I see injuries waiting to happen at the start of every track meet, and in the driveways’ of every casual runner. I’m talking about stretching before beginning a workout. A warm-up before activity is a great precaution against injury, but stretching before a workout does not provide those same benefits.
When your body is ‘cold’, or in a pre-exercise state, it is resistant to movement; body tissue that is cold is less pliable, so it needs to be warmed up in order to perform activity effectively. Warm-ups are designed specifically to increase tissue temperature before beginning exercise to allow muscles to become more flexible and increase range of motion. Adequate warm-ups are noted to:
- Increase in speed in muscle action and relaxation
- A greater economy of movement due to lowered resistance within the active muscles
- Increased delivery of oxygen to the muscles (this is because hemoglobin releases oxygen more readily at higher temperatures)
- Increase in nerve transmission and muscle metabolism
- Increase in blood flow which heightens metabolic processes and muscle temperature
- Improved range of motion seen with the increase in muscle and core temperature
Proper warm-ups also improve the performance of your heart. Blood flow to the heart mirrors the intensity of your exercise, so conditioning the heart to intensity changes protects the heart from blood pressure spikes and irregular rhythms. Gradually increasing from low, to moderate, to high intensity can help reduce stress on the cardiac muscle.
Warm-ups usually fall into one of two categories: general or specific. General warm-ups are characterized by ‘gross motor activation’ which is designed to increase blood flow and temperature in the working muscles. A general warm-up will use basic movements, repeated over and over during a set period of time; like walking, calisthenics or jumping rope for 10 minutes before beginning a routine. This is a general way to warm up the whole body before starting your workout. Specific warm-ups are a bit different, in that these movements attempt to utilize the actions and musculature that is to be used during a particular activity. Specific warm-ups usually resemble the activity you are about to perform; for example if you are going to bench press a heavy load, you may bench press a very light load first to prep the muscles that will be activated by your exercise, or if you are about to run sprints, you may jog at a low intensity first. Specific exercises not only warm up your core body temperature, but they also activate and enhance the neuromuscular pathways employed by the activity. A way to think about this, is to imagine that your body is reading the manual of the exercise before beginning. The goal of both general and specific warm-ups is to increase your performance level while at the same time reducing the likelihood of injury.
By now you can begin to see that stretching a cold body could easily lead to an injury; if your body is not warmed up, it will be resistant to movements, and flexibility will be limited. But stretching before exercise leads to more injury than just tightness in cold muscles and joints. A hold stretch, or a static stretch, (like the ones you see joggers doing with their calves before running) can be a serious mistake. Static stretching before exercising does two detrimental things: it reduces power output when performed before resistance training or power based activities, and it inhibits the excitation of the muscle and “turns the muscle off”. When the muscle is in this ‘off’ state before exercise, the likelihood of injury is greatly increased. Even short bouts of static stretching before your workout can dramatically alter your performance and be detrimental to your body. However, static stretching at the end of your workout yields very positive results and even aids in recovery.
This article written by Urmee Khan from The Telegraph has some more information on static stretching before a workout:
Stretching before exercise can be bad for you
Researchers say stretching, considered an important part of any athlete’s warm-up routine, can actually weaken muscles.
The habit of holding a stretch for 20 to 30 seconds, known as static stretching, has been considered benefitial for priming muscles. However, scientists from the University of Nevada Las Vegas say this should no longer be encouraged.
Their findings highlight that the two common pre-running stretches – for the hamstrings and quadriceps – may actually reduce performance by weakening muscles in the leg.
Kinesiology professor Bill Holcomb, who authored the report, said: “Developing flexibility is important for reducing sports injury, but the time to stretch is after, not before, performance.”
Other studies have found that this stretching decreases muscle strength by as much as 30 per cent. Stretching one leg’s muscles can also reduce strength in the other leg as the central nervous system can rebel against the movements.
The correct warm up, according to experts, should do two things – loosen muscles and tendons to increase the range of motion of various joints, and warm up the body.
To raise the body’s temperature, a warm-up should begin with aerobic activity, and researchers recommend light jogging.
Warm muscles and dilated blood vessels pull oxygen from the bloodstream more efficiently and use stored muscle fuel more effectively.
Malachy McHugh, the director of research at the Nicholas Institute of Sports Medicine and Athletic Trauma at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City said that straining muscles makes them less responsive and they stay weakened for up to 30 minutes after stretching.
“This not how an athlete wants to begin a workout” he told the New York Times.
You’re Getting Warmer: The Best Dynamic Stretches
These exercises- as taught by the United States Tennis Association’s player-development program – are good for many athletes. Do them immediately after your aerobic warm-up and as soon as possible before your workout.
(for the hamstrings and gluteus muscles)
Kick one leg straight out in front of you, with your toes flexed toward the sky. Reach your opposite arm to the upturned toes. Drop the leg and repeat with the opposite limbs. Continue the sequence for at least six or seven repetitions.
(for the lower back, hip flexors and gluteus muscles)
Lie on your stomach, with your arms outstretched and your feet flexed so that only your toes are touching the ground. Kick your right foot toward your left arm, then kick your leftfoot toward your right arm. Since this is an advanced exercise, begin slowly, and repeat up to 12 times.
(for the shoulders, core muscles, and hamstrings)
Stand straight, with your legs together. Bend over until both hands are flat on the ground. “Walk” with your hands forward until your back is almost extended. Keeping your legs straight, inch your feet toward your hands, then walk your hands forward again. Repeat five or six times.
Additional information gathered from:
Advanced Concepts of Personal Training- Brian D. Biagioli
Sports Injuries Guidebook- Robert S. Gotlin