Which One is Better Before Working Out?
By: Brian Schwager, Founder of the Wellness & Movement Center, CTP1, SFMA1, FMSC2
One of the biggest mistakes anyone can make is skipping warm-up exercises before a workout or an exercise class. Not only is warming up valuable, it’s essential and if done correctly it can reduce the chance for injury.
My motto is; “The more you prepare, the less you’ll despair”.
After years of debate, the fitness industry is finally realizing that prior to exercise active stretching or what I refer to as movement & mobility prep is a far more safe and effective way to warm up prior to exercise.
Defining Mobility and Flexibility:
Mobility is the ability of a joint to move actively through a range of motion. Muscle tension, tissue quality and how the nervous system controls the joint all come into play. Mobility requires maximally efficient motion performed on demand, in any direction, at any speed, characterized by smooth transitions between movements.
Flexibility is the ability of a muscle or muscle groups to lengthen passivelythrough a range of motion. The ability of a muscle or extremity to relax and yield to stretch and stress forces.
Numerous scientific studies have failed to prove that stretching is able to be maintained long term. The effect is only temporary and if you are trying to stretch a muscle over a joint that has a mobility restriction you are going to get nowhere fast. According to this research, runners run more slowly, jumpers jump less high, and weight lifters lift more weakly by stretching, without significantly ensuring against injury during their exercise. What really happens when you stretch prior to a workout is that you are actually relaxing the muscles being stretched. In addition, this also relaxes the nervous system.
In contrast; movement & mobility prep have the opposite effect, boosting blood flow, activating the central nervous system, and enhancing strength, power, and range of motion. As a result, they offer a host of both immediate and long-term benefits. It is based on movement and motor control. Your central nervous system will limit your mobility based on how much control you have as a way to keep your body safe. You could spend all day stretching to achieve a flat split, but if you can’t actively get into that position, consider your split only temporary.
“A good level of mobility allows a person to perform movements without restriction, while a person with good flexibility may not have the strength, coordination, or balance to execute the same movement. Good flexibility does not always denote good mobility”.1
Muscles require strength and stability in order to maintain this new-found range of motion. Performing mobility work is best done before you exercise. Motion is lotion, movements lubricate the joints allowing you to achieve greater ranges of motion more easily.
However, what you don’t know could do more harm than good and will lead to injury.
There are 2 major risks for injury.
- A former injury
- Lack of comparative flexibility and joint range of motion from one side of the body compared to the other. i.e. One hamstring tighter than the other or the inability to raise one arm up vertically over-head compared to the other. That’s why it’s important to get assessed prior to engaging in any work-out program, class, sporting activity or physically intense job.
An assessment should include; posture, joint range of motion, general flexibility and inner and outer core function. My motto is, “you have to be able to move well, before you move more.” This will help determine the client’s readiness for exercise and provide clues that could increase their chance for injury.
While stretching has its place, prepping for exercise and/or sports related activities with movement enhances heart rate and blood flow, and improves the function of the nervous system. This mobility prepping allows for the lengthening aspect of the muscle in what is termed as “active elongation” while at the same time contracting the muscle in the elongated position, creating a strengthening while lengthening.
Using the principles of reciprocal inhibition. Simply: Reciprocal inhibition is a neuromuscular reflex that inhibits opposing muscles during movement. The contraction part of this process activates the tiny stabilizer muscles around the joints, assisting and holding the joint together as the movement occurs. The activation of these tiny stabilizing muscles is very important in controlling motion and relates directly to the enhancement of the nervous system. As the nervous system becomes more responsive through reflex activation, all of this happens as an involuntary response when needed in dynamic motion. When this system is shut off for any reason over-compensation occurs, creating faulty movement patterns and later injury.
In the photo’s below; as I bring my leg up and across my body, the muscles on front side are contracting (in this case the inner thigh and hip flexor muscles) sending impulses from the central nervous system to relax the opposing muscles (in this case the piriformis or outer back hip muscles). Each one is held for 2 to 3 seconds. Prepping the muscles in this fashion creates an activation/reaction response to the proprioceptive system, a set of pressure sensors in the joints, muscles and tendons to maintain balance. Performing them on the ground is what I refer to as unloaded partially integrated2 as seen in Figure 1 and when standing I will use and loaded fully integrated3 as seen in Figure 2.
In closing; as part of your cool down, you should include static stretching. It helps to decrease, muscle soreness, increase local blood flow and decrease neural excitability. However, they must be performed correctly and be specific to your needs. Remember; all exercises are not created equal for everyone, don’t guess, get assessed.
- Crockford, J. (n.d.). Improve Your Stability and Mobility with These Functional Exercises. Retrieved July 2, 2015.
- Unloaded Partially Integrated, lying down on the floor with gravity and using various muscles and stabilizers together to prep the nervous system for activity.
- Loaded Fully Integrated, upright with gravity and movement provocated stretching which integrates the vestibular and proprioceptive systems and requires far more motor control.