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Dynamic Stretching: How to Properly Warm Up for Exercise

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Woman Practices Dynamic Stretching

When most people warm up before working out, they do static stretching. That is, they stand, sit or lie down while holding a single stretch for an extended period of time.

A growing body of research, however, shows that static stretching can actually decrease muscle power, performance and potential strength gains, and even lead to injury. As a result, healthcare and fitness professionals increasingly recommend warming up for exercise with dynamic stretching.

What Is Dynamic Stretching?

The key difference between dynamic and static stretching is movement.

“Static stretching takes your body to the point of a stretch and holds it in place. Dynamic stretches are focused on movement, specifically taking your body through a full range of motion in a controlled way,” says Brad Holtcamp, DPT, a physical therapist at University Hospitals TriPoint Medical Center. “As a result, dynamic stretching is the better way to prime the body for the movements it will have to perform during exercise and sports.”

“Dynamic stretches often simulate the functional movements that will be used during a workout or sport,” says Alisa Korn, DPT, a physical therapist with UH TriPoint Medical Center. “This type of stretching also triggers muscles to contract more efficiently and with greater power.”

The benefits of dynamic stretching include:

  • Improves blood flow and warms up muscles
  • Decreases muscle and joint stiffness
  • Enhances muscle and joint flexibility
  • Increases range of motion of muscles and joints
  • Can improve exercise/sports performance
  • Can help prevent injury

Getting Started With Dynamic Stretching

Dynamic stretching routines can be tailored for just about any type of physical activity. Extremely versatile, dynamic stretching routines can be customized to accommodate a person’s specific sport or exercise, age, strength, body shape, injuries and disabilities.

Here are some dynamic stretches that Dr. Holtcamp and Dr. Korn recommend trying:

“The World’s Greatest Stretch”

A great warmup for most workouts, this stretch gets its memorable name from the many muscles its targets all at once, including the hamstrings, glutes, hip flexors, quadriceps, calves, pectorals, shoulders, upper and lower back, and the obliques.

How to do the stretch:

  1. Step forward with your left leg and lower down into a lunge. Place your left hand down on the inside and next to your left foot on the floor. 
  2. Twist your torso to the left and reach to the sky with your left arm; hold for 15 seconds.
  3. Press your left elbow into your left knee and push it outwards; hold for 15 seconds.
  4. Place your left hand back down onto the floor.
  5. Return to the starting position and repeat on the other side.

Walking Lunges

Walking lunges can tone and strengthen your legs and glutes, improve the flexibility of your hips, engage your core muscles, and improve your balance and stability.

How to do the stretch:

  1. Stand with your feet hip width apart, take a step forward with your right foot, and then slowly bend both knees until your back knee is just above the floor.
  2. Stand up, take a step forward with your left foot and bend both knees until your back knee is just above the floor.
  3. Repeat this forward movement for the entire duration of the set.
  4. Begin with two to three sets of 10 to 15 repetitions on each side.

Walking Knee Hugs

This dynamic stretch involves taking wide forward steps, bending both knees, and lowering the back knee to the floor while keeping the torso upright. Walking knee hugs increase hip mobility while improving flexibility in the glutes and hamstrings.

How to do the stretch:

  1. Stand with your legs straight and your arms hanging at your sides.
  2. Kick one knee up high enough without causing discomfort. Grasp the knee with both hands and gently pull it in towards your body.
  3. Slowly lower your knee and repeat the movement with the other leg. Your body should mover slightly forward with each knee switch/step.
  4. Start off by trying one or two sets of 20 knee hugs.

Walking Butt Kicks

This dynamic stretch works the hip flexors, quadriceps, hamstrings and glutes.

How to do the stretch:

  1. While standing, bring your right heel to your glutes while grabbing your right ankle with your right hand and raising up on the ball of your left foot. Make sure your knee is under or behind your hip and not in front of it.
  2. Hold the position for 2 to 3 seconds.
  3. Drop your right leg while taking a long step forward.
  4. For a set, try 10 to 20 kicks per side.

Walking High Kicks

Also called toy soldiers, walking high kicks help increase hip mobility and improve the flexibility of the hamstrings and glutes.

How to do the stretch:

  1. Stand straight with your arms loose at your sides.
  2. Kick one leg straight out in front of your body while reaching for it with your opposite hand. Lower the extended leg back to the ground.
  3. Repeat with the other leg and continue to alternate legs as you walk.
  4. Start off by doing 30-second sets.

