15th January, 2013

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Are warm-ups worth it?

For years warm-ups have been an unquestionable must before exercise, however some more recent research suggests static warm-ups don’t prevent injury. Does this mean we should drop the warm-up altogether? Are our expectations of a warm-up incorrect, or is this research of poor quality and to be ignored? In actual fact it’s probably a combination of these. Warm-ups should include dynamic and static elements so purely looking at a static warm-up is limited in value, as well as missing the point of what each component of a warm-up is valuable for.

Many studies have looked at the evidence behind stretching and there are similar threads in the conclusions reached.
General static stretching is unlikely to prevent general injuries to the body.
Strong static stretches performed immediately before an activity may reduce the total muscle strength – however this is a short lasting phenomenon.
In competition, those who undertake a dynamic warm-up are likely to perform better than those who do a static warm-up or no warm-up.
People of older age will typically need to warm-up for a longer period of time.
Different sports have different requirements and hence no one warm-up is suitable for all activities/sports.
Different individuals have different requirements and no one warm-up is suitable for all individuals of the same activity/sport.

Static stretching: I believe research shows that there is still a very valid role for static stretching in a warm-up. Particularly if the individual or individuals have traits that require static stretching, (i.e. Tight calf muscles, tight fascial tissue, etc.). There is also a role for static stretching where the activity/sport requires a greater level of flexibility (e.g. gymnastics, diving, an ice hockey goalie).

Dynamic warm-up: After an individualised static stretch, a dynamic warm-up should be performed. This should simulate the needs of the activity as much as possible (e.g. run-through jogs building to sprints for a sprinter). There is also evidence that these dynamic movements can eliminate any loss of muscle power resulting from the static stretching. This dynamic phase should be of a suitable amount of time (often greater than 10 minutes) to allow the individual to feel ready for the sport – expecting a greater time for older athletes and for particular sports and individuals.

It is recommended that each time a warm-up is performed it remains consistent for each individual, allowing for small changes based on how an individual presents to the activity (e.g. tighter muscles on some days) or changing conditions (colder day, different playing surface).

So eliminating warm-ups because static stretching research finds that warm-ups are unlikely to prevent ‘general injuries’ is narrow minded. A warm-up should always be specific to the needs of both individual and activity or sport. A well-executed warm up will be able to prevent the progression of current issues/injuries as well as prepare the body adequately for the strenuous activity and maximise performance.

Written by Mark Fotheringham – physiotherapist at Malvern Physiotherapy Clinic