The Active-Dynamic Flexibility Warm-up

For many of you reading this, think about your typical warm-up before you do resistance training before you go outside and do sprints or train for your half and full-marathon, or look at how others warm-up. You see all sorts of methods. Anything from getting on the cardio equipment for 10-20 minutes to get the blood flow going, sitting and touching your toes, or three lightweight sets on the first lift of the day. You may have been practicing these methods since you were in junior high because a coach had you do it so it must be the way to do it. Maybe, or maybe not. Think about the true purpose of any good warm-up and think about the science behind how you or others warm-up. If you are being scientific about how you design each of your workouts, then you need to be more scientific on how you warm-up.
The purpose of any good warm-up should be to prepare to lift, play or even train hard in your favorite group boot camp. Unfortunately, far too many athletes, fitness enthusiasts, coaches, and trainers lack proper preparation which can lead to decreased performance and increased risk of injury. Sure, you may have been seeing regular results over the last six months hitting new records on lifts, getting your physique to where you want it to be but did you ever consider that maybe, just maybe with a more thought out warm up, you could get those results more efficiently because you took the time to prepare? Perhaps, even hold onto those results longer? It is important to note, however, that warming up and stretching are not one and the same, but both play an integral role in athletic and fitness performance or a lack thereof.
“It’s not the will to win that matters- everyone has that. It’s the will to prepare to win that matters.”—Bear Bryant

A better, well-thought-out warm-up will enhance performance

  • Increasing the temperature of the muscles being recruited during the warm-up (especially those you plan on using in training and playing), which will allow for increased ability of the muscles to contract more forcefully and recover more quickly (reciprocal innervations efficiency), thereby enhancing speed, strength and overall development desired in training and playing.
  • Increasing the speed at which nerve impulses travel (neural facilitation), which simplifies body movements.
  • Increasing the temperature of the blood as it travels through the muscles which decrease the amount of oxygen the blood can carry and therefore makes more oxygen available to the working muscles.
  • Increasing joint ROM because of decreased muscle, tendon, and ligament viscosity caused by elevated core temperatures.

There is still literature circulating the internet that warrants the use of stretching after a thorough warm-up period to further prepare the body for the rigors of their particular person’s endeavor. Unfortunately and regrettably, most pre-event warm-up programs consist primarily of static stretching, which can result in several shortcomings in an athlete’s preparation. You may look at an NBA or NFL warm-up and see the athletic trainers stretching players out. Many of these players are already beaten up from the ground and pound so they need more done pre-game and pre-practice. Although, there are better practices surfacing so it is not just cold, static stretching.
Since static stretching is a passive activity, little to no friction of the sliding filaments involved in a muscular contraction occurs and therefore little to no increase in core temperature elevation. Typically, if it is 35 degrees outside where you live, would you jump in your car, put it in reverse and then drive off? Or would you let the engine run for a while to get the fluids circulating and engine warmed up? I think the latter. In San Antonio, TX it does not take me as long to get warmed up compared to living in Chicago, Illinois. That does not mean I shouldn’t take the time to effectively prepare for training. Thus, the warm-up is part of the foundation of a successful practice session and getting fully warmed up, mentally and physically, is a key aspect of achieving the training intensity required to achieve optimal results in a game or practice session. Sadly, there is still neglect on this end which can eventually lead to poorer or not as high of results in practice or games because shortcuts in the warm-up procedure occurred. There are plenty of high school teams with terrible warm-up procedures in the offseason and during the season. It only makes it more difficult, whether you realize it or not yet, to obtain better strength and speed results in the offseason or be loosened for the first minutes you’re out on the court or field. Simple and a small list of integration of better warm-ups can go a long way each day.
To prepare for more strenuous exercise you should perform specific warm-up exercises because they provide a rehearsal of the activity and increase body temperature. This is the best way. There is a standard list of things we do as strength and conditioning coaches and then there is a more evolved list adopted from those in the Animal-Flow category. No matter what “style” is adopted, there are three types of warm-up methods: passive, general, and specific.

The Passive Warm-up

In this method, hot baths/showers, massage, or heating pads are involved but research does not support it to achieve the most desired increases in tissue temperature needed to cause a warm-up effect. It does have its purpose, and is also labeled as a pre-warm-up and has the ability to allow the athletes or fitness participant, to relieve some pain and stiffness, which will then enhance facilitation of body movements. Roller sticks, foam rollers, PVC pipes, and lacrosse balls can help with The Passive Warm-up. Many of those who integrate this into their warm-ups separate the body into a few Regions.

