The new warm-up: dynamic stretching
As an athletic therapist, I always used to ask my athletes to stretch before any exercise, because I thought it might help. I just couldn't prove it. One reason why many believe that the typical static stretching (static stretching is holding the affected muscle in a stretched position for 20-30 seconds) does not help prior to exercise is the lack of increased blood circulation. When you hold the stretch for a prolonged period, you are increasing the length of the muscle, but not the blood flow. The first thing that happens when you step on the field or go for a run is the muscles need a sudden surge of oxygen-enriched blood. Static stretching does not do this — but dynamic stretching will.
Dynamic stretching, according to personal trainer Thomas Kurz, "involves moving parts of your body and gradually increasing reach, speed of movement, or both." It is a relatively new term that incorporates both increasing the muscle extensibility and blood flow prior to an activity. It involves taking a limb (shoulder, hip, etc.) and repeatedly moving it back and forth or side to side about eight to 15 times. There are three examples below, but hundreds more on the internet.
The athlete will need to be careful not to get fatigued while doing the exercise. Start slowly into the first couple of repetitions, and increase flexibility as you progress. If you do start to feel tired, stop the stretching and take a few minutes to cool down. More repetitions will only fatigue the nervous regulation of the muscles' length and may cause you to lose some of your flexibility. It may be easier to start with just eight repetitions and work your way up to 15.
Dynamic stretching is not to be confused with "ballistic stretching." Ballistic stretching involves taking the stretch to its maximum length and bouncing repeatedly. The danger with this exercise is that it may cause microscopic tears within the muscle fibers, which in turn may cause future injuries to the whole muscle. Therefore this form of stretching is not recommended for many athletes. In dynamic stretches, there are no bounces or "jerky" movements.
Here are three examples of dynamic stretching:
Leg swings (front and back)
- Stand sideways to the wall with one hand holding onto it. The leg should be slightly bent.
- Swing your opposite leg in front of you until you feel a stretch in your hamstrings and then behind you until you feel a stretch in your hip flexors.
- Repeat eight to 15 times per leg
Leg swings (side to side)
- Stand on one leg with a slightly bent knee, facing the wall.
- Swing your opposite leg out to the side until you feel a stretch in your groin and then across your body until you feel a stretch in your side hip or gluts.
- Don't twist your torso, and try to keep your hips facing forwards
- Repeat eight to 15 times per leg
Long lunges with toe raise
- Take long steps forward into a lunge for about 15 feet.
- Alternate feet each turn.
- When bringing the back leg forward, go up on your front legs toes and kick the back leg high toward your chest (this will take some co-ordination).
- Repeat eight to 15 times
Do not let someone tell you that there is only one way to stretch a muscle, or that this is the only way for you to do it.
I always recommend to my athletes to do a warm-up before their activity, but to do what they feel comfortable with.
If one player likes to take 20 minutes before a game, ride the bike and do several static stretches, then that is their prerogative. If another does nothing before the game because they feel it tires them out and doesn't keep them focused, then that's fine for them as well.
Dynamic stretching is just one of many ways to warm up before an activity.
Only you, however, can answer the question of whether stretching should be a key part of your regime.
Russell Gunner, C.A.T., is a Certified Athletic Therapist with more than 17 years experience in the sports medicine field. He has worked as a student assistant therapist with the Toronto Maple Leafs hockey club and has assisted with the fitness testing of the New York Islanders. He currently owns Club Physio Plus in Mississauga, Ont.