Muscle Activation as part of a warm-up

At ABSOLUTE.PHYSIO we see a large amount of sports related injuries. A key aspect of avoiding these kinds of injuries is ensuring a thorough warm up is completed prior to beginning exercise.

The majority of those involved in sports participate at an amateur level, doing so as a hobby with local teams and  clubs, and as Physios we can think of nothing better to spend your time doing. However, often times in local sports settings, a lot of the keys aspects of a warm up pre exercise are lost.

We often see teams warming up with five minutes of light stretching and heading straight into the game, and whilst this is certainly beneficial, a warm up which involves not just simple stretching, but muscle activation work has been shown to not only reduce the risk of injury, but also to improve short term AND long term performance.

A warm up is designed to improve flexibility, nerve conduction rate, anaerobic energy provision, and elevate baseline oxygen consumption, as well as psychological elements, aiding in mental preparation for competition and ‘Tuning in’ in order to be in a focused state to achieve your goals. When we think about these kinds of expectations as our aim for a warm up, it becomes clear that a bit of stretching won’t really cut it!

Adding in sport specific muscle activation work, i.e. getting the muscle groups ‘firing’, doing the action they are designed to do, has a positive effect on performance and injury prevention, and despite the evidence behind this, it remains widely neglected within local sport.

A Simple way to think about applying this activation to your own practice is to consider which muscle groups you rely on for you sport. As part of the warm up, add some light activation work of these muscles into the routine, for example, if your sport involves a lot of explosive jumping movements, such as basketball or Gaelic football (among countless others), some squat jumps will successfully get your Glutes and Quads firing and prepare the structures of the muscles to work. This is supported by a study by Saez de Villarreal et al (2007) who applied this style of hip work to volleyball teams, demonstrating improvement in post warm up performance along with notable benefits in performance following long recovery periods

If a muscle has had a chance to both be loosened out with some stretches, and begin to work, ‘firing’, prior to beginning exercise, the performance during competition will likely improve, as we have began competition in the peak state for optimal work, rather than working up to that level during the opening stages of a match, race or competition.

A good record of staying injury free should be no reason to put any less effort into a warm up, as there are gains to be made regardless of personal history of injury. A study by O’Sullivan et al (2009) found improvements in both previously injured and uninjured hamstring flexibility in those undertaking a warm up pre sport.

The main thing to take from all this is that a warm up should include more than simple static stretching if it is to effectively improve performance and get the body ready for exercise. A study of Collegiate athletes by Brady and Lambourne (2008) concluded that static stretching negated the benefits gained from a general warm up in their study of vertical jump performance, again emphasising the importance of involving activation and dynamic stretching into a warm up routine.

In order to gain the most from your time warming up, think about the muscle you are preparing to use and get them working now, so they don’t have to play catch up once competition begins. We encourage stretching as a key part of warm up, but it’s important to remember that it’s not the only part!

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