Let's get ready to rumble...

Before I really became a student of this training stuff, I used to just dive in. I hated warming-up. All the stretching and holding didn't sit comfortably and the just running was dull. I wanted to get stuck in. Some of my fondest playing memories are from matches where, for one reason or another, we just got on with it. Obviously these images will have been enhanced with preservation in my mind but why is it they worked for me? I think the practice of what I do now before sessions and what I have my trainees do has echoes in these roots, albeit coloured by the training and research since.

First question (and this is a pretty standard opening for me): what are you warming up for? More exactly at this stage, what is the point of the warm-up? Well, to borrow from Verkoshanksy, it's more about "pre-activity preparation" than it is about warming-up per se. You are getting yourself ready for what's ahead physically and mentally. Some of the reasons those examples I alluded to above worked for me are because I was younger and did not have layers of dysfunction and tightness built up over years of abusing myself on the pitch and in working and living habits. Mentally I had time to switch on to what was about to happen but not enough time to over-analyse it. Rudimentary but it works for some.

These days of course, I have scar tissue, I have re-laid collagen from injuries impairing full range of movement, I have tightness and lack of mobility from spending three quarters of my life chained to a desk or slouching on trains, in cars or on sofas. The people I train also, for the most part, fall into a similar category. We are all different of course and in one-to-one sessions or small groups I can look to really dial in the warm-up to the problem areas for the individual. In larger groups I go for the common denominator. Either way, the core of the preparation is the same.

Get the body moving - this can come as a bit of a shock. We start light, elevating the heart rate, shaking up your system.

Dynamic stretching - taking your body through its range of movement. I will talk more about stretching below but the static stuff you may remember, and that so many of us still do by default, is out.

Mobility exercises - generally a sequence of positions, moved through, pressing the range, trying to help your body "remember" its range of motion. It will vary according to the group and the purpose of the session but will almost always include the lower back, hips, adductors, ITB and hamstrings in some way shape or form. Why? To enable people to focus on what has to be done and not the tightness in the working parts.

Exercises building the intensity - again, depending on the session but short bursts of exercises, sprints or looking to grease the groove with some empty bar work if we are looking at a weights session. Yes, I know that going through these stages will impact on the energy substrates but it's a good price to pay for getting the mind ready and embedding some good technique habits.

Bead on? Mind on? Ready to go.


So, stretching... Static stretching before exercise, the staple of PE teachers for generations, has come in for some bad press as a result of the prominence of work of authors like Alan Pearson (who copyrighted Speed, agility and quickness training) and some of the research in the last few years. [Static stretching still has a place in most programmes, but after the main work].

Looking at the last two years, some of these are comparative, some absolute (post in comments if you want full citation):

"dynamic stretching may increase acute muscular power to a greater degree than static and PNF stretching", Manoel et al, Sept 2008

"static stretching exerts a negative effect on sprint performance and should not be included as part of the preparation routine for physical activity that requires sprinting", Sayers et al Sept 2008

"repeated sprint ability may be compromised when static stretching is conducted after dynamic activities and immediately prior to performance", Sim et al October 2009

"stretching before an endurance event may lower endurance performance and increase the energy cost of running", Wilson et al November 2009

and others.

However, March this year saw a result for the middle-aged static stretching aficionados

"ten minutes of acute static stretching enhances dynamic balance and does not affect jump/hop performance in active middle-aged adults. Static stretching should be included before competition and before exercise in fitness programs of active middle-aged adults" Handrakis et al , March 2010.

When research is cited, bear in mind that scientists (or would be scientists) are by necessity looking at small groups and extrapolating their results to draw inferences on the broader population. We need to look at the sample size in the studies, the variables tested, the constants and the interests of the researchers. And all of this without necessarily considering the merits of the publisher, the review process etc etc

Even with that in mind, you will come up with trends for similar populations, not necessarily identical to yourself or the individuals with whom you are working. In any event, the order of magnitude of the negative effect may not actually merit that much concern. If it does, what's the pay-off. You might train somebody who has a psychological attachment to static stretching - they feel ready only when they have done it. This used to bug me, full to the brim with smug awareness of science! But I have mellowed a little. Is the decrease in their power output worth the work of breaking and recreating habits? Does the confidence they gain from having completed their stretching outweigh the potential benefits of removing the practise?

What's important to you and the person you are working with? If we are talking about changes in performance with small orders of magnitude, you may well find that there are many other things which well get bigger or better results quicker - which is good for the confidence of athlete and the coach. For me, it comes to this - if it's not going to cause injury, look at what you are trying to achieve and what you are comfortable with. How's your strength, how's your power, how are your mechanics? Get these up before you worry too much about the low-threat little things. [There are some "little" things which are potentially fatal to performance, and these MUST be sorted out in short order]

We all have limited resources, so it is essential that we work on priorities.


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