Warm-up activities & stretching exercises
Brad Walker explains how to warm-up properly to reduce the risk of a sports injury.
The warm-up activities are a crucial part of any exercise regime or sports training. The importance of a structured warm-up routine should not be underestimated when it comes to the prevention of sports injury.
An effective warm-up has several essential key elements. These elements, or parts, should all be working together to minimize the likelihood of sports injury from physical activity. Warming up before any physical activity does several beneficial things, but primarily its main purpose is to prepare the body and mind for more strenuous activity. One of the ways it achieves this is by helping to increase the body's core temperature, while also increasing the body's muscle temperature. By increasing muscle temperature, you are helping to make the muscles lose, supple and pliable.
An effective warm-up also has the effect of increasing both your heart rate and your respiratory rate. This increases blood flow, which in turn increases the delivery of oxygen and nutrients to the working muscles. All this helps to prepare the muscles, tendons and joints for more strenuous activity. Keeping in mind the aims or goals of an effective warm-up, we can then go on to look at how the warm-up should be structured.
It is important to start with the easiest and most gentle activity first, building upon each part with more energetic activities, until the body is at a physical and mental peak. This is the state in which the body is most prepared for the physical activity to come, and where the likelihood of sports injury has been minimized as much as possible. So, how should you structure your warm-up to achieve these goals?
There are four key elements, or parts, which should be included to ensure an effective and complete warm-up. They are:
All four parts are equally important, and any one part should not be neglected or thought of as not necessary. All four elements work together to bring the body and mind to a physical peak, ensuring the athlete is prepared for the activity to come. This process will help ensure the athlete has a minimal risk of sports injury. Let us have a look at each element individually.
1. General warm-up
The general warm-up should consist of light physical activity. Both the intensity and duration of the general warm-up (or how hard and how long) should be governed by the fitness level of the participating athlete. However, a correct general warm-up for the average person should take about five to ten minutes and result in a light sweat. The general warm-up aims to elevate the heart rate and respiratory rate. This, in turn, increases the blood flow and helps with the transportation of oxygen and nutrients to the working muscles. This also helps to increase the muscle temperature, allowing for a more effective static stretch.
2. Static stretching
Static stretching is a very safe and effective form of basic stretching. There is a limited threat of injury, and it is extremely beneficial for overall flexibility. During this part of the warm-up, static stretching should include all the major muscle groups, and this entire part should last for about five to ten minutes. Static stretching is performed by placing the body into a position whereby the muscle or group of muscles to be stretched are under tension. Both the opposing muscle group (the muscles behind or in front of the stretched muscle), and the muscles to be stretched are relaxed. Then slowly and cautiously, the body is moved to increase the tension of the muscle, or group of muscles to be stretched. At this point, the position is held or maintained to allow the muscles and tendons to lengthen.
This second part of an effective warm-up is vital, as it helps to lengthen both the muscles and tendons, which in turn allow your limbs a greater range of movement. This is very important in the prevention of muscle and tendon injuries. The above two elements form the basis or foundation for a complete and effective warm-up. These two elements must be completed properly before moving onto the next two elements. The proper completion of elements one and two will now allow for the more specific and vigorous activities necessary for elements three and four.
3. Sport-specific warm-up
With the first two parts of the warm-up carried out thoroughly and correctly, it is now safe to move onto the third part of an effective warm-up. In this part, the athlete is specifically preparing their body for the demands of their particular sport. During this part of the warm-up, more vigorous activity should be employed. Activities should reflect the type of movements and actions which will be required during the sporting event.
4. Dynamic stretching
Finally, a correct warm-up should finish with a series of dynamic stretches. However, this form of stretching carries with it a high risk of injury if misused. It should only be used under the supervision of a professional sports coach or trainer. Dynamic stretching is more for muscular conditioning than flexibility and is only suited for professional, well trained, highly conditioned athletes.
Dynamic stretching should only be used after a high level of general flexibility has been established. Dynamic stretching involves a controlled, soft bounce or swinging motion to force a particular body part past its usual range of movement. The force of the bounce or swing is gradually increased but should never become radical or uncontrolled. During this last part of an effective warm-up, it is also important to keep the dynamic stretches specific to the athlete's particular sport. This is the final part of the warm-up and should result in the athlete reaching a physical and mental peak. At this point, the athlete is most prepared for the rigours of their sport or activity.
The above information forms the basis of a complete and effective warm-up. However, I am well aware that this entire process is somewhat of an 'ideal' or 'perfect' warm-up. I am also well aware that this is not always possible or convenient in the real world. Therefore, the individual athlete must become responsible for assessing their goals and adjusting their warm-up accordingly.
For instance, the time you commit to your warm-up should be relative to your level of involvement in your particular sport. So, for people just looking to increase their general level of health and fitness, a minimum of five to ten minutes would be enough. However, if you are involved in a high-level competitive sport, you need to dedicate adequate time and effort to a complete warm-up.
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About the Author
Brad Walker is a prominent Australian sports trainer with more than 15 years of experience in the health and fitness industry. Brad is a Health Science graduate of the University of New England and has postgraduate accreditations in athletics, swimming and triathlon coaching. He also works with elite level and world champion athletes and lectures for Sports Medicine Australia on injury prevention.