The spring sports season is starting this week. Baseball, lacrosse, soccer, softball and tennis athletes are all gearing up for their first games. Hopefully you’ve spent some time preparing your body for this. You don’t want all that off season hard work to go to waste. Over the next 4 weeks we are going to dive into some simple but effective ways to prevent injuries from occurring. This is not just for young athletes… if you are an adult who is getting ready to start up a sport or activity this spring, these tips may be even more beneficial to you as your body may need a wee bit more attention than the 15 year old body!!
So let’s start at the beginning, before you even begin your activity…Here’s the big question…Do YOU stretch or warm up prior to activity?
The answer should be YES, but more often than not the answer is a big fat NO. Typically warm-ups are overlooked due to time constraints or lack of understanding about the importance of this step. Both stretching and warm-ups are beneficial prior to activity, not only for performance but also for injury prevention.
One of the best ways to achieve these benefits without taking up too much time is to combine the two activities into a simple fluid activity called a dynamic warm-up. So, I want to dive in and shed some light on this very important but perhaps not very well-known element of health and performance.
To simplify, a dynamic warm-up is a sequential series of movements performed prior to physical activity. It aims to increase blood flow to the muscles, increase functional mobility, maximize available flexibility of the entire body and prepare the body for activity.
As you probably gathered from the definition, a dynamic warm-up isn’t just doing a few jumping jacks or jogging for a few minutes then stretching off in the corner of the gym.
Static vs. Dynamic Stretching
In an attempt to eliminate some confusion, let me clarify static stretching. Static stretching is a stretch of a muscle/joint that emphasizes a longer period of time being held, usually 20-30 seconds minimum to be effective, and is performed without bouncing in and out of the stretch.
This type of stretching is great for increasing the range of motion and decreasing muscular tension. However, despite popular opinion, static stretching has been shown to NOT be beneficial prior to exercises. In fact, static stretching is more likely to have no effect or even hinder performance versus help it.
Instead, static stretching is best performed following exercise to relax the muscles that have just been working hard during activity.
The truth is… the safest way to warm up prior to exercise is a dynamic warm up.
Guidelines for Dynamic Warm-Up
On that note, there are some general guidelines for each dynamic warm-up that should be followed in order to maximize your time and effort.
First and foremost, a dynamic warm-up should be done prior to an activity. It should be done at a moderate pace with an emphasis on slow progression into the available range of motion; don’t try and stretch as far as you can right away. Allow the body to “warm up,” letting the muscle generate heat, become oxygenated, and, in turn, become ready for a full range of motion and speed. Dynamic stretching is held for only 2-5 seconds and targets multiple muscle groups and numerous motions at the same time.
The next concern is the amount of time dynamic warm-up should occupy. A dynamic warm-up isn’t meant to be an hour-long workout. Depending on the activity you are preparing for and your level of fitness, the time can vary based on the number of activities in the dynamic warm up. Typically, the warm-up should only be 10-20 minutes and be performed no more than 15 minutes prior to starting physical activity.
As far as the order of activities in the dynamic warm up, they should be sequential and progressive. This means that the least invasive activities are performed first, slowly building up, activity by activity, to an ending with more explosive, higher-impact, or near full intensity warm-up activities. Examples of the warm-up exercises that should be performed last in your warm-up include high knee runs, jumps, bounds, and short distance sprinting.
The dynamic warm-up should focus on full body movement with multiple muscle groups being emphasized at once. Example: don’t simply do a walking lunge; add a rotation of the upper torso over the front leg or a side bend.
Furthermore, a dynamic warm-up should be specific to the activity or sport being performed. Not every version found online is appropriate for you. For instance, if you are preparing for your weekly round of golf, your warm-up is most likely not going to be exactly the same as the track and field athlete, nor is a basketball player going to need the same warm up as someone preparing for baseball/softball.
Don’t get me wrong, there are similarities and drills that will be the same, but different muscles and movements need to be emphasized for each activity, so each warm-up is slightly different. Your age, fitness level, and other limitations should also be considered when performing a dynamic warm up.
Lastly, as we age the elasticity of our muscle and overall flexibility decreases naturally. This progression can be slowed down slightly but not completely prevented. Thus, this should be considered when we perform all activities, especially stretching and performing a dynamic warm up, you may need a bit longer to warm up then you did at age 16.
How does this prevent injury?
Some statistics to show the importance of being prepared for physical activity:
- 7 out of 10 adults are getting active and take part in some form of exercise.
- But more than a third of adults (38%) have suffered an injury as a result of playing sport or exercising.
- Injuries to skeletal muscle represent upwards of 30% of patients in sports medicine clinics.
- According to the CDC, estimates suggest that more than half of all sports injuries in children are preventable.
When done properly, a dynamic warm-up helps the whole body prepare for activity and help avoid adding to these statistics. As previously stated, this isn’t necessarily to help improve overall flexibility or range of motion of the joint like static stretching, it’s meant to optimize what is there. Moreover, a dynamic warm-up is meant to increase body and muscle temperature, increase oxygenation throughout the extremities, and obtain fully available muscle length prior to an activity.
A popular analogy for this is a frozen rubber band. If you attempt to stretch a rubber band to its full length without bringing it back to at least room temperature, it has a higher probability of breaking. Similarly, if you attempt to stretch a muscle to its full length or participate in full speed activities without warming up, the chance of injury is heightened, and performance is likely decreased as well.
Ultimately, from youth athletes to retirees getting ready for their early morning round of golf, game of pickleball or lacrosse game, all could benefit from a proper dynamic warm up. It may just be the difference between having a great season or sitting on the bench with an injury.