Why do we warm up? How many people really understand the function of warming up before exercise? I’m not sure I used to fully understand its proper purpose and how to gain the best out of a warm up. It was just something I did. Having now joined the fitness profession and studied differing opinions on how to warm up I’ve come to the conclusion, that it’s not a case of one warm up to fits everyone and every activity. I’m not just talking about upper body against lower body etc….
There are a number of purposes to the warm, firstly it is to prepare you for activity as the name suggests it is to warm up muscle tissue; Secondly it’s to get your joints mobile and ready for use, Thirdly I would say it is to help your bodies co-ordination tune in to your given activity. I think this has two components, preparing the central nervous system for increased activity and to practice your given movements through your activity or movement rehearsal.
So in there I’ve not mentioned stretching! Well in all honesty if you prepare correctly you’ll get the stretches in by dynamic movement, rather than by static stretching. This is done through all four of the components of an effective warm up.
Muscle Temp. We increase muscle temperature, generally, by doing some light CV to raise the heartrate and liven up the major muscle groups. By doing this we warm up the muscles and gently expose them to increased movement and/or strain. As muscles warm up the blood vessels dilate allowing for increased blood flow, and therefore, increases the body’s efficiency in transporting oxygen to and by-products from the muscles being activated.
Mobility. The joints in the human body are mainly encapsulated in what is known as a synovial pocket. This pocket secretes synovial fluid when the joint is moved, which lubricates the joint surfaces and reduces wear and tear on the joint. We therefore need to activate the secretion process prior to exercise to enable the joints to perform better and help reduce wear and tear on them. We do this by adding in small, but increasing ranges of movement on each joint in order to provide effective lubricant of the joint. This is where we start to mobilise the body and start to increase our overall mobility. This phase will also start to activate the muscles by mildly stretching them for short periods of time when you hit the end stop of the range of movement. This also has another effect on mobility that I’ll discuss in a second.
Central Nervous System (CNS). Practice makes perfect; never forget that when athletes perform at an event, they will have trained parts of their body to respond in certain ways, with little effort of thought. The reason for this it to aide decision making when under stress. The same is true in the short term. Before entering into a session we should get the body ‘dialled in’ to what we are trying to do. Therefore, during a warm up we need to get the CNS working appropriately. At this time it is also worth looking at how you move for a given exercise or sport. So if you are a power lifter it would not really be beneficial to practice martial arts kicking drills and visa-versa! You should include some of the basic movements of your sport in your warm up. Start with limited range of motion and slowly, then develop the range of motion and increase the speed appropriately. I cannot think of many sports that wouldn’t include drills and skills in a warm up prior to a competitive session. This improves co-ordination by waking up the CNS in the short term. It’s worth remembering that we are discussing a warm up and not a drills and skills session, which also breaks down sports specific movements to train the CNS into reacting in a desired way.
Other things to consider- Negative effects of Static Stretching
Static stretching is used to stretch a muscle group to its longest point in order to improve flexibility. The main issue with this prior to exercise is that it can lengthen the muscle group to such an extent that the muscle has further to go before an effective contraction takes place. The reason for this is that the stretch de-tensions the muscle temporarily. In sports when you need quick reactions or to generate power it has been proven that static stretching prior to exertion will reduce performance in speed and power. So don’t do static stretches for any real length of time. If you have the odd niggle then yes, perhaps try to work it out, but the stretch should be short and sweet.
To finish off. I recommend dynamic or ballistic stretching in a warm up. With this type of stretching you are also engaging the muscles defence mechanism, which maintains muscle tension. These types of movements can be discrete, simple movements and developed into more complex movements as you warm up and mimic your activity. This way you challenge the CNS to wake up, create muscle warmth and prepare the joints effectively.