Over the last couple of years, I have integrated the Functional Movement Screen (FMS) and corrective strategies into many of my athletes/teams programs. This system led me to some different methodologies and new research regarding the subject of static stretching before a workout. Static stretches involve holding a body part in a fixed position for a period of time, with the goal of lengthening muscles, thereby improving flexibility. In the past, it was common to see static stretching routines conducted before a workout or sports practise. However, in recent years (the last 10-15 or so….), the paradigm has shifted towards using only dynamic and ballistic type stretches prior to intense activity. This shift was based on the finding that static stretching prior to intense activity had little impact on injury reduction and was of detriment to physical performance as it reduced the ability to produce force (Swanson, 2006). In this article, I will challenge the notion that static stretching should be completely omitted from a warm up and share what I currently do with my athletes.
Why do we do a warm up?
On a general level, the goal of warm up is to reduce the risk of injury, improve performance and prepare the athlete psychologically for their training or competition.. On a more specific level, the physiological outcomes of warm up should be:
· Increase muscle temperature (increases muscle elasticity)
· Increase joint viscosity (joints can move feely)
· Increase oxygen availability
· Increase neural activity
A generally accepted method of warm up, which I have used until quite recently, would involve the following approach:
· Phase 1 – Increase blood flow to the periphery (muscles). Usually, this involves 10-15 minutes of low intensity aerobic activity.
· Phase 2 – Mobility work. In this phase, the focus is on range of motion (ROM) throughout all joints and segments. Here, the focus is on dynamic stretches emphasizing mobility through the ankle, knee, hip, thoracic spine and shoulder.
· Phase 3 – Central Nervous System (CNS) priming. In this phase, the focus moves to specifically preparing for whatever workout or practise is planned. Examples of CNS priming include low-intensity plyos, sport specific drills and/or warm up sets for weight lifting.
This warm up would last anywhere from 15-30 minutes depending on the nature of the workout main segment. Over the years, I would say that this method has been quite successful, and so at first I was a little reluctant to change my approach. As a rule, I saved static stretches to be used in focused flexibility sessions.
A number of studies have concluded that dynamic type movements are most appropriate to improve performance. McMillian, Moore, Hatler and Taylor (2006) suggested that one possible mechanism performance improves is through post-activation-potentiation (PAP), or an increase in rate of force development and twitch force which occurs after dynamic movements. This study found that subjects produced higher scores in tests of power and agility when they performed dynamic exercises only, when compared with subjects who completed static stretches only or no warm up. This study is one of many which demonstrates that using only static stretching before a workout is detrimental to performance.
A study by Taylor, Sheppard, Lee and Plummer (2008) aimed to assess the effectiveness of a warm up protocol which combined static stretching followed by a dynamic, sport specific warm up. Following this warm up, athletes completed a number of tests stressing speed and strength. Their findings were compelling. When the athlete followed a sport specific (dynamic) routine after 15 minutes of static stretching, no performance decrements were found when compared with dynamic stretching only.
The big question is, why would static stretching be necessary prior to a workout? A primary goal of the warm up is to increase mobility around joints so they can move more freely. Many athletes have tight or inhibited areas in their body which limit movement. Before attempting high intensity exercises (e.g. a heavy squat or plyometric), mobility must be established. If the athlete has poor mobility and/or muscle activation caused by poor mobility, then compensatory strategies will be used to produce high force. Gray Cook (2010) called this the ‘over-powered athlete’ on his performance pyramid. Such athletes are able to produce high levels of force/velocity but have poor mobility which forces compensation elsewhere. Poor squat mechanics (e.g. excessive torso lean) are an example of how poor mobility results in a compensation strategy. Even worse, often you see an athlete increasing load to a squat in this position. This type of athlete is setting themselves up for future injury. A tip for coaches – if your athlete repeatedly can’t to a back squat with perfect mechanics, then switch to front squat. Most athletes can do this properly with coaching and as a result load the spine safely.
Static stretching can be used prior to dynamic/sports specific drills as a corrective strategy. Athletes should work on lengthening tight/short muscles early in their warm up reduce inhibition and improve overall quality of movement. Following static stretching, a dynamic warm up can be used to increase blood flow, mobility and CNS activation. There are many different static or ‘corrective’ exercises which can be prescribed. Gray Cook has written 2 great books (see reference list) which demonstrate corrective exercise. I use the Functional Movement Screen, developed by Gray Cook and his colleagues, to assess both mobility and stability and identify weak links www.functionalmovement.com However, there are many other ways to assess athletes. The sit n’ reach test, I have to say, is a bit primitive. Every athlete, particularly a growing athlete, has a different anthropometric profile (longer arms, long legs, short torso) and this influences the test results. Plus there is no transfer to real athletic situations. I use the FMS because all the screens used are relevant to athletic movement and the screen is objective. You get a score out of 21. Athletes with a score lower than 14 are statistically more likely to get injured. From the results, you find the weakest link and apply corrective exercise to improve this. Success is measured by your score increasing.
New research is there to be applied so, in response, here is the protocol I now follow with my athletes before an intense strength training session:
· Stage 1 – 5-10 minutes light aerobic exercise (increase muscle temp). Many coaches have omitted this phase, but I personally like to be warm before I start doing anything else.
· Stage 2 – Reduce fascial tightness. Foam rolling ‘sensitive’ areas.
· Stage 3 – ‘Corrective exercise’. Work on weaknesses we identified in the FMS, or simply stretch areas that feel tight. Here is where I use static stretching or isolated stretches.
· Stage 4 – Dynamic mobility (e.g. lunge step, overhead squat w/ dowel, squat patterns)
· Stage 5 – CNS priming (low-intensity plyos, shuffles, sprint components).
I should point out that the final phase is always specific to whatever workout, practise or competition is planned. Specific drills should prepare the athlete for better performance while reducing injury risk. In the weights room, if we are doing heavy lifts, these are preceded by a few reps with a sub-maximal weight.
There are a vast range of methodologies and approaches to develop your own warm up routine other than what I have presented here. This is simply how I think warm up is most effective based on the most up to date information I have. The take home message is that a comprehensive warm up is crucial to both reduce the risk of injury and enhance performance.
All for now,
Cook, G. (2010). Movement. On Target Publications, Aptos, CA.
Cook, G. (2003). Athletic Body in Balance. Human Kinetics, Champaign, IL.
McMillian, D.J., Moore, J.H., Hatler, B.S., Taylor, D.C. (2006). Dynamic vs Static Stretching Warm up: The Effect on Power and Agility Performance. Journal of Stength and Conditioning Res. 20(3), 492:499
Swanson, J.R. (2006) A Functional Approach to Warm up and Flexibility. Strength and Conditioning Journal. 28(5), 30-36
Taylor, K.L., Sheppard, J.M., Lee, H., Plummer, N. (2008). Negative effect of static stretching restored when combined with a sports specific warm up component. Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport, 12, 657-661.
Disclaimer: The advice given in this communication is in no way intended as an exercise/nutrition prescription. Each individual coach/athlete is responsible to decide which training/nutrition methods are appropriate for their athletes based on their assessment. FITSolutions takes no responsibility for injury or health issues arising from inappropriate use of the methodologies and/or training exercises shared in this email.