Every time I’m at the gym, in the cardio section, the machines section or the free weights area I see the same thing over & over again, people rushing in, striding up to a machine, performing a series of short, quick static stretches next to it for 5 minutes, before jumping on and exercising away.
Inevitably this is followed by seeing them a few days or weeks later moving a little gingerly with some kind of injury or niggle that’s kept them out of the gym or kept them from training as well as they usually do.
Now you have either seen the same or you do exactly the same thing at the start of your workout, and I bet you were told to do this by a gym buddy or even a pt a while back, but it’s wrong, its detrimental to both your performance & also to your health or fitness in terms of potential injury.
We need to prepare the body to a state that’s its ready to exercise in; ready for the demands we are placing on it. That includes not only the muscles & connective tissue but also the Nervous System (NS), the thing that controls our movement.
Static stretching, where you stand, take one muscle and stretch it in isolation is not a great idea before a work out for three main reasons. Firstly that muscle is cold and you are pulling it, elongating the muscle, stretching it. It’s not warm yet, it hasn’t all of its elasticity yet so you can actually strain the muscle. Secondly the body doesn’t really work in isolation, most moves are multi joint, multi muscular so when you stretch a joint out on its own the brain sees this as a threat to its health, and when muscles are under threat (from injury especially when cold) they tighten as a protective mechanism…so you have now just caused the muscle you were looking to loosen to tighten.
This works in conjunction with the brain not having mapped the mobility or range of movement in the surrounding joints, so when its suddenly feeling an individual joint being taken to its furthest range of motion it again protects itself by tightening those surrounding muscles. Lastly, this static stretching has been seen in studies to reduce power output, a reduced performance or a weakened muscle….not ideal as you are about to hit the track/ pitch or squat rack!
So what IS the best way to warm up I hear you ask….well firstly …exactly that!
Muscles are elastic & to work properly require a few things. They need to be warmed up to improve the elasticity in them. Muscles work using signals from the brain; we need to make sure that pathway (the NS) is fired up. The connective tissue around a joint (tendons and ligaments) also determines the mobility or stability of the joints as well as the NS, so we need to make sure joints are both warmed up and fired up with the NS. Get warmer; it increases the blood flow, increasing your body temperature which also increases the production of synovial fluid in your joints acting as a lubricant & shock absorber.
The first thing I DONT do in a gym is strip off to my workout gear, especially if you have ever been into my gym. It’s cold in there (You can sometimes see your own breath when you train) & approaching winter it’s not getting any warmer. So I wear a pair of tracksuit bottoms & a jumper to the gym over my shorts and t-shirt, and I wear them for my warm up, until I feel hot. The warm up is a real gentle 3-5 minutes on a low impact piece of cardio equipment. I like the cross trainer as its total body, but a rower, bike or light jog/ walking on an inclined treadmill will do. If you are not at the gym and you are outside then a brisk walk to jog (forwards, sideways and backwards), some star jumps, some skipping or shadow boxing but all with a really gentle action, not overly stretching any joint.
Next, now that your body temp has raised and your heart rate has increased you want to start to mobilise the joints in your body. This is simply going through each joint, gently & steadily moving the associated limb(s) through a full range of motion. This process will warm up the soft tissues & primary muscle surrounding each joint, it will activate any of the stabilising muscles and will map out the movement range with the NS with will remove any uncertainty, allow for greater movement and so reduce stiffness or tightness. For example, start at the ankle; make circles with your feet toes up, a couple of times in each direction. Then make circles with your heel, toes down. Do the same for both feet. Work up through your knees, hips, spine, shoulders, neck and wrists moving them in each direction.
Dynamic Pattern Stretching
Finally we are now ready to increase the range of movement in your joints & muscles further with some additional dynamic movement patterns, as well as further warming you up and helping to prepare both your mind and body for the tasks ahead.
These, like I mentioned are dynamic (moving), you will increase the range of movement as you progress though each repetition, gradually feeling a further stretch. They will use total body movements, where the ‘stretch’ will work groups of muscles as a unit. This will also start to prepare you mentally for a workout, raise your adrenaline levels for better performance.
In the video I use 3 movement patterns, based around a lunge. There are various different ones to use that can be more specific to any exercise you are about to do directly before that specific exercise i.e. body weight squatting before adding any weight, but these three cover your total body pretty well. Also foam rollers are becoming more popular but will leave those for another discussion.
This whole process will take you about 10-15 minutes, probably a lot more than you are doing right now. But those ten minutes at the start will protect you against weeks out of the gym through injury & will also help with stiffness after sessions. You may not like doing it but I bet you don’t like not working out more!
That’s the pre-workout routine covered, I will look at the cool down and static stretching another time but most of you know how to do this already…..just at the wrong time!!!
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