This is something that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. More often than not, dynamic stretches are met with hypermobility of some areas and consequential non-stretching of the target areas. My question is this: do dynamic warm-ups really prepare us to move through the range-of-motions that are required of us during a workout?
In many cases, probably not.
Disclaimer: this is not intended to be an assault on warm-ups such as the Agile 8 or other warm-up routines that have helped thousands of people improve their mobility. As with my recent post on carbohydrates, this is meant as food for thought.
I’ve written before about the idea of activating muscle groups before lifts. Specifically, I’ve touched on ideas like performing light glute, ham, quad, core, and upper back exercises before front squatting. But should we also perform lift-specific mobility exercises? Do we need to perform mobility on body-parts that we may not be directly using during the session? And the most pressing question: should we continue including dynamic stretches in our routines or should we save time by ditching them and using directed mobility/basic movement patterns to warm-up.
This is a scenario that I see all the time. Lifter A is a high school or college-aged athlete and, though he or she may not be officially hypermobile, instability in young/growing joints may lead to someone who appears hypermobile. So this lifter continues through their dynamic warm-up, only to compensate with extraneous movement in areas such as the hips, shoulders, or lumbar spine.
Though not performed under load, repeated excessive flexion and extension of the lumbar spine is thought to be one of the exact mechanisms of spine injuries. Excessive motion at the shoulder or hip joint can irritate the joint capsule and cause pain. But this doesn’t happen overnight. It happens when these motions are performed repeatedly for an extended period of time. These are the types of injuries that occur because of poor movement patters and postural habits.
But enough of the science-y stuff. Do we need dynamic stretches? I think the answer is no.
What Do We Do Instead?
But then what are the alternatives? Like I mentioned before, directed mobility and exercise-specific modified stretches. Let’s use an example: the squat. As a squatting warm-up, we might want to use a kneeling rockback type stretch as part of our mobility circuit. To better replicate a squat, maybe a prying drill or squat-to-stand. As we get further toward the actual squat on the continuum, maybe a squat with some sort of counterweight in the front, like a goblet squat. Beyond that, we could literally sit underneath a bar and allow the light weight to help stretch us into a deeper squat position.
Or let’s take a conventional deadlift, the starting position being difficult to get into for many people. We could start with three-plane hamstring mobility, as seen here. From there, we could incorporate an RDL type movement to help loosen up the hamstrings, maybe with a lightly-loaded bar in our hands to enhance the stretch. (Of course, this still requires that we maintain a stiff core.)
And the opposite could go for a sumo deadlift. We might start with a three-plane hamstring stretch, but move toward kneeling adductor mobilizations or even a kettlebell swing to get us better prepared.
But these suggestions only really address half the equation. I also mentioned the inactivity of the core in most dynamic stretches, leading to excessive flexion, extension, and lateral flexion of the spine. So we need to activate the core before we do anything else, right?
We can start with a quick plank or deadbug ciruit (Admittedly, I’ve been going nuts with deadbug iso-holds lately). To activate our rotational core, we might use a light pallof hold. To piece it all together, perhaps a Turkish Get-up.
Putting It All Together
When we combine these things with lift-specific activation exercises, we arrive at a 10-15 exercise mobility/activation circuit that we can complete in 5-10 minutes after our foam rolling is done. Here’s my example for a lower body workout:
- Foam roll quads, TFL, glutes, calves, hams, adductors, & lats.
- Kneeling rockbacks x10
- Kneeling hip flexor stretch x10/side
- Bench t-spine mobilization x10
- Three-plane hamstring mobility x5/side
- Three-way ankle mobility x5/side
- Band lat stretch
- Squat-to-stand x10
- Deadbug iso-hold x30 seconds
- Turkish Get-up x5/side
- Single-leg glute bridges x10/side
- Goblet squat x10
And here’s a quick example for an upper body day:
- Foam roll pecs, rhomboids, lats, & traps.
- Kneeling hip flexor stretch x10/side (because your hip flexors are super tight)
- Bench t-spine mobilization x10
- Band lat stretch
- Split-stance pec mobilization x10/side
- Deadbug iso-hold
- TGU x5/side
- Supine YTIs x10
- Forearm wall slide with shrug x10
- Pushups x10
- Chinups x10
And these are just examples. Some may need to ditch the complicated moves and stick to basic activation exercises. You could also combine these into one warm-up as your mobility improves and you need less work to attain the mobility required. Regardless, each of the mobility drills will target the selected muscle groups without demanding excessive motion from others.
The other thing about these extended warm-ups with activation is that performing some of the drills in the warm-up will save time during the workout. For instance, performing YTI’s 3-4 times per week as part of a warm-up eliminates the need to perform excessive sets during the actual workouts.
So the basic premise is this: foam roll, directed mobility, core activation, exercise specific mobility/activation. This is the order in which we should complete our warm-ups. In another way, you could say that we move from our floor-dominant movements toward our standing movements.
Maybe we like dynamic stretches because it helps us warm-up. We’re moving a lot more and it definitely gets the blood flowing. But why can’t we substitute kettlebell swings for our single-leg glute bridges in our lower body warm-up? A solid set of 20 will definitely warm you up. Or jump some rope for a few minutes beforehand. Stretches aren’t meant to warm us up, they’re meant to stretch us. We should be warmed up first.
Regardless, I think the reason dynamic stretches have stayed around so long is that they make us feel a strong stretch, but are dynamic movements really any different than ballistic stretches? Or has our definition of dynamic stretches gone awry so that what used to be dynamic stretches are now called mobility drills?
In my opinion, we should move toward removing as many dynamic movements as possible from our warm-ups. In the interest of time and client benefit, it makes more sense to focus our efforts on directed mobility so that we can actually help clients mobilize the correct areas before exercise.