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Better Stretching Now: Why your current warm-up routine probably isn't working

08/10/2012, 3:35pm CDT
By Elliot Olshansky

Chances are, your current stretching routine isn’t actually helping you perform better or prevent injuries. In fact, it could be doing the opposite. But thanks to new research about “dynamic stretching,” you can change all that.

Chances are, your current stretching routine isn’t actually helping you perform better or prevent injuries. In fact, it could be doing the opposite. But thanks to new research about “dynamic stretching,” you can change all that.

Now, the word “dynamic” is nothing new in sports. Pairing this word with stretching probably is new, however, especially for parents who recall their gym class days, where stretching was something that involved being very still while holding one’s body in uncomfortable positions for 10 or 20 seconds at a time. But when it comes to keeping young athletes healthy today, increasingly, the notion that stretching must also incorporate some motion is an important one to know.

Traditionally, athletes have thought of stretching as pulling or pushing on a muscle and holding it for an extended period. However, recent studies have shown that dynamic stretching—the use of slow, controlled movements to stretch the muscles—is much more effective at preventing injuries and improving performance than static stretching, which can actually hurt performance in some cases.

For example, a 2008 study of women’s soccer players at Middle Tennessee State University found that players using static stretching techniques prior to a workout produced significantly slower times in a 30-meter sprint versus those players who didn’t stretch at all. On the other hand, a 2009 study of golfers at Dublin City University in Ireland found that golfers who used dynamic stretching achieved “significantly greater club head speeds” than golfers who used static stretching or failed to stretch at all. Perhaps most telling, another recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that the incorporation of dynamic stretching into a warm-up routine for female collegiate soccer players nearly halved knee injuries among the group.

So, dynamic stretching sounds great, but you might find yourself asking, "How do you do it?” The answer is likely to vary depending on the sport in question, because the best dynamic stretching exercises use motions from the sport they're being used to prepare for. However, a number of dynamic stretching exercises are effective in multiple sports.

In one popular exercise, the athlete walks forward with arms extended out in front at shoulder height and tries to bring his or her foot up to the opposite hand with every step. This is sometimes called the “Toy Soldier,” or the “Frankenstein Walk.” The carioca—a sideways jog crossing one’s feet back and forth in front of the other—is also useful for multiple sports, including tennis, baseball, and basketball. Warming up the cardiovascular system is also a key to dynamic stretching, so some form of jogging should be part of any dynamic stretching routine. (To view actual dynamic stretching routines, there are plenty of examples available online, including routines for soccer, hockey, basketball, baseball and nearly any other sport you’d care to name.)

There is still a place for static stretching in an exercise routine, however, but now it should come after a workout or game. In fact, studies have shown that incorporating a static stretching routine into the cool down phase helps the recovery process and improves the range of motion.

In fact, to drive home this new, dynamic-first, static-last, stretching routine among kids, the National Academy of Sports Medicine is spreading the word through a popular medium—video games. The NASM worked with video game company THQ during its recent development of the UFC Personal Trainer game, so that the exercise routines begin with dynamic stretching (including elements like the “Toy Soldier,” arm circles, and mountain climbers) and ends with static stretching.

So, if you’re coaching a youth sports team or just curious about your athletic child’s pre-workout routine, it’s worth looking beyond what you remember from your youth and learning more about dynamic stretching for warm-ups before practices and games. There’s still a place for the stretching you grew up with, but it’s not the place to start. It’s the place to end.

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Tag(s): Fitness