Not by Any Stretch

Are “warming up” and “stretching” the same thing? Often people equate the two. But “warming up” and “long-term flexibility development” are really quite different concepts that have evolved over time. And our practice should reflect that.

Faced with some sport or physical endeavour, most people want to jump right into it, but then that little light bulb goes off in their heads and they say, “Oh, I’d better warm up,” or, “Guess I’d better stretch.” They assume the two things are synonymous. Then they force a limb into an awkward position, while holding their breath, and bouncing and wincing trying to make the muscle relax and stretch (you can see yourself here, can’t you?). The problem with this approach is that you are likely forcing a cold muscle to do something it doesn’t want to do, and you’re not actually warming up.

Although “stretching” can certainly be part of both warming up and long-term flexibility development, there are distinct differences in the best way to achieve either goal.

(top) A static stretch of a cold hamstring muscle can actually cause micro-tears and degrade performance of technique in class(bottom) The author demonstrates a “dynamic” stretch, using a gently swinging of the leg, in a widening arc, to perform the hamstring stretch.

Warm-ups vs. Stretching

Now, lets first review definitions.

Warm-ups can be:

  • Active (increasing tissue temperature through active motion)
  • Passive (increasing tissue temperature through passive external means, such as a hot pack)
  • General (multipurpose exercises, such as light jogging, lightly jumping side to side, lightly swinging arms and/or legs, etc.)
  •  Sport specific (movements that mimic the actions of the particular activity about to be undertaken)  

Stretching can be:

  • Static (a stretch held still in a static position for 20-60 seconds, at a position of slight stain, but not pain!)
  • Dynamic (repeating, rhythmic and undulating motions)
  •  Ballistic (typically involves bouncing/jerking motions and may be forceful; often the muscles are stretched near their true limit. Generally this method is viewed as something to avoid)
  •  PNF (Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation) stretching (performed by slowly alternating active contractions and relaxations of a muscle and its opposite muscle group – “agonists and antagonists.” This very is very effective when done correctly!).

Typically people automatically start a warm-up with static stretching of cold muscles, assuming that this is an effective method that would prevent injury.

However, things are not quite that straightforward. The overall conclusion of research on this topic is that there is not a clear link between static stretching cold muscles and preventing injury Evidence says that sometimes certain static stretches, especially if done incorrectly or on cold muscles, actually increase chances of injury during an event. Long-hold static stretching doesn’t automatically increase muscle temperature and may lead to some deactivation and/or “micro-tearing” of cold muscles and other soft tissues.

Break the Board is a great overall full body flowing dynamic stretch exercise, taken right from Bassai. Reach both arms out fully to head height, draw the navel to the spine and keep the back heel contacting the floor at the same time. Try to get as much length from the back heel to the tips of the fingers as comfortably possible, slowly and firmly making the transition to the single leg stance as you bring the hands down beside the knee or even further back, and hold the pose while breathing out for long enough to take a picture. Repeat equally on both sides at even intervals, warming the hips, ankles and shoulders.

Correcting Muscle Imbalances

Injuries can be due to many factors and difficult to predict. Non-contact injuries can occur for a wide variety of reasons, including sudden and/or cumulative loading of weakened tissues (weakness could be from disuse, certain disease states or natural aging), “misfiring” of an action (perhaps due to an insufficient warm-up or fatigue), and/or poor technique when executiing an action (which can suddenly load tissues beyond tolerance levels).

However, it is generally thought that the majority of non-contact musculoskeletal injuries (i.e., common acute and/or chronic “sprains/strains” in otherwise healthy people) primarily occur because of existing “muscle imbalances.” These refer to imbalances in length, flexibility and/or strength of a muscle in comparison to its neighbouring muscles and/or muscle groups (again, the relative relationship of length, strength and stiffness of “agonists” and their “antagonists” and/or “synergists”).

