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Why Some Warmups Aren’t Useful

As performance physical therapists in Bethesda and Chevy Chase, we work within a very knowledgeable and active community.  Our clients and patients understand the importance of warming up.

Warming up is commonly touted as essential for anyone wishing to avoid injury during exercise, performance training, or running.

We agree with this statement; however, warmup routines are often implemented in a non-productive way.

There is a time and place for everything, however this does not mean that you need to stretch, roll around on the ground, and perform “activation” drills prior to being ready for exercise.

In addition to increasing total body temperature, a warmup routine should prepare the body for the specific workout that is going to take place. For this reason, we call warming up “movement preparation.” The body is being prepared to move!

Movement preparation should include drills that train the skills necessary for the day’s workout. Many times, these drills will look similar to the exercises within that day’s work out.

If you are getting ready to run, perform activities that practice things necessary to run effectively. If you are going to lift weights, practice movements similar to the lifts you are going to perform (ie. If you are going to squat, then squat in your warmup!).

This advise applies regardless of whether you are healthy, injured, in performance physical therapy, or training for performance.

Below are 2 drills that we often use during movement preparation prior to running. Each drill practices single leg balance, the ability to shock absorb on one leg, and trunk rotation. These are all attributes necessary for running.

Single leg knee to chest
Forward lunge with cross connect

Furthermore, if you have been sitting at a desk for the majority of the day, you may need a more comprehensive warmup. On the other hand, if you have an active job requiring you to move in a variety of different ways then your warmup may not need to be as comprehensive.

Movement preparation is necessary, however it is essential to be purposeful, rather than mindlessly performing the same thing before every workout.

I wasted a lot of time stretching

My passion for the field of sports medicine and strength and conditioning began when I was 15 years old.

I was a solid athlete and football was my passion. At the time my dream was to play Division I college football. Although I was successful relative to my immediate peers, I knew that I would have to work my hardest to have any chance of getting to that level.

I trained hard and searched for every advantage I could find. I read books written by famous coaches, trainers, and athletes. One of the most common pieces of advice was to constantly be stretching.

Every morning upon waking, I would perform a 15-20-minute stretching routine. I would repeat a similar routine prior to and after training, as well as before bed.

I would feel more flexible for a short period of time after performing this routine, however, did not notice any improvement in my performance.

When looking back at this now I realize that I never asked myself one simple question. What am I trying to achieve by stretching?

I was simply stretching because people told me I should!

So, what are you trying to achieve when you stretch? Will stretching be helpful for you?

As with most things, the answer is that it depends.

A muscle will become stiff when it is consistently resting in a shortened position. This may be due to posture or a person’s daily activities. For example, someone that sits for an extended period of time is likely to have stiff muscles in the front of the hips.

Stiff muscles may also occur as a result of movement compensations or a lack of movement altogether.

Simply stretching a muscle without correcting the reasons it occurred in the first place, may result in a lot of wasted time. The first step may be to simply move around throughout the day. A simple walk to the water cooler can be enough to break up extended bouts of immobility.

Also, a muscle may become stiff in an attempt to protect against an injury. For example, those with chronic lower back pain often have stiff hamstrings as the hamstrings tighten to protect the lower back.

In this case, it is important to learn to protect the lower back with exercise. One of the first steps is to learn to properly “stack” the pelvis underneath the rib cage. You will feel your abs when you are “stacked” properly. Attempt to maintain this feeling during weight lifting drills.

Below is a great exercise to learn do just that! Have fun and let us know if you have any questions!

Heels Elevated Squat

-Dr. Zachary Cohen