardiovascular warm-up is serious and not a time for ‘goofing around’.

After this initial preparation of body and mind, it is time to move to the next phase of preparation and begin the dynamic part of the warm-up.

As with any drill, it is important to start out conservatively and slowly until an athlete has mastered the movement with perfect technique. For drills such as ‘high knees’, athletes can certainly increase speed as they become more proficient at performing the movement. For drills such as ‘pointers’, speed should be kept slow and controlled, with improving range of motion as the primary focus. The entire dynamic warm-up can be done in as little as five minutes or as long as 20 minutes, depending on the goals, age, and fitness level of the group.

When designing the day’s dynamic warm-up for the athletes I work with, I try to include exercises that address all the major muscle groups (hamstrings, quadriceps, calves/Achilles and hip flexors) on a fairly equal basis. I also try to vary the routine to keep the athletes interested and make sure they don’t become complacent.

With a menu of 25-plus dynamic warm-up exercises in my toolbox, I choose a different 8-10 each time. Below is a list of my top 15. From these you should select 8-10 each day to perform over a distance of 15-20 yards (half a basketball court), followed by a light jog back to the starting point to maintain the warm-up effect.

Ankle pops Lightly bounce off both toes while keeping the knees very slighty bent. This is very similar to a skipping motion, except that it is performed while moving forward. The idea is to introduce progressively more range of motion as you move through the prescribed distance.

High knees This is basic running form while bringing the knees up higher than normal – ideally beyond your waistline. Aim to keep your feet moving as fast as possible and your ankles, knees, hips and shoulders facing forwards.

 Butt kicks Similar to high knees except you keep your thighs perpendicular to the ground while kicking your heels up towards your backside. Again, move fast and keep ankles, knees, hips and shoulders in alignment.

Carioca Moving laterally to your left, cross your right foot in front of your left, then step with your left, then cross your right foot behind the left and repeat. Aim for as much hip rotation as possible and keep those feet moving fast! If performed correctly, this looks like a new dance move!

Step slide Assume a low athletic position with your feet slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, your ankles, knees, hips and shoulders facing forwards and your knees slightly bent. Pushing off your right leg, slowly step laterally to the left with your left leg, then slide your right leg back to its original position, making sure your feet don’t touch or cross. This is similar to a ‘defensive slide’ in basketball and the coaching cue when performing it is ‘step – slide’.

Glute walk In the process of your walk, put your left hand on your left knee and right hand on your left ankle, then pull both in towards your chest. Take a step and repeat on the other leg.

Back pedal Run backwards maintaining a little bit of a forward lean (shoulders over your toes) to prevent falling. Really ‘reach back’ as far as you can with each step to help stretch the hip flexor muscles.

Frankenstein march Keeping your left leg straight, kick it up in front of you as high as you can, trying to tough the fingertips of the opposite arm – basically a straight leg march – then repeat with the right leg. This is an excellent way to increase hamstring flexibility.

Knee hug While walking forward, hug your left knee into your chest, then step and repeat on the right leg, continuing with alternate legs. This is an excellent way to loosen up the glutes and hips.

Pointers Keeping your left leg straight (and right leg bent) and left foot pointed upwards, reach down with your right hand to try to touch your left toe. Then take a step and repeat on the other side. This is another excellent movement for enhancing hamstring and low back flexibility.

Quad walk While walking forwards, pull your left heel in to your buttocks, then step and repeat with the right leg, continuing with alternate legs. This is ideal for loosening up the quadriceps and hip flexors.

Low lunge Step forward with your left leg into a lunge position (ankles, knees, hips and shoulders facing forward, torso upright) trying to place your left elbow on the ground as close to your left heel as possible.

Over the fence Facing in the opposite direction to the way you want to travel, raise your left knee as high as possible and rotate it behind you as if you were trying to walk backwards and step over an imaginary fence. Repeat on the right leg and continue with alternate legs.

Inchworm Assume a push-up position on the ground, and walk your feet close to your hands while keeping the legs as straight as possible. Then return to the start position. Repeat over the prescribed distance, making sure your hands and feet never leave the ground.

Scorpion Lie face down on the ground with arms extended out to the sides, palms facing down, so your body forms a ‘T’ shape. Maintaining this facedown position and keeping your shoulders flat on the ground, bring your left heel and swing it back towards your right hand in a reverse twisting motion. Repeat on the other leg.

I want to challenge the traditional thinking that suggests ‘warming up and stretching out’ as the ideal way to maximise performance for every workout, practice or game. I believe a dynamic approach will do a better, more sport specific job of preparing an athlete’s mind and body for the task ahead and play an important role in boosting athletic performance.

Alan Stein CCS, CSCS, of Elite Athlete Training Systems Inc, is a leading US expert on strength trainingand conditioning for elite level basketball players

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