This is why it is important to work on specific “corrective” exercises to reduce “muscle imbalances. Corrective exercise” are often basic movements that when performed carefully can have a “fine-tuning” effect on our muscles, correcting imbalances in muscle length, flexibility, strength, stiffness, endurance, etc. (these are often prescribed by musculoskeletal professionals, such as physiotherapists).

So, while static stretching a cold muscle doesn’t seem to have much bearing on injury prevention, good postural and movement habits, blended with corrective exercises, and done in conjunction with good warm-ups, together play an important role.

Saw the Log: Start in a rearward position, with the feet spread as wide and going as low as is comfortably possible. Hold hands as if gripping a saw (make a fist with the back hand and cup the front hand over it), and concentrate on slowly and smoothly shifting your weight backwards and forwards. Don’t stoop the torso; try to remain upright. When ready, switch to the other side in one seamless motion by performing a large circle of the arms overhead while turning 180 degrees. Switch back and forth several times. (This dynamic stretch does a great job of warming up the entire body at once, with an emphasis on hip and ankle motion.)

Move to Prepare for Movement

OK, back to a warm-up. It is generally accepted that you can’t expect to perform well physically with a cold body. Exercise physiology literature explains that a careful and systematic warm-up may prevent injury and is linked as an important step to improving event performance.

The possible physiologic benefits of a good warm-up (involving “active” and “dynamic” movements) are numerous and include:

  • Increased muscle temperature
  • Increased blood flow to muscles, and increased dilation of blood vessels to the active muscles
  • Increased oxyhemoglobin breakdown, with increased oxygen delivery to muscles
  • Increased speed of nerve impulses and sensitivity of nerve to muscle connections
  • Increased cellular metabolism (in part due to increased responsiveness of the enzymes involved in energy production)
  • Decreases in stiffness of connective tissue  (i.e., decreased viscosity or internal friction and thus more responsive musculature)
  • Increased cardiovascular response to sudden strenuous exercise
  • Increased mental relaxation and the ability to focus and concentrate

So, how do you achieve an effective warm-up? Many experts believe that when starting cold, a gradual and progressive progression through “dynamic movement” is the best approach.

Again, the main recommendation is not to start static stretching a cold muscle as a means of warming up. Does it make sense to prepare to move by staying still?

Frankenstein Leg Swings: Start with one hand and one leg back. Swing your leg up (not too high) and return to the starting position. And swing the arms too. Alternate equally. This can be done walking forward and alternating the leg with the opposite arm , or in a stationary position, as shown above. (This is a great dynamic stretch for the hamstrings.)

Decreased Physical Perfomance

Considerthis: “Would you take an elastic band out of the freezer and prepare it for use by suddenly stretching it forcefully?” (Boyle, 2004). As you could imagine, this could cause “micro tearing,” instead of warming you up. To warm up the the elastic band properly you would start with slow movements in multiple directions. You might start with small ranges of movement and then gradually increase these, moving from one direction to another in steady “dynamic” and repetitive motions. As the elastic warms up, and becomes clearly more pliable, then you might do a longer static hold stretch to achieve even greater flexibility in one direction if specifically needed (like a hamstring for a kick).

Static stretching has been shown to momentarily “immobilize” muscular action. It incapacitates fast twitch fibers, and therefore explosive contractions. Static stretching alone on cold muscles has in fact been linked to decreased personal best performances in speed/power, agility and strength events. It can momentarily decrease a muscle’s potential for maximum speed or strength output, as it promotes a state of being relaxed and deactivated (which is why it is commonly usedin traditional yoga practice, where often relaxation is the goal). As well, it has been shown that marathon runners do better with a nice light jog on the spot, without any static stretching prior to a run. Long-held static stretches done prior to a long marathon run can decrease their performance.Again static stretching is stationary and is often not a good preparation for movement.  But dynamic stretching by its essence helps to get you moving.

Sidewinders: Start with your feet pointed at about 45 degrees, and the arms stretched as far the other way as possible. Using a gentle, smooth but brisk hopping motion, alternate the arm and foot positions. This dynamic stretch should be done with a smile!

