Dynamic Warm Up Exercises – The Definitive Guide

In the past, athletes didn’t always to do dynamic warm up exercises. Back in ‘ye olden days’ of sports science, the 1980s, some pretty smart exercise science professors had the idea to stretch prior to exercise. The idea was simple: increasing joint mobility and range of motion would decrease the likelihood of injury. One great example of this comes from running, where groin injuries are rampant due to the stride of runner. Stretching before a run can give the extra range of motion to prevent pulling or tearing the muscle during exercise. And the idea of improving mobility prior to exercise is a sound one, but eventually exercise scientists started to notice a new phenomenon.

As noted in a paper by McHugh and Cosgrave, muscle strength and power decrease following even a SINGLE bout of static stretching. For a 100m runner, a soccer player, or a tennis player, these were unacceptable sacrifices and the result was an interesting dynamic. If athletes stretched, they had less muscle strength, but if they didn’t stretch, they had an increased risk of muscle strains. To the rescue came: dynamic stretching.

Dynamic Stretching Basics

Dynamic stretching appears to be the right balance between improving flexibility while simultaneously maintaining muscle strength and power. Let’s look at the basics principles of dynamic stretching:

Firstly, dynamic stretching is a smooth, consistent, and controlled movement through a joint range of motion. The goal here is to guide the body through its full range of motion to induce a response in the muscles where in the future they are more easily able to reach that same position. These stretches should be done after a conservative 5 minute general warm up. The classic analogy compares our muscles without a warm up to taking a rubber band out of the freezer. The rubber band is more likely to snap or rip right away than if we warm it up in our hands for a few minutes before trying to pull on it.

The warm up could consist of any kind of active movements that bring the blood to our extremities without any dramatic movement patterns. Some examples include a brisk walk, a light jog, or a short bike ride around the block.

Dynamic Warm Up Routine/Protocol of Exercises

The following exercises are an example protocol from a recent study on dynamic warm ups. We will discuss the study in more detail below, but it appears that moving through each of these patterns for each leg 3-4 times is sufficient to see improvements in flexibility. These stretches are illustrated by OpenSim models. Remember: smooth, consistent, controlled are the key characteristics to proper dynamic stretching.

Walking Knee Hugs / Walking Knee Raise / Knee to Chest

  • Putting your weight into the non-moving leg, lift your knee up towards your chest and grab it with your hands.
  • Continue to pull gently until a light stretch is felt.
  • This exercise works to improve knee to chest mobility.
  • Try your best to keep your pelvis and lower back from moving; focus on moving the femur only.
  • This is a glute stretch and should be felt in your butt.

Walking Quad Stretch / Walking Butt Kick

  • Putting your weight into the non-moving leg, bend your knee towards your butt and grab it with your hand.
  • Continue to pull gently until a light stretch is felt.
  • Try your best to keep your pelvis and lower back from moving, focus on moving the leg only.
  • This is a quadricep and hip flexor stretch, it should be felt above the knee or at the front of the hips.

Walking Leg Cradle / Standing Leg Cradle

  • Putting your weight into the non-moving leg, lift your knee towards your chest and rotate the foot across the body. Grab the lower leg with your hands.
  • Continue to pull gently until a light stretch is felt.
  • Try your best to keep your pelvis and lower back from moving, focus on moving the leg only.
  • This is a glute stretch and should be felt in your butt.

Hip Open Circles / Hip Openers

  • Putting your weight into the non-moving leg, lift your knee towards your chest and when it’s at 90 degrees, rotate the knee outward. Then bring the leg back to the ground.
  • This exercise is called “Hip Openers” because the hip is being ‘opened’ during the stretch.
  • There should be no ‘stretch’ here. The goal is to engage a variety of hip muscles to warm them up and engage them before further exercise.
  • Try your best to keep your pelvis and lower back from moving, focus on moving the leg only.
  • This exercise uses a variety of muscles from the hip flexors to the glute med and is a great way to get the hips loose.

Hip Closed Circles / Hip Closers

  • Putting your weight into the non-moving leg, open the working hip by rotating the foot outward, lift your knee up towards the side and when it’s about 90 degrees, rotate the knee inward. Then bring the leg back to the ground.
  • This exercise is called “Hip Closers” because the hip is being ‘closed’ as the main dynamic stretch.
  • There should be no stretch here. The goal is to engage a variety of hip muscles to warm them up and engage them before further exercise.
  • Try your best to keep your pelvis and lower back from moving, focus on moving the leg only.
  • This exercise uses a variety of muscles from the hip flexors to the adductors and is a great way to get the hips loose.

Straight Leg March / Toy Soldiers / Frankensteins

  • Reach your arm out straight ahead. Then lift the same side leg upward while maintaining a straight leg. Bring the leg back down and the corresponding arm. Complete the activity on the other arm/leg.
  • This exercise is called “Toy Soldiers” or “Frankensteins” because this is how both of them stereotypically walk.
  • There should be a light stretch in the hamstrings. Excessive propulsion of the leg can damage the hamstrings, remain in control.
  • Try your best to keep your pelvis and lower back from moving, focus on moving the leg only. It’s typical for people to tuck their butt under to get extra height, but this does not improve the efficacy of the stretch.

