For the past decade, most athletes and coaches have used dynamic stretching as preparation for training, but is it really the answer? John Shepherd investigates
Since the 1990s, virtually all athletes and coaches have used a variation of the dynamic warm-up, moving away from the plod-stretch-sprint ‘old school’ preparation that had been applied for decades. In the UK, we were relatively late to gasp the concept of warm-up dynamics.
I recall a coaching course I went on with former Soviet head coach and all-time great long jumper Igor Ter-Ovanesyan in the early 1980s. It seemed revolutionary at the time in that, on instruction to warm-up, before we could even start jogging Ter-Ovanesyan had us doing jumping jacks and star jumps and the like. This was something new and exciting and, in retrospect, an early exposure to the dynamism of things to come.
Why use a dynamic warm-up?
Well, it’s argued that it will best prepare the athlete physically and mentally for the activity that follows. Performing static stretches is seen to impair subsequent performance, particularly when it comes to jumping and throwing. Search sports science literature and you will find dozens of papers suggesting that static stretches should not be a part of a warm-up for speed and power sports, including sprints, jumps and throws.
In one such study, carried out on footballers, a number of static stretch protocols were used – for example, two reps of 30-second holds with 15 seconds passive recovery. Another group used a dynamic warm-up and another acted as a control.
Twenty-four hours later the players performed their dynamic tests (note – no static stretches were performed in the pre-test warm-up). It was discovered that the dynamic stretch group performed significantly better, for example, over 10m, 20m and 30m sprint distances.
Not everyone sees it that way, though. Dan Pfaff (pictured below) is one of the world’s foremost athletics coaches, coaching Greg Rutherford to 2012 Olympic gold and 2016 silver.
In a lecture, he went into detail about both the warm-up and stretching. “I have guys – and if they are restricted in a few key areas then we are going to stretch before we do the workout,” he says. “And our power output doesn’t go down – any of the stuff the literature says, I don’t see it.”
Now, some of you may well be getting a little confused. If one of the gurus of the sport is now recommending static stretching as part of a warm-up, does this mean that we should go back to the plod-and-stretch warm-up? Not exactly.
But it does suggest that controlled use of stretching can be included in a warm-up.
A stretch too far?
Many elite athletes still perform static stretches prior to racing or training – just take a look behind the scenes at a major competition.
Perhaps the mantra of no stretching in the warm-up has been taken too far. Stretching is a part of human nature – it’s quite normal for us to stretch, just like other animals. In doing so we are opening up our muscles and joints and readying ourselves for activity.
This logic transfers into the warm-up. If your back is tight, moving into dynamic sprints very quickly in a warm-up is likely to result in protest from your back. So if some stretching is okay, just how much is okay? Other sports science research indicates that it is the length and the number of static stretches in warm-up that are key.
One particular paper, published in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, trawled through more than 4000 relevant scientific articles and came up with 106 that met their standards for rigour and peer review, and which addressed “acute static stretch intervention on maximal performance”.
So what did the researchers conclude? “Clear evidence exists that short-duration acute static stretching (less than 30 seconds) has no detrimental effect, with overwhelming evidence that stretch durations of 30-45 seconds also imparted no significant effect,” they wrote.
Only longer static stretching, of greater than 60 seconds duration, is likely to have a negative effect on maximal performance. In other words, stretch whichever way you like – as long as it works for you.
One has to consider that sports science, although of great value, is often disengaged from the day-to-day life of most coaches and athletes. Studies are conducted in laboratory settings and clinical environments.
Results can be an aid to performance, but ultimately it is interpretation and application of the findings by coach and athlete that will determine what works and what doesn’t. The dynamic warm-up is here to stay, but in the way computer manufacturers update their software to advanced and hopefully better programmes, perhaps it’s time to review your dynamic warm-up and determine whether you can upgrade it to greater effect.
Including controlled, static stretching may bring benefits, after all.
DYNAMIC WARM-UP SCREENING
Dan Pfaff suggests a dynamic warm-up should be used as a screening tool. Watching the performance of sprint and other drills, for example, included in the warm-up can indicate whether a training-mature athlete has developing issues or an athlete immature in training years has issues that need immediately addressing, for example. Such issues help to identify the risks for injury and muscle and joint imbalance. It presents the warm-up in a new light.
So what should coaches be looking for when their athletes perform stretches and drills? Here are some guidelines.
These suggestions pertain to the use of sprint, agility and plyometric drills used within a warm-up. They also show the range of exercises that can be included within the dynamic warm-up, which are unlimited in their variety.
1. Lateral movement
Perform a short-distance hop or series of hops laterally. This exercise will throw up considerations for core strength (via glute medius recruitment, for example), ankle stability and proprioception.
2. Leg cycling drills (“dribbling”)
Viewed from the back, you may be able to discern a lean to one side, a weaker return phase on one side, undue lateral or core movement and an asymmetrical arm movement. Foot-strike issues can also be determined.
3. Travelling lunges
Lack of basic condition due to early onset of fatigue. Unequal strength or flexibility in terms of left leg or right leg forward lunge movement – one hip may be freer than the other.
4. Backwards running
Internal rotation through the ankles, knees and hips. Pay attention to where the feet are going. Are they pushing through the line of movement or working around it?
5. Skipping and take-off movement drills
Of numerous possibilities here are a few: lack of dorsi-flexion on the part of one or both ankles. Inability to ‘fire’ the hip into an advanced position. Greater power on one side compared to the other. Mis-timing of the strike and swing into each movement and poor torso position, arm carriage and head position.