Stretch Only After Warming

You can do dynamic stretches for almost every muscle in the body. These are typically flowing, swinging and/or repeating movements and not stationary poses. One takes the whole neuromuscular and circulatory system gradually through a progressive increase in range of movement, as well as allowing the muscle “fascia” to become more pliable (fascia is the covering of a muscle – like the skin of a sausage). With dynamic stretching, all tissues warm up together. (Doing these, you should feel like you are getting warm, but not fatigued or out of breath).

But in situations where large ranges of movement are needed (such as a high karate kick or the splits in a gymnastics routine), then it is important to perform some well-executed static stretches in the latter portion of the warm-up. Still they need not be held long (5-10 seconds is likely enough) for the purposes of a warm-up. If held too long you may decrease performance potential. Your aim is not to increase range so much as prepare the muscles and joints for the upcoming event.

Also, if the movement mechanics of the event (whether it is running, golfing, karate or something else) are sufficiently altered by a shortened muscle (due to a previous injury, for example), then some selective static stretching may also be applicable at the end of the warm-up. But remember, the muscle should still be warmed up first.

However, if no large range of motion is to occur (such as when simply walking or running), static stretching can be avoided altogether (but warming up through dynamic movement is still important).

Back Lunge to Crane Stance: Starting from crane stance, lunge backwards, reaching the top arm up and over at a slight lateral angle (like a jack-in-the-box; this is key to affecting the deeper hip flexors –the psoas major) and hold the bottom arm in a downward position, and then smoothly return to crane stance (just hold the hands in front as if grasping a steering wheel). Remember, the idea is to dynamically move from pose to pose. Just hold each pose for a second and work on balance and single leg strength. And keep repeating. You will warm up easily.

Controlled, Flowing, Repeated and Undulating

In summary, one should progress through a warm-up by first dynamically stretching, including a general warm-up and then moving to a more event/sport specific warm-up, thoroughly preparing the body for the movements you must perform. After this, there is a place for general static stretching of a muscle (no bouncing and don’t forget to breathe out) for ongoing “flexibility development,”as part of a long-term injury prevention strategy. It’s also useful in the cases where longer, more flexible muscles and/or greater range of movement are needed (such as for high kicks).

Another caveat is that people are not all the same. Despite new research and guidelines, some will find they fare better doing selective static stretches early in the warm-up. It may be that their bodies are just built that way, or it may be that this just the way they are accustomed to doing things, and their bodies have adapted accordingly.

But overall, the best way to start any warm-up is with a general set of dynamic stretching movements. These typically are gentle, controlled, flowing movements that are repeated and undulating. They could include:

  • Light stride-jumping variations
  • Various limb swinging actions
  • Various repeated lunge, reach and pull movements,
  • Progressive reaching actions
  • Gradual sequential articulation of a natural series of connected joints
  • Squatting and reaching actions
  • Exaggerated stepping actions, etc.

What I have included in these pages are some good general routines that most people could try. But use common sense for your own body. If something looks a bit too hard, then just skip it. Most of the exercises emphasize covering some ground as you do the moves, but they can be easily adapted to be done without having to travel any distance.

All motions should be repeatedly performed with steady breathing, in a focused manner, until you feel your body heat noticeably rising under the gi. They should be performed slowly, at a slightly faster than tai chi pace. The exercises could be done in any order, and as many times as is necessary to warm up, but not to the point fatigue. (Note: any movements shown in this article are just suggestions. They should be entirely pain free when you perform them. If not, modify them or get medical advice before doing them.)

When you search “dynamic warm-up” online, there will be many posts. Some are good, and some are less so. Following are a few examples that I like.

— Erik Stone, BSc. (Kin), CK, CSEP-CEP is a Certified Kinesiologist and Certified Exercise Physiologist. He practises at Jennings School of Karate, in Bradford, Ont. Part of this article ran in the May/June 2009 JSK Journal.