You agreed to play tennis this Saturday morning with your two closest friends. You’re a little nervous because it’s been a while since you lasted played and they’re regulars at the courts, so you decide to arrive a little early to warm up.
Besides shaking the dust and rust off your racket, taking the time to warm up is a fantastic idea for multiple reasons!
Why warm up before exercise?
While our muscles have the great ability to respond to changes in length and tension, they can get cold—both figuratively and literally speaking—if we’ve been sedentary, slow moving, or in a chilly environment whether for hours, days, weeks, or months.
Strains, sprains, and painfully sore muscles can be unfortunate causes of unprepared physical activity, especially for those with bone and joint conditions such as osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis.
Researchers have found that stretching before exercise has the following positive effects:
- Increases body temperature and blood circulation
- Primes muscles to attain their maximal range of motion, power, and coordination
- May improve the efficiency of how quickly your nerves fire signals to and from your muscles
- Allows muscle and connective tissue to be more adaptable to stress, absorb shock more efficiently, and prevent muscle injury
Interestingly, however, not all stretches are equal…especially when it comes to the type of exercise you plan on performing afterwards.
Let's dive into two kinds of stretches: static vs dynamic stretching.
What is Static Stretching?
Static stretching is what most people think of when they hear "stretch."
It’s the holding of a position that elongates a specific muscle or muscle group for at least 20 seconds.
Usually static stretches are in a seated or standing position, but the key is that you remain stationary (or static) throughout the duration of the stretch.
For example, the man below is targeting his left calf muscle by keeping his heel as close to the ground as he can while lunging forward. His calf muscle (scientifically called the gastrocnemius), receives the benefits of this stretch by being elongated for a period of time.
What is Dynamic Stretching?
This form of stretching is becoming more and more popular—especially for athletes before a practice or competition.
Dynamic stretching is an active method of warming up. Instead of holding a stretch at the end of its range (like in static stretching), dynamic stretches are full movements that typically mimic the those that will be performed during the game or workout.
One example is performing types of jumping or hopping patterns, like the woman below doing squat jumps. Performing repetitions of dynamic movements in conjunction with other active stretches, can warm up your upper and lower legs before an activity that involves jumping—like volleyball or basketball.
Which stretch is better?
We know, that’s not a satisfying nor definitive answer…but we can give you some scenarios in which researchers have found one to be more effective than the other.
- If you are an athlete… dynamic stretching may be the best option for you to warm up.
Multiple groups of researchers have not only found that dynamic stretches before a game or event not only improves muscle readiness, they have stated that static stretching can actually lead to impaired performance and sometimes even injury. (Check out these studies by Tsolakis et al. and Chtourou et al.)
- If you are looking to improve flexibility…static stretching enables you to target specific areas and achieve a deep stretch. In reality, dynamic stretching also improves flexibility. However, if you aren’t looking to warm up in order to play or perform and just want to increase range of motion, holding static stretches for extended periods of time achieves this goal.
- If you are wanting a quick warm up for your daily walk or jog…incorporating both dynamic and static stretching for 5 to 10 minutes can help get your blood flowing and your muscles ready for action.
- If you have muscular or joint stiffness…it’s always a good idea to check with your orthopedist or physical therapist (especially if you have a bone and joint condition such as osteoarthritis). In general, however, you’ll want to avoid doing intense static stretching of a “cold” or stiff muscle. In this case performing gentle dynamic stretches can provide a warm up.
The big takeaway
Our bodies don’t like to be thrown into intense or explosive activity. Unlike sports cars, we can’t go from zero to 60 mph in a few seconds.
Depending on the kind of physical activity you’re going to be doing and what your goal is, you’ll want to consider the type of warm up you’ll do beforehand, whether it’s a dynamic stretching routine, a series of static stretches, or both!