The standard warm-up routine practiced by the average weekend warrior seems to consist primarily of a combination of static and ballistic stretches. A martial artist, for example, might try to touch his toes with a bouncing motion to stretch the hamstrings, followed by a side split hold, and maybe a triceps stretch by raising an arm overhead and forcing the elbow back with the other hand, and finish up with some windmills and side bends.
As sensible as this routine might seem, it is almost entirely composed of exercises that weaken and endanger the muscles and joints to unnecessary risk of injury.
Let’s take a look at the cause of the problems then formulate a better strategy for an optimal warm-up.
Ballistic Stretches: This is the classic warm-up activity used by novice athletes. A ballistic stretch falls into the category of a dynamic stretch, but is really the rotten apple in a barrel of good ones. Essentially, a ballistic stretch forces the target body part beyond its normal range of motion using momentum, ie. swinging the leg forward or bouncing while trying to touch your toes for a deep hamstring stretch
Static Stretches: This particular technique has its benefits, but should never be performed as a warm-up. A static stretch lengthens a muscle to it’s fullest and maintains the stretch for short period of time ie. holding a side split or holding an overhead triceps stretch. Although doing so does stretch the muscle, it also weakens it temporarily and suppresses the natural protective reflexes that prevent the muscle from being suddenly overstretched.
The Optimal Warm-up
Now let’s look at how the warm-up should be performed, including a powerful technique overlooked by most novices but commonly used by elite athletes.
The purpose of the warm-up is to prepare the body for rigorous activity. This should include, increasing body temperature and blood flow, joint lubrication, and priming the nervous system. All of which should be tailored to the specific activity.
Technique 1: Joint Mobilization
All the joints involved should be taken through their full range of motion in a slow, even, controlled fashion without momentum for 20 – 30 seconds each. These exercises serve to lubricate the joints and might include, neck circles, windmills, hip rolls, etc.
Technique 2: Dynamic Stretching
Next, use dynamic stretches that incorporate a light strength and stabilization element to move the body through its normal range of motion with light resistance. Use these exercises to start warming up specific muscle groups while lengthening and shortening them to their full potential. There is significant amount of variation that can be used here to tailor the exercise more or less specifically to a particular activity. The key is to use the prime movers with minimal momentum and maximum control, thus priming the nerves and continuing to warm the tissues. Most of the usual ballistic stretches can be modified in this way for better results. These might include full ROM squats, straight leg lifts, bridge push ups, cat stretches, etc.
Technique 3: Visualization
While preparing the soft tissues with joint mobilization and dynamic stretching, visualization prepares the mind and spirit. Visualize yourself in perfect form and executing powerful yet graceful movements. The key is to maintain a positive beat and an underlying theme of happiness and wellbeing. Envision yourself performing the tasks at hand from a third person perspective, then transition in to a first person perspective performing the same movements. Incorporate your current environment into your visualization, including the feel of the terrain and climate, the sights, sounds, and smells. Feel rather than think.
This is, by no means, an exhaustive list of warm ups, but these three techniques will ensure safer and more effective performance.