  • Region One: Neck, Upper back, Middle Back, Lower Back, Anterior Deltoids, Chest
  • Region Two: Glutes, Lateral Glutes, Hamstrings, Inner Thigh, Outer Thigh, Upper Thigh, Lower Quad
  • Region Three: Upper Calf, Lower Calf, Shins, Arch of the foot

*2×20 up and down rolling per area or 2-3 minutes per area is common

The General Warm-up

The general warm-up is probably the most commonly used technique and employs various movements not directly related to those to be employed in the activity itself, with the goal being to increase tissue temperature and improve the efficiency of the cardiovascular and respiratory systems for the physiological demands and processes that will soon be placed on it. These may start with joint rotations and gently twisting and bending movements usually followed by jogging, cycling, jumping rope or light calisthenics. At your typical Golds Gym, Lifetime Fitness and Anytime Fitness you will see this being practiced. Similar to high school players getting in line to do a layup and shooting drills (also used for skills) or high knees, butt kicks, sprints, and shuffles with football and soccer players. It’s a start, but at some point, it needs more on top of it to get the athlete prepared best.

The (Specific) Active Dynamic Flexibility Warm-up

If you want a thorough dynamic warm-up prior to practice or game should consist of 3 components: cardiovascular, neural, and dynamic flexibility. The activities utilized in the general warm-up were incorporated into the warm-up to improve the efficiency of the CV and respiratory systems, as well as increase core temperatures. Although CV and neural components are considered separate elements of the warm-up, we must note that the changes and responses due to exercise are not solely one or the other, in fact, the control over the CV and respiratory functions are neurally regulated via different receptors and muscle afferents. It becomes necessary that we briefly discuss the neural aspects as they related to motor unit and muscle fiber activation.
Motor unit and muscle fiber recruitment principles and theories state that a progressively increasing force recruits the motor units at a gradual and increasing level from a slow twist force to a fast twist force. As an athlete goes through a gradual progression of dynamic warm-up exercises that become more demanding, starting with joint mobility (neck and hip rotations), then moving to general movement preparation (dynamic flexibility exercises), then to multidirectional preparation (carioca, lateral shuffle, backpedals, etc.), and finally to more powerful movements (vertical jumps, standing long jumps, sprints, etc) the activation of more motor units will occur and this will the athletes and fitness enthusiasts to be more physiologically ready for their biggest training days, games or events.
The third and final component of the warm-up is dynamic flexibility training. Active- Dynamic flexibility training consists of functional-based exercises that use sport-specific movements to prepare the body for activity. If what you are doing is a random list of movements just because, well then stop. While this type of preparation has been used for some time now, it is unfortunately still not common knowledge among coaches, athletes, trainers and other types of participants. It has been more commonly seen in track and field sports and is gradual, yet slowly, making its way to other sports at younger ages and the general population.
There are few sports in which the ability to achieve a high degree of static flexibility is advantageous, with the exception of gymnastics, for example. Due to the Principles of Specificity, active-dynamic flexibility may be more applicable to the more elite level of performance in athletics and fitness because it closely replicates the movement requirements seen in training and competition. This well-rounded approach has been shown to improve movement flexibility, balance, coordination, proprioception, the elasticity of the muscles and ligaments; it changes long-term flexibility and increases core body and active muscle temperatures. There is even research coming out that shows emphasis in active-dynamic movement training achieves long-term flexibility more than static stretching.

Active-Dynamic Flexibility Exercises

The following is a typical warm-up when training those in high levels of fitness and athletics (does not include extra hip and shoulder mobility):

  • Forward and Sideways Planks: 30 each
  • Glute bridges or single legged glute bridges 20x/12x each
  • Lying Hip Crossovers 12x each
  • Supermans 20x
  • Walking Knee hugs 8-12x each
  • Walking quadriceps pulls 8-12x each
  • Forward lunges 8-12x each
  • Backwards lunges w/ trunk twists 8-12x each
  • Inch worms w/ pushups pyramid to 5-8
  • Straight leg kicks 8-12x each
  • Lateral Lunges 8-12x each
  • Leg Cradle 8-12x each
  • High Knees 15 yards and back
  • Butt kicks 15 yards and back
  • Carioca 15 yards and back

This is just a more general list. It is tentative to change depending on the progression level of the client(s). If you are interested in learning more about how to make your warm-ups more effective to meet the demands of training and competition, or how to better organize what you currently do, feel free to contact me.