A while back, I ran a poll about warm up methods and promised a follow-up article. You are now reading the follow-up article. I think most people are vaguely aware of the importance of warming up prior to engaging in demanding physical activities. Properly warming up prepares the body to operate beyond its usual ranges - and pushing beyond our comfort zones is necessary in order to improve our skills. Taido being an especially dynamic (and sometimes gymnastic) martial art, we need to make sure that our bodies are ready to handle our jumps, twists, and slides. I'm not going to worry too much about convincing you of the importance of warming up, because I think it's pretty obvious. Most Taido practices include some sort of warm-up, and almost anything is certainly better than nothing. However, I want to discus various methods for warming up and give some suggestions for warm-ups specifically geared for Taido students.
Begin with the End in Mind
Before I start listing my recommendations, I want to take a second to outline what I believe a warm-up routine should accomplish. Without having a clear goal, it's difficult to be sure that we have achieved it. Unfortunately, I get the idea that many students don't know exactly what they should be getting out of a warm-up. I say this because, in the few moments after the group warm-up in most classes I watch, students tend to stand around instead of continuing to prepare. You can never be too prepared.
So what is achieved by a good warm-up? In essence, the result of a good warm-up is that the body and mind are ready for action. The muscles are warm, loose, and fueled. The joints are lubricated and mobile throughout their ranges of motion. The nervous system is aroused and tuned. The mind is clear and present.
I can think of several indicators of body/mind action-readiness: an elevated pulse (but not "pounding"); full, deep breath (not panting or gasping); just beginning to sweat; no pain/stiffness in joints or muscles; not thinking about work; colors appear bright, sounds are crisp and sharp. There are of course lots of other ways to tell that you are warmed-up, but these are the basic sensations of training preparedness.
I won't get into the neurophysiology of warming up because it's not really relevant here. Suffice it to say for now that the above guides address all of the important requirements for activating our best performances. Nutrition, rest, conditioning, and overall health also play a role, but these factors are beyond the scope of what we can hope to compensate for in a warm-up session.
Common Warm-up Errors
I want to start out by mentioning a few bad habits that tend to show up in warm-ups for martial arts practices. These points are not a critique of any particular routine, but cover various warm-ups I've seen in various dojo, printed in books and magazines, or posted online. Most of these routines are not necessarily bad, but they tend to be lacking in one aspect or another. Here are a few common mistakes as they come off the top of my head:
Excessive Static Stretching
This is the biggie. Most martial arts warm-ups I've witnessed include static stretches. As the name implies, static stretches are any stretching exercises in which the body is held in one position for a period of time. An example of a static stretch routine would be the standard "sit down on the floor and touch your toes," etc. we have traditionally done in American Taido.
These kinds of stretches are not bad in and of themselves, but they are contraindicated for warming up. For one thing, our muscles cannot stretch to their maximum until they are totally warm (and until the central nervous system is fully activated - the explanation of this can be really complicated, but just take my word for it for now). In many warm-up routines, stretches are preceded by only a few minutes of jogging and calisthenics - this is not nearly enough time to prepare the muscles for static stretching.
For another thing, studies show that static stretches temporarily reduce the elasticity of the muscles. This is a bad thing because, when we kick and move, we need our muscles to gradually slow as they reach the ends of their ranges. Otherwise, we risk pulling muscles and tearing ligature. Several studies have shown that there is a higher incidence of strains and sprains for athletes who performed static stretches in their warm-ups.
In the past, it was believed that any stretching was better than none, but now we have evidence suggesting that what stretches we do and when we do them has an impact on our health and performance. Though our warm-up static stretching is a tradition, it is potentially dangerous. Let's please drop them from our warm-ups.
So when should we do static stretches? At the end of our practice, when our muscles are as warm and loose as they are ever going to be, and after we have finished moving them quickly at extreme ranges.
Not Enough Dynamic Stretching
Even though static stretches are best reserved for cool-down, we should include some stretching in our warm-ups. Specifically, we should do more dynamic stretching.
Dynamic stretches are stretches in which the muscles being stretched are in continuous motion. Examples are swing kicks, body twists, arm swings, and other movements that quickly stretch and release the muscles.
Dynamic stretching is a perfect match to the dynamic movements required for kicking, jumping, twisting, turning, etc. That are part of Taido techniques. It makes good sense to prepare the body for action by simulating the action you plan to perform. Performing dynamic stretching prior to a Taido practice is akin to slowly turning up the heat on a pot in which you cook a live lobster.
