Walk into any squash club, and you can see the various ways people warm up before. There’ll be the one person with the elaborate 30 minute warm-up routine consisting of stretches and touching their toes before they get on court to warm up the ball for the next 10 minutes. Then there are those who hit the gym for a quick interval session before arriving sweating and more than ready to play, and there’s the rest of us who do no stretching, warm the ball up for a minute or two before starting their game.
The question is: what is the best way to warm up?
A study from Florida State University in 2010 had two groups of volunteers do an hour’s run on the treadmill. One group prepared for the run by sitting quietly for 16 minutes, and the other group followed a 16 minute scripted static-stretching routine. Static stretching is how most people stretch and involves stretching a muscle to its maximum and holding it for up to 30 seconds. The second group’s performance declined significantly and during their long run, they covered a shorter distance than if they had sat down and not stretched at all. They also consumed more calories and oxygen than the non-stretchers. Researchers concluded that “static stretching should be avoided before endurance events” as it “may lower endurance performance and increase the energy cost of running.”
In a separate study by the University of Nevada, researchers found that athletes generated less force from their leg muscles after static stretching than had they not stretched at all. Other studies have found that stretching before exercise can reduce your strength in the stretched muscle by up to 30%, for a period up to an hour. Further tests done on basketball players found players who had stretched before a game were unable to jump as high during play as players who hadn’t stretched. The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research published a study in April 2013 concluding that stretching before lifting weights reduced muscles strength by upto 8%. Altogether, these studies found that pre-exercise static stretching is counter-productive.
In a study of runners, researchers found that those with tight and less flexible hamstrings tended to be the fastest, and used less energy than other runners running the same distance. Researchers concluded that having tight leg muscles allowed “for greater elastic energy storage and use” during each stride. Richard Cotton, the national director of certification at the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) uses the analogy of a rubber band to say that if a band is overstretched and limp, it doesn’t snap back when pulled and released. So if your hamstrings are loose, they can’t lengthen, shorten and snap back with each stride if it’s been pre-loosened.
But maybe you stretch because you think it prevents injury? Not so. Multiple large-scale studies of military recruits during basic training found that static stretching before marches and runs did not lessen the incidence of injuries. An equal number of soldiers developed an injury regardless of whether they had stretched or not.
However, you do need to differentiate between static-stretching (such as bending over to touch your toes) to a warm-up routine where you increase the range of motion in the joints that you’re about to use in the upcoming exercise, and literally warm-up the body. So for squash, you would either skip with a rope or go for a gentle run to warm up your legs, and practice your shots by ghosting to warm up your arms and legs. A study on golfers found that those who static-stretched before playing produced unremarkable drives, whereas those who warmed up with practice swings drove the ball 7% further and with 60% greater accuracy.
The emphasis here lies on ‘warming-up’ rather than exhausting yourself before you even get to the main exercise. Studies found on kayakers, cyclists and sprint skaters all showed the same result. Those who had a brisk session on the rowing or cycling machines tended to perform less well than those who did a gentle-warm up. So unless you’re in a sport where you need to be very flexible, such as ballet or gymnastics, there really is no need for static-stretching before exercise.
Don’t forget there is a psychological aspect to all this. If you’re the kind of person who has a lengthy and complicated warm-up regime, and you suddenly decide not to warm up tomorrow, it will affect you as you won’t be mentally prepared for such a massive change. It’s better to slowly change your current warm-up regime so you’re mentally and physically at ease with these changes.
So what’s the best solution? The best solution is a gentle sports-specific warm-up. If you’re planning a run, focus on warming up your legs. If you’re playing a racket sport, you need to warm-up your legs and our arms, so why not try a bit of ghosting, or lunge your way across the perimeter of the court? Your warm-up session should take no more than 10-15 minutes, if you decide to warm up at all.