Whether you’re a daily walker, a cross-fit fanatic or play basketball for the local club, launch into your activity without warming up and you risk getting sidelined with an injury. But is there a right way to do it?
Stretching your muscles before exercise gets blood flowing to the area, warming them up and gently easing them from tight and stiff into a more flexible and elastic state. This is especially important after a day behind a desk or sitting in a car. Stretching has the added affect of activating the brain, sending messages to the muscles to get ready for action.
However, while the need to warm up is clear, there is some debate around the optimal way to do it. While there isn't necessarily a consensus on what type of stretching or flexibility exercises are most effective, there is some evidence that, contrary to our long-held beliefs, doing static (held) stretches before exercise may not be as beneficial as we once thought.
“Some of the more recent research shows that holding a static stretch, especially for an extended period of time, may actually cause the muscle to tighten up, which is the exact opposite of what you’re trying to achieve,” says Amy Bach, Deputy Physiotherapy Manager at Epworth Rehabilitation. “A warm up based on the movements you’re about to use, combined with dynamic stretches, appears to have the most beneficial effects.”
Confused? Thankfully, it’s actually pretty straightforward.
Pre exercise you do a warm up that mimics what you’re about to do, just at a lower intensity. For example, if you’re planning a run, start with a slow walk then build up to a jog and so on. If you’re going for a walk, start at a slower pace and build up the intensity. Or even try marching on the spot. If netball’s your game, go through the motions of the movements you’ll be using. That might mean practicing the action of shooting without the ball in your hand or trying a slow jog with frequent changes of direction.
Combine these activities with dynamic stretches. These involve muscle movements that move a joint through the full range of movement required in your chosen sport or activity. The type and duration will vary depending on the exercise or activity and any injury you might be recovering from, but think leg swings, walking lunges and squats; something that gets blood flowing to the muscles groups you’re about to use.
According to the research, static stretches, like traditional quadriceps and calf stretches, still have a place but it’s at the end of a workout. A minimum of five to ten minutes of static stretching can help restore muscles to their resting length and prepare them for next time.
“Static stretches also help clear out lactic acid after exercise which can reduce muscle soreness,” says Amy. “So they’re particularly helpful if you’re trying out a new exercise or if you’ve upped the intensity.”
It might all seem like a very new way of thinking but this is actually a technique that’s already been adopted at the top end of many sports. In fact, if you watch athletes in elite sports you’ll notice that they tend to do more drill based activities during their warm ups these days. So, why not give it a try? It might just take your exercise to a whole new level.