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Warm-Up Don'ts


If you evaluate some of the exercises commonly used as dynamic warm ups, you would probably find it necessary to reconsider some of these movements and/or eliminate them from your programs altogether. In this article, I’m going to provide you with plenty of science and a solid rationale for why the following movements fail to promote proper movement patterns and, based on recent research, may actually lead to dysfunction.

The general concept here is simple. Instead of explaining what to do and why, I’m going to attempt to explain what not to do and why not to do it. As the great Bruce Lee once said, “It’s not the daily increase but the daily decrease. Hack away the unessential.”

Warm Up Don’t #1 – The Scorpion Twist

Truth be told, I have always thought that the scorpion was popular only because it looked cool. In my opinion, it feels very unnatural and has no real functional carryover. The fundamental flaw with the scorpion twist is that it requires the athlete to simultaneously extend and rotate the spine. This type of motion can cause stress to the spinal facet joints, according to Dr. Wolfgang Schamberger and Dr. Fredric T. In their book, The Malalignment Syndrome: Implications for Medicine and Sport they wrote: “The facet joint are stressed non-specifically on side bending, back extension alone and back extension combined with rotation to the right or left.” 

Facets are small joints that overlap like shingles on a roof, forming the back surface of the spine.

Iin the article, “Biomechanics of the Posterior Lumbar Articulating Elements,” researchers had similar findings: “Loads on the facet joints of the lumbar spine may play a major role in low back pain. Shear forces resulting from axial rotation and flexion-extension motions (compressive shear loads) are mainly transmitted through the facet joints. Although traumatic or transient shear forces will be resisted by both the disc and the facets, the disc's viscoelasticity causes slowly applied or constant shear loads to pass through the facet joints.”

This article than goes further into the types of pain caused by facet stress and compression, stating that, "Facet joint compression leads to at least three causes of back pain: spinal osteoarthritis; bulging and herniated discs; and nerve root impingement.” Because the nervous system is responsible for many other activities, the effects of facet joint compression are very wide ranging. And new research shows that facet compression injuries are a more common source for sciatica pain than the sciatica caused by disc rupture by a ratio of about 10:1.

With this type of evidence, it’s easy to see why the scorpion twist is a warm up don’t.

Warm Up Don’t #2 – The Prone Alternating Superman

The prone alternating superman is probably the most widely used exercise in the list. I have seen this exercise used by just about everyone in the health and fitness industry from sport coaches to Pilates instructors and even physical therapists. In the book Fact and Fallacies of Fitness, Mel Siff thoroughly describes why the prone alternating superman is a warm up don’t. According to Siff, "Since the lower extremities are heavier than the upper extremities, this can impose a torque or twisting action around the lumbar spine if the action of the extremities is not well synchronized, and instead of reducing any potential risk of hyperextension, it can add an element of rotation to the extension, thereby making this exercise less safe than controlled gradual simultaneous raising of the legs and arms. In fact, it’s not uncommon for this exercise to cause acute back pain and spasm.”

Although Siff advises that it’s safer to perform the superman exercise lifting the arms and legs simultaneously, he does mention that the superman is virtually a useless exercise with little or no benefit on back strength and posture.

In the past, I have had many healthy, pain free athletes complain about discomfort during prone extension type movements like the superman. This is due to the fact that many explosive type athletes tend to have a slightly increased lumbar curve (lordosis), even while following a well balanced program. 

With this in mind, having an athlete who is already in lumbar extension perform movements like the scorpion or superman is not only counterproductive but extremely risky.

Warm Up Don’t # 3 – The Windshield Wiper (or Hip Crossover)

This is another one of these exercise that shows up in just about every system of training as either as flexibility or as “core strength” exercise. I have even seen coaches overload this movement using a medicine ball between the legs.

