Shtretching has been somewhat of a buzz word in the athletic performance community for some time now. Some love it and some hate it. As more people begin to investigate diverse ways of stretching and warming-up before a workout or competition, it has become increasingly noticeable that there are many conflicting ideas on the best way to prepare the body for competition or activity. Over the years, it’s become widely understood that flexibility, mobility, and the production muscular force are extremely important in relation to success as an athlete. As time has progressed, most findings indicate that stretching along with a proper dynamic warm-up prior to an athletic event are key components in improving skills and increasing the ability to perform. A few common modes of warming-up currently used include myofascial release, static stretching, and dynamic stretching.
By Edward (Tre’) Steward III
In addition to stretching, there’s also literature that shows the importance of preparing the body for performance through specific movements and stimulus. There are many schools of thought on which sequence is best to prepare, and each has its benefits. Rather than just using one of these methods, it may be best to investigate each style to reap all the potential benefits. However, while it may be wise to try each style, it’s also important to properly implement them as to optimize performance.
Static stretching is the most generic form of warm-up. In most cases youth and amateur athletes tend to hold these stretches for 10-20 seconds per stretch. Given multiple findings it has been said that an optimum range for static stretching is no more than 45 seconds per stretch. Holding a static stretch for longer than 45 seconds may decrease muscular performance. One 2012 study reported that “[s]tatic muscle stretches totaling <45 s can be used in pre-exercise routines without risk of significant decreases in strength-, power-, or speed-dependent task performances. Longer stretch durations (e.g., >=60 s) are more likely to cause a small or moderate reduction in performance.”
The next most common mode of warm-up among higher level competitive athletes would be dynamic stretching. Dynamic stretching has been widely accepted as the best form of pre-exercise/performance stretching given the current literature when compared with Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF) and static stretching. As discussed in a 2008 study, “both static and PNF stretching warm-ups have been shown to produce significant acute decreases in various maximal performances… the findings suggest that dynamic stretching may increase acute muscular power to a greater degree than static and PNF stretching.” In addition to this, a 2013 study claimed that “[a]cute dynamic stretching may also be effective in inducing smaller gain in ROM (range of motion) prior to performance without any negative effects being observed.” When looking back at the observed improvements the female athletes in the study exhibited in peak knee extension power, it helps explain why many strength and conditioning coaches prefer dynamic stretching as opposed to other forms of pre-performance stretching.
The third mode of warm-up utilized by athletes is myofascial release. This method has been shown to potentially reduce muscle stiffness and increase range of motion (ROM) of the fascia via compliance and extensibility. The most widely utilized method called self-myofascial release can be accomplished using a foam roller, percussion gun, or trigger point tools such as a lacrosse ball. On the other hand, a traditional myofascial release is accomplished through methods such as a massage. A 2020 study looked at the immediate effect of self-myofascial release. The study showed significant improvements in both joint flexibility and dynamic balance ability in athletes using post self-myofascial release.
Each of the three modes of stretching are important for warming-up before an athletic performance. However, the main improvements for the athletes would be increased ROM. For an athlete to be fully prepared for an athletic performance they must also include movements that activate the muscles that will be used. They must simulate the movement patterns that will be used and stimulate the central nervous system (CNS) to better recruit and fire the necessary muscles. According to a 2020 study, 51% of practitioners surveyed who program and/or prescribe resistance training exercises for high performance athletes also prescribed priming exercises. Moreover, 59% of the practitioners who prescribed priming exercises also prescribed the sessions to be done within 8 hours of competition. These sessions would include 2-3 sets of low volume, loaded, and unloaded, upper and lower body exercises. This would vary dependent upon the specific demands of the competition. Doing this for a brief period at a low volume prior to performance can prime the athlete to effectively respond during performance when conducting the movements and/or bearing additional loads.
