In this blog post, I will focus specifically on the importance of performing a dynamic warm up before exercise, sports or physical activity, and discuss the issue of when and how to stretch safely and effectively.
The Importance of Movement and Mobility
My approach to health, fitness and performance centres on a foundation of movement and mobility. Unfortunately the modern sedentary lifestyle for most people means that their bodies are not aligned, their posture is poor, and they suffer from muscle imbalances. These factors cause physical stress to the body (muscle tightness, stiffness, lack of range of motion, inflexibility) which in turn lead to stresses that impact overall health and well-being (headaches, difficulty sleeping, irritability). The longer you leave these imbalances and stresses unattended to, the worse they become.
When a new client comes to see me for a consultation, I conduct a full physical assessment which includes mobility tests. It is important to make sure you have consulted a professional before commencing a program of stretching. What may be appropriate for one person may not be for another. Remember that each of us is an individual, and it is important to address our individual imbalances on this basis.
I believe it is essential to identify and address muscle imbalances before starting a vigorous program of exercise or sporting activity. The risk otherwise is exposing yourself to further imbalances, or worse, injury.
… But “Don’t Tie Yourself In Knots!”
As Paul explains, “people commonly make the mistake of stretching muscles that don’t need stretching, and not stretching the ones that do need it”.
Paul uses the example of a bicycle that is out of balance with a crooked wheel. Take your bicycle out for a ride and you are more than likely to stress a crooked wheel even more, and risk the wheel even falling apart! In order to fix a crooked wheel, you have to tighten (shorten) the loose spokes and loosen (lengthen) the tight spokes.
I think this is a perfect metaphor for thinking about your body’s imbalances, as well as how you should approach stretching (lengthening / loosening) your tight muscles. Sitting for extended periods day-in, day-out, will give most of us muscle imbalances. What is important (think about the bicycle example) is that you loosen / lengthen (stretch out) your tight muscles. However, if you over-stretch your muscles that are not tight, you may be exacerbating your imbalances.
If you stress your body through exercise without having addressed these imbalances, you run the risk of injury.
“people commonly make the mistake of stretching muscles that don’t need stretching, and not stretching the ones that do need it”.
What is the “right” level of stretching for me?
Remember, each of us is an individual. What is “right” for one person in terms of “optimal” flexibility and mobility may not be right for another.
For example, some of us are not genetically pre-disposed to be able to perform contorted, advanced yoga moves. Just as an Olympic weightlifter with shorter limbs will adopt a different approach to the same type of lift as another who has longer limbs, each person may have a different “stretch limit” that is determined genetically.
As an aside, I believe that some of the recent negative press about yoga-related injuries is simply due to the fact that many people are not flexible enough to perform advanced yoga movements, and may push themselves too far, too soon in trying to achieve a certain pose.
This does not mean that I think all yoga poses are to be avoided. On the contrary, we can learn much from the wisdom and experience that has been built up over many years through the practice of eastern philosophies such as yoga and qi gong. Indeed, I incorporate many yoga poses in my various routines.
However, it is in my view very much the case that most people lack the flexibility required to perform the more advanced and difficult yoga moves safely. Even for a dedicated practitioner, it can take many years of practice to perfect some of the more challenging asanas. For the average person who spends most of his or her time sitting down or desk bound, the body is just not prepared to be able to perform these movements safely.
It is therefore important with stretching not to push yourself beyond your limits. Nevertheless, there is a minimum level of flexibility and mobility that each of us needs in order to live a healthy lifestyle. It is essential that we work towards this minimum standard of mobility, and especially to address our imbalances.
“Static” vs “Dynamic” Stretching
There is a lot of debate going around in fitness circles about “static” stretching versus “dynamic” stretching.
This has led unfortunately to one perspective which adopts a generalised bias against “static” stretching.
Static stretching is usually understood as getting into a stretch position while the body is at rest, and then holding this position for a length of time. You gradually lengthen your muscle to an elongated position and hold it for 20-30 seconds or even longer, up to 2 minutes. It’s the sort of thing that you might remember doing in your early school days in Physical Education lessons as a “warm up” before sports!
By contrast, dynamic stretching tends to be viewed as a more “active” type of movement that utilises momentum and can constitute a warm up routine. Stretches are not held for a long period of time, but rather, the body is put through a sequence of movements with the purpose of increasing your range of motion and encouraging blood and oxygen flow.
Recent research claims that static stretching can actually weaken muscles and therefore should not be done before sporting activity.
This line of thinking has been extended to viewing all forms of static stretching as “bad” and to be avoided.
I think this is too simplistic a way to look at things.
As explained above, there is a clear role for “static” stretching, which is to address muscle imbalances and tightness.
The “danger” in “static” stretching comes from-
- getting into a stretch before muscles have been adequately warmed up (thereby risking over-stretching)
- stretching muscles that do not need to be stretched (muscles which are already loose)
- using stretching as a substitute for a proper warm up prior to commencing physical activity
- attempting to stretch into a difficult position when you are not flexible enough to achieve this (EG- advanced yoga poses)
- stretching in cold weather
When Should I Stretch?
My general advice to clients is to stretch at the end of the day (when your body and muscles have been warmed up through the day), preferably before going to bed. This helps to release stress and tension before you sleep.
Again, the key point to emphasise is to stretch only those areas and muscles that are tight.
You will find that you not only will enjoy a good night’s rest, but will wake up the next morning feeling much looser and more mobile in your “tight” areas.
As a general rule, prior to commencing exercise / physical activity, I would take my clients through a dynamic warm up session (as opposed to static stretching) first. This ensures that blood is circulating through the body and your muscles are properly prepped for activity. If necessary, some simple stretching of tight areas can be done after the dynamic warm up is performed.
I also believe that most people tend to neglect a proper cool down / recovery routine after sports and physical activity. It is useful to “book end” your workouts or sporting activities with a dynamic warm up at the start, and a cool down routine at the end. Stretching can be incorporated in a cool down routine to assist recovery and prevent muscles from getting too tight / contracting.
The Dynamic Warm Up
A “dynamic warm up” is a series of movements designed to raise your body temperature, get your blood flowing and circulation moving, increase your range of motion and prep your muscles, and activate your nervous system prior to commencing physical activity or sports.
Nowadays, you will see most schools and sports teams adopting dynamic warm up routines as opposed to “static” stretching before commencing activities.
The aim of the warm up is to rehearse the movements that you will be performing on the sports field or in the gym.
You should increase the intensity of the movements gradually and work up to a sweat.
A proper warm up routine also serves to prepare the mind for the task ahead, and to help get you “into the Zone”.
Cool Down and Recovery
My Vitruvian Qi sequence can also be used as a cool down and as an active recovery routine when it is performed slowly and fluidly, at an easy breathing pace.
The movements when performed in this sequence will help to calm the nervous system and mind.
You can contact me to arrange a full consultation which includes a detailed assessment of your individual flexibility and mobility. Once I have assessed you, I will prepare a customised stretching program that is appropriate for you as an individual.