What is an appropriate warm up for sport?

A warm up is defined as a period of preparatory exercise in order to enhance subsequent competition or training performance.

But what is the most appropriate form of warm up and is the traditional version of a warm up the most appropriate in enhancing performance and preventing injury?

We all know that a warm up prior to sporting activity is important, but why? What are the benefits? The purpose of a warm up is increase blood flow to the periphery, increase muscle temperature, increase muscle and tendon suppleness and enhance co-ordinated movement.

Warm ups have traditionally consisted of aerobic exercise, followed by stretching and then by sport specific activity. Warm ups incorporating these three components are supported by numerous authors in the literature. However, much conjecture exists about the specifics within these three categories.

The most controversy exists as to whether static or dynamic stretching should be included. Static stretching involves passively elongating a muscle to the end of its range then holding (usually at the point of discomfort) for a period of time.Dynamic stretching involves whole body movements and actively and rhythmically contracting a muscle group through part of its range of movement. Examples of dynamic stretches include; hopping, jumping, leg and arm swings, sidestepping, high knees, leg kickbacks and walk lunge. Recent evidence has shown that dynamic stretching is superior to static stretching in improving performance. In fact some evidence points to static stretching having a negative impact on performance. Static stretching has shown to decrease strength, jump height, reaction time and balance. Pre exercise static stretching has also been shown to have no benefit in reducing injury risk. In contrast dynamic stretching often incorporated into a sport specific warm up has shown to improve concentric strength, agility, speed, agility and jump height.

The length of a warm up is also another area in which opinions vary widely. Specific time frames are difficult to provide because they are influenced by the sport undertaken, level of competition and age of the participants. Evidence has shown that warm ups focusing on an increase in body temperature have been shown to be more effective in reducing injury. However, fatigue is also a positive predictor for injury. So as general rule, the length of the warm up should be enough to achieve optimal levels of body temperature but not too long to cause fatigue.

The sport specific activity included within a warm up should involve similar body parts to those used within the sport. Therefore, coaches and trainers should analyse key skills and tasks performed during the sport and incorporate similar movements into the warm up.

Using the above principles a general warm up for sporting activity should include:

  1. A period of aerobic exercise to increase body temperature. E.g.: gentle shuttle runs, laps of Netball court etc
  2. A period of sport-specific dynamic stretching to stretch the muscles used in the subsequent performance. E.g. high knees, sidestepping, leg kickbacks, leg and arm swings, walk lunges, jumping and skipping.
  3. Sport specific movements similar to those used in the sport. E.g.: passing drills, shooting drills, kicking drills etc.

A full list of references for this article is available on request.

Joel Ames is a musculoskeletal physiotherapist and director at Restore Physiotherapy and Clinical Pilates in Kew. He is also a full time physiotherapist at Melbourne Football Club in the AFL.