This also eliminates the possibility of the athlete experiencing pre-fatigue or premature CNS peaking. It is important that the movements being utilized are specific to the activity or the response will not be as effective. For example, if a weightlifter did a warm-up for squatting, their body was physically primed to perform lower body movements. However, if the athlete is directed to perform strength testing on the bench press, the athlete’s muscles and CNS were stimulated and prepared for a completely different lift. The muscles that should be utilized for the bench press were mildly stimulated at best. Without the proper warm-up, an athlete is more likely to perform submaximal lift.
But what would be the optimal method for a warm-up routine? As a general guideline many say to start with the stretches that would utilize the least amount of effort but also increase the athletes ROM. From there, move into progressively more active and specific movements and stretches that simulate movements to be performed during the competition. A notable example of applying these findings to create an optimal dynamic warm-up can be found in Dr. John Rusin’s article titled “The PERFECT 10-minute warm up”. Dr. Rusin is a well-known sports performance specialist and injury prevention expert who is recognized as a “Top 50 Fitness Expert” in America by Men’s Health Magazine.
Dr. Rusin presents a 6-phase, dynamic warm up model. Phase 1 begins with 1-2 minutes of localized self-myofascial release. During Phase 2, which he calls the “Bi-phasic positional stretching”, he combines static and ballistic stretching to prep and increase the ROM of the body. This phase utilizes 30-45 seconds of ballistic stretching and moves directly into 15 seconds of a static hold. In Phase 3, Dr. Rusin incorporates movements that target weak points or dysfunction in the athlete’s movement and should be performed for 1-2 minutes. This helps prepare the athlete with light CNS stimulation while also promoting muscle activation and stabilization in the next phase. The focus of Phase 4 is activation of the muscles to be used for performance, to create a better mind-muscle connection to improve muscle recruitment, and force generation for the specific muscles required for performance. Dr. Rusin recommends 2-3 sets of 5-10 reps with 15-30 second rest periods between sets. In Phase 5, he dials in the specificity of movements with a focus on proper movement patterns with unloaded exercises that simulate performance. Dr. Rusin recommends working 2-3 sets of a 3-5 rep range. Finally, in Phase 6, Dr. Rusin emphasizes “priming” the athlete by stimulating the CNS with explosive and powerful movements to offer the body a manageable load, allowing for the athlete to adapt and “peak” when performing.
Overall, an optimal dynamic warm-up should incorporate most, if not all the techniques referenced above. Each individual form of stretching and performance preparation provide benefits to the athlete which, if done properly, will only improve their overall performance.
Diehl, A. (2014). Increase hamstring flexibility: Combination of self-myofacial release and static stretching programs. ProQuest Dissertations Publishing.
Harrison, P. W., James, L. P., McGuigan, M. R., Jenkins, D. G., & Kelly, V. G. (2020). Prevalence and application of priming exercise in high performance sport. Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport, 23(3), 297–303. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jsams.2019.09.010
Kallerud, H., & Gleeson, N. (2013). Effects of Stretching on Performances Involving Stretch-Shortening Cycles. Sports Medicine (Auckland), 43(8), 733–750. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-013-0053-x
Kay, A. D., & Blazevich, A. J. (2012). Effect of Acute Static Stretch on Maximal Muscle Performance: A Systematic Review. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 44(1), 154–164. https://doi.org/10.1249/MSS.0b013e318225cb27
Manoel, M. E., Harris-Love, M. O., Danoff, J. V., & Miller, T. A. (2008). Acute Effects of Static, Dynamic, and Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation Stretching on Muscle Power in Women. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 22(5), 1528–1534. https://doi.org/10.1519/JSC.0b013e31817b0433
Rusin, J. (2020, February 24). The perfect 10 minute warm up. Dr. John Rusin – Exercise Science & Injury Prevention. https://drjohnrusin.com/the-perfect-10-minute-warm-up/.
Zhang, Q., Trama, R., Fouré, A., & Hautier, C. A. (2020). The Immediate Effects of Self‐Myofacial Release on Flexibility, Jump Performance and Dynamic Balance Ability. Journal of Human Kinetics, 75(1), 139–148. https://doi.org/10.2478/hukin-2020-0043