Forward Lunge / Upright Lunge

  • In a controlled manner, step forward and bend deeply at the front knee. Keeping the pelvis neutral and the back straight, either step back or forward to return to a standing position.
  • The goal of this stretch is to dynamically stretch the hip flexors on the front side of the hip of the back leg.
  • The stretch should be felt vertically along the front of the hip.
  • Emphasize keeping the pelvis and torso neutral.

Forward Lunge with Arm to Ground / Runner’s Lunge

  • Similar to the Forward Lunge, step forward and bend deeply at the front knee. This time, bring the torso forward and bring your hand to the ground. Either step back or forward to return to a standing position.
  • More flexible athletes may be able to get their elbow to the ground, but start with reaching the hand down.
  • This exercise stretches the adductor magnus, learn more about your adductors here.

Side Lunge / Groin Stretch

  • Put your weight into one leg. Lift the other and step to the side, bend the extended leg’s knee to deepen the lunge. Then return to a standing position.
  • This movement dynamically stretches the planted leg’s adductors.
  • Emphasize keeping the pelvis and torso neutral.

High Knees

  • While running in place, lift your knee towards your chest. Return the leg to the ground and continue with the other leg.
  • This exercise engages the hip flexors and improves hip mobility.
  • Emphasize keeping the pelvis and torso neutral.

Butt Kicks

  • While running in place, bend your knee towards your butt. Return the leg to the ground and continue with the other leg.
  • This exercise engages the hamstrings and warms them up for further exercise.
  • Emphasize keeping the pelvis and torso neutral.

Skips with High Knee

  • While pushing off with one leg, lift the opposite leg’s knee towards your chest. After returning to the ground, continue with the other leg.
  • This exercise engages the entire lower body and prepares it for further exercise.
  • Emphasize keeping the pelvis and torso neutral.

Considerations for a Dynamic Warm Up

Study Protocol

As I mentioned previously, this protocol was used in a study which focused on determining the optimal amount of time to spend on dynamic warm up exercises. The purpose of that study was to compare a few key characteristics between athletes who did not stretch, athletes who completed a 6 minute dynamic stretching protocol and athletes who completed a 12 minute dynamic stretching protocol. Essentially, the 6 minute group completed 3-4 repetitions of each of these movement patterns and the 12 minute group completed 7-8 repetitions of each of these movements. The control group completed the 5 minute general warm up then rested 12 minutes to keep the total time the same.

Study Results

The study then compared vertical jump height, flexibility, and muscular endurance for each group. The big takeaways from the study are as follows: 

  1. Vertical jump improved equally between the two active groups (6 and 12 min) while the control group vertical jump remained approximately constant relative to baseline.
  2. Flexibility increased the most for the 6 minute group versus the 12 minute group and the control.
  3. Muscular endurance decreased slightly, but not statistically significantly for the 6 minute group versus the control, whereas the 12 minute group was lower than the other two groups, but still higher than baseline.

The results of this study give significant insight into the optimal protocol for dynamic stretching. It appears a 6 minute protocol may be optimal for finding a good balance between flexibility and muscle endurance. It appears that as time spent dynamic stretching increases, vertical jump, flexibility, and muscular endurance characteristics improve for a period and then start to worsen at longer intervals.

The best part about this study is that it concludes that 3-4 repetitions of these 12 movement patterns is likely the optimal warm up for muscle endurance, power, and flexibility. The total time is only 11 minutes! There is no excuse for any athlete to not complete a dynamic warm up routine given the short time it takes to see dramatic improvements in performance characteristics.

Why do Cyclists Need Flexibility and Dynamic Warm Up Exercises?

Cycling is inherently a constrained sport. When we clip in, sit on the seat, and put our hands on the handlebars, we force our body into a specified position. Our leg position is dictated by the positions of the pedals and our upper body position is dictated by the preset distance between the handlebars and the saddle. It may seem intuitive that since cyclists do not move their joints through their entire range of motion, that flexibility may not be significant.

A skeleton riding a bike showing hamstring length during riding. A dynamic warm up exercise like toy soldiers can improve hamstring flexibility.
The hamstrings are lengthened at the bottom of the pedal stroke. Insufficient flexibility can affect cycling biomechanics and cause pain.

In reality, many cyclists approach their joint range of motion throughout the pedal stroke. One good example of this is the hamstrings at the bottom of the pedal stroke (6 o’clock). If the hamstrings are sufficiently short, they may become maximally extended while riding. A cyclist may compensate for this by rotating their pelvis backwards in the saddle or by rocking their hips back and forth. Day after day these compensation patterns start to fatigue the lower back and can cause pain and spinal issues.

Even on a single given ride, muscle fatigue can cause a decrease in muscle length and compensatory patterns can develop. One way to avoid these compensatory patterns is to improve flexibility. A routine of dynamic warm up exercises attempts to provide a short term increase in flexibility for a given event to improve performance and decrease instances of compensatory patterns.

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