Inchworms

Great for warming up the entire body, inchworms stretch and strengthen the arms, chest, lower back, upper back and abs, while improving balance and core stability.

How to do the stretch:

  1. Stand with your feet shoulder width apart.
  2. Bend forward and place your palms on the floor.
  3. Walk your hands out as far as you can go while keeping your legs straight.
  4. Pause.
  5. Walk back up to your starting position and repeat until the set is complete.
  6. Try starting with two to three sets of 10 to 15 repetitions.

Air Squats

Often used to strengthen the thighs, glutes and core muscles, air squats can also be used as part of a dynamic stretching routine before a leg workout.

How to do the stretch:

  1. Stand straight with your feet hip width apart. Focus on keeping your feet in place on the ground and your core muscles tight.
  2. Extend your arms before you while you slowly bend your knees and push your hips back towards the floor. Lower your body as if you were about to sit on a chair.
  3. Lower yourself as far as you can go without becoming uncomfortable or until your thighs are parallel with the floor.
  4. Pause briefly at the bottom of the squat.
  5. On an exhale, reverse the motion by pushing through your heels to return your body to a standing position. Lower your arms back to your sides as you stand.

Side Lunges

Side lunges work your quads, hamstrings, abductors and glutes. They are a good for warming up the hips before exercise, stretching the inner thighs and improving overall hip mobility.

How to do the stretch:

  1. Stand with your feet placed flat on the floor and hip width apart. The toes of both your feet should be pointed in the same direction. Position your hands in front of your chest.
  2. Take a wide step with your left leg to your left side.
  3. Bend your left knee as you step outward, keeping your hips back. This should feel like you’re attempting to sit on one side of your lower body in a chair.
  4. Return to your starting position by pushing off from your left foot.
  5. After performing one set of side lunges with your left leg, do a set with your right leg.

Arm Circles

This dynamic stretch is an effective way to get your shoulders moving efficiently while helping to prevent shoulder injuries.

How to do the stretch:

  1. While standing, extend your arms straight out to your sides. Your arms should be parallel to the floor and perpendicular to your torso.
  2. Slowly start to make forward-moving circles. Make smaller circles first but gradually enlarge the circles over a period of about 30 seconds.
  3. After 30 seconds in one direction, reverse the movement by rotating your arms in the opposite direction for 30 seconds.
  4. Try repeating this cycle two to three times before activity.

Arm Swings

Great for warming up for running and jumping, this dynamic upper body stretch lengthens the rotational trunk muscles while engaging the hips and pelvic muscles through a natural range of motion.

How to do the stretch:

  1. With your feet spread shoulder width apart, stand with your spine straight, your head up and your arms extended to shoulder height at your sides. Face your palms downward.
  2. Step forward with your right foot and swing your arms around to your left side. Use only the shoulders to make the swinging motion while keeping your torso stiff and straight.
  3. Step backward with your right foot and swing your arms around to your right. Again, only use the shoulders for the swinging motion.
  4. Repeat 10 to 15 times per side.

Static Stretches: Great for Cooldown

Many people wonder: Should you abandon static stretching altogether?

“No, not at all,” says Dr. Korn. “In fact, static stretches are great to include in cooldowns after a workout.” A cooldown gradually returns your body to a pre-exercise or pre-workout state and helps you recover faster from the activity.

“Static stretching during a cooldown increases blood flow to muscles, which helps to reduce stiffness and soreness while improving flexibility and range of motion,” says Dr. Korn. “Also, as part of a cooldown, static stretches can be combined with lower-intensity dynamic stretches, walking, jogging, and even mindfulness techniques to promote recovery and relaxation.”

Dr. Korn also notes that some individuals should consult a healthcare provider before starting dynamic stretching or other types of exercise, including people with post-operative restrictions on their physical activity or other medical issues. Also, your healthcare provider may advise against dynamic stretching if you have a vestibular balance disorder or certain other cardiovascular and neurological conditions.

Related Links

Physical therapy at University Hospitals Rehabilitation Services provides patients with the very latest techniques and therapies to improve function. Physical therapy helps patients return to an active life after undergoing surgery or suffering from an injury or illness. This advanced physical therapy improves function, independence and quality of life.

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