Warmup Myths

Richard Baldwin and Diane Fields

Bodybuilding for Baby Boomers

Page 1

Steve Reeves, who played Hercules in the movies, was the number-one box office star in 1959. The tall, dark and handsome actor caused an exercise revolution in the early 1960s, as people began to appreciate the weight-trained male physique. Warming up and cooling down by stretching to prevent injury and improve performance became popular with exercisers at that time.

Though the exercise revolution turned out to be short-lived, in the mid-’70s a new bodybuilding star, Arnold Schwarzenegger, came along to get it going again. The new fitness revolution that he began with his movies and best-selling books is still with us—and so is the advice to warm up before exercising and cool down afterward.

 I witnessed the beginning of that second wave. Young, tanned and all pumped up, with veins running all over my body, I used to make fun of the people who were stretching and running in place and using little bitty weights for up to a half hour to “warm up.” Maybe it was misogyny I had to outgrow, but it seemed to me that those people­—principally women—were wasting their time. They spent more time putting on their “uniforms” (tights with thongs or shorts over them, hair spray and headbands, ankle and/or wrist warmups, etc.) and warming up to work out than they ever did actually working out.

I’m not kidding. Some wouldn’t even bother with resistance training. They’d just walk on a treadmill while gossiping with the women next to them and then head off to lunch.

Some of those well-meaning ladies would warn me about my failure to warm up before I trained. How about you? Do you warm up before you work out? To begin this discussion, let’s find out where you stand on the facts of stretching to warm up. Are the following statements true or false? 

  1. Stretching helps athletes avoid injury.
  2. Stretching helps athletes perform better.
  3. Stretching leads to improved muscle performance.
  4. Strength training decreases flexibility.
  5. Yoga is a completely gentle and safe exercise.
  6. Stretching provides a great warmup for exercise.

They sound true, but they’re all false. Don’t feel bad if you answered incorrectly. Even professional athletes can be seen stretching before they work out.

How are ordinary people who are just trying to get and stay in shape supposed to know the truth if the so-called experts are behind the times? The fact is that new evidence demonstrates that stretching to warm up not only does nothing to prevent injury, but it may even cause injury. London-based physiotherapist Mark Todman agrees that there is no conclusive evidence that stretching protects muscles. “In fact,” he says, “you can make your joints more vulnerable by overstretching.”

Those who advocate stretching as a means of making muscles more malleable need to ask a simple question: How exactly is it supposed to do that? It won’t make the muscles more malleable—or increase the elasticity more—than stretching a rubber band would make it more elastic. The only way to do that would be to change the molecular structure. That’s just what resistance training does: It makes the muscles stronger and increases blood flow to them, which makes them more malleable and elastic, better able to flex the joints and increase the range of motion.

A major reason for the latter effect is that strengthening muscles helps stabilize joints. In fact, building stronger muscles helps correct the problematic joint laxity caused by overstretching tendons and ligaments during the very stretching exercises that are supposed to prevent injury.

The late Dr. Stanley Plagenhoef expressed that benefit well: “If the joints of an athlete, or anyone, are surrounded and supported by stronger muscles, then the chance of any trauma is reduced. If a joint in question becomes more flexible but without a corresponding increase in muscular strength, injury probability is increased.”

What really amazes me is that so many people, including coaches, doctors and university professors, used to proclaim that strong muscles made a person slow and inflexible.