When performing dynamic stretches as part of a a warm-up, it's important to keep things gentle and relaxed. Don't start out swinging with full speed and power. Gradually build up to maximal relaxed range of motion over several sets of a few repetitions. This slowly relaxes the muscles and helps to "tune" the nerves that control the muscles' contraction and relaxation.
By replacing the standard static stretches with dynamic stretches, we can expect to improve our flexibility and reduce injuries like pulled muscles.
Doing Too Much
Sometimes, instructors get the idea in their heads to start off classes with a tough workout to get everyone "really warmed up." This is generally not a great idea. The purpose of a warm-up is not to make everyone tired, but to prepare them to perform at their best. Doing too much in a warm-up prepares students to be too tired to practice well.
There are several ways to do too much in a warm-up, but the two most popular are to include a lot of strength exercises or endurance work in a warm-up. I've even seen instructors subject their students to long sets of fast techniques as a warm-up and call it "cardio." There are two reasons why this kind of stuff does more harm than good.
One reason is that we learn only what we practice. I learned as a child that half-assed practice made me very good at doing half-assed techniques. By the same token, practicing when we are already tired teaches to perform techniques as if we were tired. When our bodies are fatigued, we can't move at full speed or power. Fatigue also causes the nervous system to be less efficient, which reduces our reaction time, balance, and overall coordination/agility.
The other reason not to wear yourself out in a warm-up is that different types of practice (for example, strength, endurance, and technical) require different types of muscle recruitment and nervous activity. In general, it's best to do the most complicated/technical practices earlier in a workout. This is because the nervous system loses efficiency as we become fatigued. Technique/form practice requires a high degree of coordination, focus, and nervous control. As a result, we can perform this kind of practice better when we are fresh.
After technical drills, the next logical step is strength training. This requires less control from the nervous system, but still uses a lot of energy in the muscles. Typically, endurance work should be performed last, because the primary goal in such practice is to keep going - form and power are not as important.
All three types of practice work best when they follow a good warm-up. In a session that includes all three, the best sequence would move from warm-up to technical practice, strength training, and endurance training, followed by a cool-down and stretching.
In any event, the purpose of the warm-up is to prepare us for practice, not to make us too tired to practice well.
Not Enough Joint Focus
Mobility is not solely concerned with our muscles; it also requires the joints to be able to move freely. Specifically, we need to make sure that our full ranges of motion are available to us at any given time. For example, in a typical day, most Americans move their knee and hip joints through only a fraction of their possible ranges - forwards and backwards. However, Taido's movements require knee and hip movements through all three planes.
In order to adequately prepare our joints for Taido movements, we should try to move each joint through it's entire range of motion. This loosens up the joint a bit and also helps to lubricate the joint capsule by redistributing the synovial fluid more evenly. This increases mobility and decreases joint pain - both very good things.
Knee, ankle, and hip injuries are epidemic in the martial arts; almost everyone who practices a martial art for any number of years tends to develop them. Performing motions that may help to prevent these injuries as part of our regular warm-ups should be the rule rather than the exception.
Going Through the Motions
One drawback of using a set routine for warm-ups is that it's really boring. People memorize a set of movements and do them half-assed without paying the least attention to what they are doing.
Warming up is not only for getting your body ready, but a chance to prepare the mind. Focus on each body part as you move it around and be on the lookout for any pains or stiffness which may indicate an injury you need to take account of during your practice session. This is also a good time to remind yourself of your training goals for the session (hint: if you don't have a goal each session, you are murdering your potential for improvement - even if your goal is simply to memorize a new routine or make it through class without wheezing, you will see more results if you have a clear goal for each practice).
Don't waste time by warming up the body while leaving your mind someplace else. Since the mind controls the body, you owe it to yourself to bring your brain into your warm-up routine by at least being deliberate and conscious of what your body is doing.
Prescriptions For Taido Warm-Ups
Now that I've written about a few problems and explained possible solutions, I'll recap my thoughts on the ingredients for a quality warm-up.
- Engage the Brain
- Engage the Nervous System
- Engage the Breath
- Engage the Muscles
- Engage the Joints
If you've done all these things, you should feel aware, loose, and happy - not tired, stiff, or anxious. Even better than the pleasurable and positive feeling of being well warmed-up, all of your body-systems will be ready to perform at their optimum levels, and you'll be able to push yourself to improve.