Two major goals of an athletic warm-up should be to increase performance and decrease risk of injury. A warm-up needs to increase flexibility (to prevent injuries), and increase neural activation— an imposing term which basically signifies that your muscles are ready for high intensity activity. Unfortunately, most traditional athletic warm-ups start with a little light jogging and static stretching, which do neither of these things. The problem with these warm-ups is that they don’t get your muscles ready for the high intensity movement of competitive sports. Static stretching does nothing for active range of motion (see Sparta Point 1/28/09), and jogging does not help with neural activation. So what is neural activation anyway?
Neural activation can be thought of as the number of signals sent from the brain to the muscles when it wants them to contract (like a modem sending an internet connection). When the muscles are contracting with high forces and velocities, but are not receiving enough signals from the brain, performance suffers and risk of injury is high. The signals sent for jogging are much different than the signals sent for sprinting or jumping. To complete these higher intensity tasks you need your signal strength to be high (basically you need a high speed internet connection from your brain to the muscles).
So, an ideal warm-up will increase flexibility, as well as get your muscles and brain ready for high intensity movement. A new method that has been gaining popularity for increasing both flexibility and neural activation is been whole body vibration (WBV). WBV is currently being used in various health, rehabilitation and athletic performance communities. The reason it’s getting so much attention is that many bio-medical studies have reported beneficial effects after WBV, ranging from increased vertical jump height, to increased lower-body strength and sprinting speed. In addition to these positive findings, the greatest benefits of WBV could be its’ effect during an athletic warm-up. A recent study in the journal “Muscle and Nerve” reported that WBV increased muscle-tendon length (increased flexibility), and increased EMG activity (i.e. neural activation).
Sparta athletes use a WBV “climbing machine” as a part of their dynamic athletic warm-up. The WBV is applied by oscillating handles and platforms that can be moved in a climbing motion. The same WBV climbing machine was used in a recent study that was presented at the international strength and conditioning conference last month. The study found that the WBV increased flexibility in both the lower and upper body. The feedback from our athletes is that they feel “lighter” after their vibration warm-up. The reason for this light sensation is because of the increased neural activation. Their brains are sending more than enough stimulation to their muscles, their muscles are more “awake,” and simple tasks like walking feel easier. This is an indication that they are ready for more intense movements like sprints and jumps.
So what if you don’t have access to a WBV machine? Our athletes who are away at competitions do a warm-up that includes skips and full rage-of-motion movements (like lunges and squats). The skips require an athlete to deliver more force to the ground (better preparing them for sprinting and jumping) and the bodyweight lunges and squats increase active range of motion, helping to increase flexibility and prevent injuries.