29 February 2016

Stretching and Warm Up Overview

There are already countless websites with thousands of tutorials on stretching techniques and what is considered best by the author. It is difficult to determine if these are general and possibly wrong concepts that are passed down from instructors over decades, or are from people that study human movement scientifically and give the best medical advice.

I am not qualified for the latter and want to avoid the former. The information here is what I have learned from Grant McKechnie, the owner and primary physiologist of Ballarat Sports and Exercise Rehabilitation Centre. He has helped me with a lot of niggling issues and is more than qualified to provide accurate and safe advice on body movement. This article is not designed to replace his expertise but to give a good indication on what is required.

To give a bit more background on Grant he is a former rower, currently rehabs people not only in a large variety of sports but also aged people and accident victims to allow them to move again. He has prevented surgeries with detailed rehab plans and is the strength and conditioning consultant for the professional fight team at Infinite Mixed Martial Arts. In short, he knows his stuff.

Grant could fill volumes with his knowledge in this area, and he may do so eventually. What I want to stress is that the below information is my interpretation of that expert knowledge. So with that disclaimer out of the way, lets get to the content.

Stretching has a multitude of benefits but the greatest in my mind is injury prevention. If your body can naturally bend at odd angles and certain extremes you are less likely to pull a muscle or over extend in a painful manner. All sports have key movements to excel and they differ wildly but share the same basic principles.
  • There are two basic types of stretch: static and dynamic. Static stretches are where you increase your stretch maximum, are usually taken to your current extreme range and held for a period of time. Dynamic stretches are made in motion and should be part of a warm up to get the blood flowing and get you ready to train.
  • You need to be completely warm before you start static stretching, dynamic stretches are usually done cold. Generally you should be sweating profusely to static stretch. Cold muscles can snap and tear when sent to their extreme range. Hot muscles are malleable and can easily take the stress.
  • Just like a hard training session a stretch should be built up in phases. Going straight for your maximum range isn't a good idea. This is especially important as you get older. Start with a comfortable position at the point the stretch starts to pull. Hold for around 10 to 20 seconds and push it out to half way between your max stretch and previous position. Hold for a further 10 to 20 seconds before going to maximum. Ease back a little if the pain gets too high. You may need 10 phases before reaching your current full stretch, or you may only need 1. Your body is unique in its history and requirements so listen to it and adjust accordingly.
  • To make gains a static stretch should be held for long periods but if just starting out you need to build it up over months. If you currently have poor flexibility a 5 second static stretch might be enough. At the other extreme you might need a 90 second hold to get any benefit. As your stretch improves increase the time you hold it by a few seconds.
  • You should also work down in phases. After holding the maximum stretch ease off in intervals so the muscle doesn't go from maximum to minimum in a second.
  • If you feel you are cooling down too much warm back up with 20 quick star jumps or a handful of burpees in between stretches. Complete the current one first, warm back up if necessary and move onto the next.
  • Ensure you stretch at multiple angles. Just stretching your hamstring with a straight leg directly in front won't suffice. You also need to roll the knee to the outside and inside and perform the same stretch at the different angle. This will give a better range of motion and ensure your body can absorb the stress at all possible positions.
Pre-Warm Up
So you have arrived at the gym for class and have changed clothes ready to train. What now? Many classes don't have the time allotted to adequately warm up. I've had the pleasure of training under two Olympic level wrestlers. For their own training a normal warm up is about 2 hours followed by 2 to 3 hours of technique. Most people don't have that amount of time so 5 to 15 minutes is spent warming up for an hour long class. That might be OK if you are under 30 but is woefully insufficient as you get older. Plan to arrive at least 10 minutes early so you can do your pre-warm up.

dynamic stretch
Dynamic stretch to warm up
This pre-warm up preps your body for the class warm up. The body is likely asleep from working in the office, or strained from working outdoors all day. You need to iron out the kinks to get ready for the warm up. As a very loose and general rule of thumb, for every decade you are over 30, add 10 minutes to your pre-warm up. For example if you are in your 50s your pre-warm up should be around half an hour. If you are in your 30s or younger then 10 minutes should be adequate.

