Think Stretching Sucks? Here’s How to Warm Up Better
Four warm up routines better than stretching that will get you to perform at your best. – By Thomas Okes
No one likes stretching. Why? Whatever your sport, play it hard enough, and stiffness becomes standard. If you’re sitting at a desk or eating at a table or lounging on the couch, that stiffness is not an issue – but try roll your shoulders a few times or touch your toes even once, never mind pick up something heavy or run a faster race, and you’ll know all about it. For many years, experts said, screw the discomfort, and stretch anyway. Stretching stiff muscles will keep them fed with oxygen, and keep you flexible at the same time – and this helps you limber up before exercising, prevent injuries during a workout, and recover afterwards too.
Now, they’re not so sure. New research shows static stretching doesn’t do much, as either a warm-up for a workout or part of your recovery routine, and rather than prevent injuries, could, in fact, hamper your performance.
A study review presented to the American Chiropractic Association Rehab Council, which examined 116 research papers, concludes: “Much evidence shows both the detriment of static stretching before athletic performance (strength, power, muscle efficiency) as well as the enhancement of performance by the use of a dynamic warm-up.” One word sticks out: static. Moving helps your body move, surely – and all these studies prove is that stretching while not moving will not help you, well, move, any better than you did before.
Don’t get us wrong; stretching has a range of benefits, like adding mass and length to your muscles, allowing you to generate more force and lift more weight. But you’ll see these benefits best if you make stretching a part of your every day: if you’re chained to your desk, or chowing down at the table, or too lazy to get off the couch, for example. Stretching in these static scenarios will keep your muscles awake and active, not atrophying.
To perform at your PB, however, you need something more … dynamic.
The study’s authors agree: “A dynamic warm-up routine contributes to proper muscle strength and flexibility ratios of the hamstring and quadriceps muscles, which in turn enhanced performance and likely protected the surrounding joints influenced by those muscles from wear and tear.”
So if you’re still loosening up the way you did back in primary school PE class, it’s time to update your routine.
So What Does a Dynamic Warm-Up Look Like?
Dynamic stretching is personal trainer code for moving your joints and muscles through a specific range of motion. For a great example of what an effective dynamic workout looks like, we borrowed this one from the pros at CrossFit District Six. The box’s Lushwill Rossouw and Thamar Clark have founded a CrossFit Endurance routine that takes runners, cyclists, and swimmers through a custom set of CrossFit exercises, designed for endurance athletes. While most CrossFit workouts emphasise weights over longevity, CrossFit Endurance stresses stamina over anything else – and they believe that the better your body moves, the longer it will be able to do so.
This is why Coach Lushwill calls his warm-up routine “movement prep” rather than a simple means of elevating your body temperature and increasing blood flow. The best part: you can do these moves absolutely anywhere. Ready? Let’s go.
1/ Ramp Runs
Find a hill, any hill. Make it a fairly short one – the goal is to safely activate your hamstrings, hips and calves – not chart a course to Mars. Start at the top, and run down, then come back up; that’s one. Start off easy and increase your pace and intensity so that by the end of the four sets, you’re really going for it. These short sprints will give your heart rate a rev and get the big muscle groups in your legs ready to work. No ramp? Shuttle runs work just as well.
2/ High Hip Complex
Stand up straight, then lunge forward with your right foot, drop onto your opposite knee and bring your hands to the floor on the inside of your right knee. Reach up with your right arm, pointing at the sky, then drop your hands back down, bring your feet together, and lift your bum into a downward dog pose. Repeat on the other leg.
“This is one of my favourites,” says Coach Lushwill. That’s CrossFit code for tough as hell, and just as effective. “It’s dynamic – this one move loosens up the entire hip complex, as it stretches the hamstring all the way into the calves and Achilles (downward facing dog), hip flexors, adductors and obliques, and last but not least, the piriformis, glutes and ITB with the pigeon pose.”
These are all good things, no matter what you’ve got planned: “The complex is great for prepping your body to take on an array of movements, from squats to lunges and everything in between. It’s also great for runners who hate stretching, as it primes your most important limbs to be at their most flexible.”
3/ Heaven & Earth
In this more dynamic version of that pose you managed in the middle of the high hip complex – in a deep forward lunge with your arm raised to the ceiling – you’ll be walking yourself warm. By adding the forward movement, Coach Lushwill says, the move “isolates and focuses more on the hip flexors and adductors, as these are major problem areas that cause major tightness and other issues for runners.”
4/ Scap Rotations
Between hours spent on the road and the rest at a desk, runners develop pretty poor posture. The fix: standing straight, bring your arms out in front of you, palms facing inward, and roll your shoulders – ten times forward, and another ten back. “Rotations are used to mobilise the scapulars and wake up the lesser-used or overstretched mid/lower traps and rhomboids that need to be active and working for good posture,” says Coach Lushwill.
Think of this routine as starting your engine – you want to ready your body (and mind) for the challenge to come. The point is to move in the way you’re expecting to move in the exercise itself, to get the heart rate up and the specific joints and muscles you need in gear and ready to go. Whereas static stretching may help you guard against the dangers of sitting still for too long, dynamic stretching will prepare your body for action.
Stretches that include dynamic movement can make you stronger and more flexible, say researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. They had two groups stretch for 10 minutes before exercising; one group did static, motionless stretches while the other performed a dynamic warm-up with stretches like high-knee pulls, leg swings, skips, and shuffles. In a subsequent workout, the people who had stretched dynamically showed significantly greater quadriceps strength and hamstring flexibility.
More strength, greater endurance: to start winning, get warm.
Photograph by Dean Treml/Red Bull Content Pool