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I have been a speed and performance specialist for over 13 years and when I start a training session with my athletes I always seem to see something strange. After one sees some remarkably strange gyrations and silly skipping patterns, one’s curiosity is immediately piqued. The question is inevitably asked, “Why do you warm-up the way you do?”
With coaches and athletes alike always looking for better ways to train better, we thought it would be an obvious topic to address what to do “before” training begins. A proper warm-up allows us to get the most out of a game or training session. The warm-up method presented here differs from the traditional static stretching positions recognizable from the days of junior high gym class.
Many perform some form of light running or calisthenics, followed by various positions of static stretches and then try to perform at a much higher intensity level.
Sounds very familiar, right? And you’re thinking, “Yeah, I follow you, so where’s the problem?”
Well, the problem is manifold. These types of “warm-ups” do not effectively address the other key components of a proper warm-up.
Since some of this isn’t far-fetched, we’ll question and propose the actual function of a fitting warm-up for power sports. Training, practice or game situations demand full speed, 100% efforts so the warm-up should adequately prepare participants for full speed, 100% efforts!
We need to implement the protocol as efficiently and effectively as possible. The most appropriate warm-up provides the ability to focus on what is most important – which is to develop the skills necessary to excel at your sport (or position). Translation – spend time on what you need to spend time on! The goal will be to warm-up thoroughly in 15 minutes or less.
Effective warm-ups should accomplish the following objectives:
1. Increase core temperature and lengthen muscles
2. Stimulates the nervous system and activates neuromuscular innervation
3. Educate the body with fundamental movement mechanics
Our warm-up protocol accomplishes so much that it’s hard for us to give it an accurate label. As is the current trend from many self-proclaimed performance gurus, this can be described as “Dynamic Movement Calibration Activity Protocol-3” (or DyMCAP-Cubed) or whatever sexy label you want to stick on it! The point is that it covers a wide range of important categories. As we define each element, please take a moment and examine your own warm-up process and see if it addresses each criterion.
Increase core temperature by increasing heart rate and using the body’s natural principle of reciprocal inhibition to lengthen muscles and reduce the risk of injury.
For a muscle to be lengthened (stretched) safely and effectively, it needs to be done in a warm environment. That doesn’t mean you have to be in Myrtle Beach in July to do it. What this means is that we need to gradually speed up our heart rate, encourage healthy blood flow and circulation, and thus raise the body’s core temperature. It reflects the principle of “thawing” a frozen mound of ground beef before molding it into some nice-sized hamburger patties. The warmer our muscles are, the more flexible they are. This is important because it allows for rapid flexibility gains that inevitably reduce the likelihood of strained muscles, tendons and joint trauma. The body is then better prepared to meet the progressive demands of the training session.
Another factor is called mutual inhibition. This is a technical term that describes how muscles work in coordination of behavior in relation to each other. As one muscle (agonist) contracts, the reciprocal or opposite muscle(s) (antagonist) automatically relaxes which facilitates a more dramatic stretch effect.
Put into practice:
Include dynamic walking, twisting, marching, bending, skipping and running movement patterns to increase core temperature and lengthen muscles. While doing so, concentrate and try to contract the opposing muscle you want to stretch. For example, contract your quadriceps and keep your toes pointed as you rotate your front leg straight out. If done correctly, you will feel a great stretch in both your hamstrings and calves.
Remember that sports are multi-directional, multi-planar activities, so the warm-up routine must support these demands. Improvements in balance, coordination and general athleticism are beneficial byproducts of performing challenging movement patterns.
Stimulate the nervous system to “sound the alarm” and neuromuscular activation of the appropriate muscle groups.
Here is where we have traditionally disrespected our athletes. When we hold our athletes in fixed or static stretching positions the nervous system has a “calming effect”. This is exactly the opposite effect we want to elicit. For this reason the best time to do long slow static stretches is right before bed. Because we don’t put on our “pajamas,” we stimulate the nervous system to become more alert, more responsive, and more energetic.
Consider waking up late one morning and it can take you an hour or more to “catch up.” Static stretching before activity has a similar effect. Conversely, think of being suddenly woken up in the middle of the night by the sound of a fire alarm! Get ready to run away or fight for your life! Dynamic movement patterns of low-level skips, hops and jogs are consistent with sounding an alarm.
To address the concept of neuromuscular activation, the saying “use-it or lose-it” comes to mind. When certain muscles don’t work properly, they actually inhibit movement patterns, range of motion and ability to produce force. Over time, neuromuscular innervation becomes virtually inactive as other muscle groups compensate for the lack of activity. A muscle cannot work unless it receives an electrical impulse. This is how we define “activation” – to describe whether a muscle has received the proper electrical command to perform its function.
Therefore, we must regularly use movement patterns that will stimulate the target response or else we will lose some ability to “activate” them effectively. For example, a well-conditioned and active piriformis will undoubtedly reduce the potential for injury and improve performance. Stability throughout the body is important. The piriformis, as one of the six (6) hip stabilizers, provides a reduction in injury potential because the lower back is no longer forced to compensate for the lack of gluteus shock absorption. Piriformis stability is extremely important for performance in terms of energy flow through the kinetic chain. If there is a break in the chain (sometimes referred to as an energy leak) then important underground reaction forces are compromised and cannot be used effectively.
Put into practice:
A piriformis exercise such as the lying hip abduction drag is a simple activation-type exercise that can easily be incorporated into a warm-up routine. Lying hip drags are performed by lying supine (on your back) with both legs straight and then drag one leg out to your side as far as possible (contact the ground) and then rest in the starting position. Repeat 5-10 repetitions on each leg.
Teach and teach the body to “memorize” fundamental movement mechanics.
One area where we can have the greatest impact is in the teaching of proper movement skill mechanics. Its importance lies in the understanding that these fundamental movement skills are the foundation of every athletic movement. Mere repetition is not enough to improve skill acquisition or athleticism. We must constantly move in an environment that reinforces correct and efficient movement patterns. The concept of “muscle memory” is real and can cause great harm when poor mechanics are reinforced through repetition. Essentially, this section reinforces the basic principles of correct biomechanical movement – posture, body alignment, propulsion angle, arm action, foot action and foot strike.
In addition to generic hops, skips, jogs, etc… we have the opportunity to introduce specific technical movement skills. These are learned skills just as any athlete learns how to throw a football, kick a soccer ball, hit a baseball, or ride a bike. In my opinion, the person who said “you can’t teach speed” must have been an incredible “natural athlete” who just jumped on the bike and hit the road! Or, maybe he wasn’t a particularly gifted athlete and couldn’t catch a ball and chew bubble gum at the same time.
Regardless, instructing the athlete on how the body should perform is an important and necessary endeavor. No matter how advanced, every player can improve skills, coordination and overall athleticism.
Put into practice:
Basic linear movement skills such as “A” marches and skips are essential to establishing basic straight forward motion. “A” marches and skips are performed with straight body alignment (ears to knees), stomach pulled in (as if holding breath), elbows bent at 90 degrees, knees raised to hip height (knees bent at 90 degrees). and walking with the leg elevated (90 degrees at the knee) – either in a slow deliberate marching cadence or in a skipping motion with a controlled, quick downward leg strike.
Finally, the ultimate goal of the warm-up routine should be to properly prepare the athlete with game-playing qualities. It should be implemented safely, appropriately and concisely. I invite you to review your own warm-up procedures to see if they meet the criteria of Elevate (length), Excite (activate) and Educate.
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