During this pre-warm up you need to work on dynamic stretches. This includes hip rotations, moving the neck side to side, torso twists etc, You should work on all areas and joints in multiple directions. To keep track of it start at the head and work your way down. As a rough guide do a dynamic stretch for:
  • your neck side to side, up and down and in circles
  • shoulders side to side and forward to back
  • chest ie pecs forward shoulders back
  • elbow and wrist rotations
  • limber up fingers 
  • waist rotations ie torso twist
  • hip rotations
  • knee rotations and bends
  • ankle rotations
  • your back forward and back
All these are done standing and there are further ones to be done from sitting. From here it is worth doing any additional exercises your physio may have recommended, or work on specific areas you have issues with from previous injuries. Don't do any static stretches here as you are not yet warm enough for it. If you feel you are holding a stretch immediately let it go.

The specific exercises will differ depending on your body type, your injury and surgical history, flexibility and general fitness levels. Future posts will list various stretches and exercises for each of the above with different levels of intensity. Assuming you can do the advanced versions, as you get older it is wise to start with the basic version, move to the intermediate and finish with the advanced as part of the pre-warm up. 

For example: At 30 you might be able to do all the advanced exercises and stretches so do them in the pre-warm up. At 40 it takes a bit more time to prepare so you start with intermediate then go into the advanced. At 50 you start with the basic, go to intermediate then advanced. At 60 you might do basic twice, intermediate once and finish on advanced. Keep following this pattern so you do the advanced version only once, and intermediate one less time than the basic.
Yes it might be boring but which is better: spending extra time warming up and continuing to train in the sport you love at your fullest capacity until your final days; or training as if you were still 20, missing months of training due to constant injury and being unable to train much past 50?

The Warm Down/Cool Down
This step is often missed due to the normal 1 hour class structure of most gyms. If a class was spent doing adequate warm up and cool down there would be less than 30 minutes of actual class time. While this isn't a successful business model, instructors should however encourage their students to warm up and down on either side of the scheduled class. I can't imagine a gym that is invested in its students not allowing people to stick around after class to take care of their bodies properly.

Static stretch
Remember to breathe
A proper cool down gets the body from peak performance and gradually returns to normal. Going abruptly from high intensity to sitting on your bum doesn't allow time to realign, and often causes injury in the next session. A light jog around the training area works well, but if space is limited by the next class things like star jumps and squats are perfect. The key is to start at a higher intensity and wind it down. Assuming you can do a star jump a second at peak performance, start the cool down at two every three seconds. After you've done a dozen slow it further until you are doing one every five seconds. Use your breath to gauge your status. If you are panting slow it down a notch. If you can't breathe normally slow it down another notch. If you can't talk while doing the exercise slow it down a further notch. Once your breathing is normal, which should take around 5 minutes, start your static stretches and re-hydrate.

A quick recommendation for re-hydration, try coconut water. It has the same benefits of sport drinks but in greater quantities and is completely natural. For example it has around five times more potassium than one of the -ades, which is very useful for avoiding muscle cramps. Sodium (ie salt) levels are lower so if you are a high intensity athlete such as a pro fighter you may need to add a bit of salt to your food to compensate for the sodium lost in sweat.

As a guide, I would recommend getting in the habit of allowing 30 minutes either side of the scheduled class to adequately prepare for the session and wind down afterwards. Even if you are in your 30s, you may not need the entire time but as you age you are already used to being at the gym for an extra hour to look after yourself. 60 year old you will thank you for the effort.

If you can't arrive early due to work or other commitments then fit in a basic pre-warm up while you are changing into your gym clothes. It's better than nothing.

Let me know in the comments about any strategies or techniques you use for your own warm up and cool downs.

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