I was using both the loaded and unloaded version of the windshield wiper until I read an article by Mike Boyle called “Is Rotation Even a Good Idea?” In the article, Boyle referenced physical therapist Shirley Sarhmann who, in her book Diagnosis and Treatment of Movement Impairment Syndromes, explained why movements like the windshield wiper contradict the biomechanics of the lumbar spine. According to Sarhmann, “Rotation of the lumbar spine is more dangerous than beneficial, and rotation of the pelvis and lower extremities to one side while the trunk remains stable or is rotated to the other side is particularly dangerous. During most activities, the primary role of the abdominal muscles is to provide isometric support and limit the degree of rotation of the trunk which is limited in the lumbar spine.”

Sarhmann then goes on to explain in more detail the rotational range of motion capabilities at the lumbar spine: “The overall range of lumbar rotation is... approximately 13 degrees. The rotation between each segment from T10 to L5 is two degrees. The greatest rotational range is between L5 and S1. The thoracic spine, not the lumbar spine, should be the site of greatest amount of rotation of the trunk. When an individual practices rotational exercises, they should be instructed to 'think about the motion occurring in the area of the chest.'"

Taking Sarhmann's advice, it is therefore wise to eliminate exercises that drive spinal rotation from the bottom up in favor of an alternative variation that is driven from the top down (shown below). This version is much more lumbar spine sparring and emphasizes rotation at the thoracic spine, which is better designed for mobility.   

Warm Up Don’t #4 – The Iron Cross

The iron cross is basically a more dynamic version of the hip cross over. The iron cross is actually the most poorly designed and dysfunctional movement on my hit list because it not only requires excessive lumbar rotation, but it adds a small element of lateral flexion to the mix as a byproduct of lifting the leg toward the opposite hand. Any qualified physical therapist will tell you that combined spinal lateral flexion with rotation, especially under load, will put you on the fast track to disc injury. 

Accoding to Kolt and Snyder-Mackler in their book, Physical Therapies in Sport and Exercise, “The mechanism of back injury in athletes is normally the same as in the general population (i.e., prolonged and or repeated spinal flexion, flexion and rotation under load).”

Siff agrees that the combination of lateral bending and rotation constitutes one of the most dangerous maneuvers for the lumbar spine. When explaining why rotary training exercises are much safer and more functional when performed in an upright position, he states, "A certain degree of compressive preloading locks the facet assembly of the spine and makes it more resistant to torsion. This is the reason why trunk rotation without vertical compression may cause disc injury, whereas the same movement performed with compression is significantly safer.” 

In case you’re wondering if the exercises covered so far can create enough force to cause any significant pain or dysfunction, take into consideration a research study by Kumar, Narayan and Zedka where they took 38 normal healthy young subjects (14 males, 24 females) with mean ages of 23 years (males) and 21 years (females) and performed 36 functional rotational tasks of the trunk. The subjects' lower extremities were stabilized in a stabilizing platform, allowing the entire motion of flexion-rotation and extension-rotation to take place in the trunk. Of these tasks, 18 were isometric and the other 18 were isokinetic. The isometric tasks consisted of flexion-rotation and extension-rotation from a 20, 40 and 60 flexed trunk in 20, 40 and 60 of axial rotation. The isokinetic activity consisted of flexion-rotation and extension-rotation from upright and flexed postures respectively in 20, 40 and 60 rotation planes at 15, 30 and 60 /s angular velocities.

The results revealed that the males were significantly stronger than females and isometric activities produced significantly greater torque compared to isokinetic efforts. The degree of trunk flexion was not significant. The angle of rotation, although significant, had only a small effect. The 60 trunk rotation was significantly different from 20 and 40 of trunk rotation.

Based on the results of the study, the researchers concluded that it was the motion involved rather than the torque that may have a consequential effect in the precipitation of back injuries. This clearly explains that dysfunction can be created by just by moving the spine in a non functional manner regardless of load. This is why it's imperative that we do our research and choose our exercises wisely.

Warm Up Don’t #5 – The Leg Cradle

The leg cradle is used by many sports coaches to develop mobility in the hip rotators by mainly stretching the piriformis. It’s basically a standing variation of the traditional supine pififormis stretch (shown below).

Another one of those movements I haven’t used much because I've never really liked it. I felt it was a hard movement to coach and thought it created unnecessary torque on the knee joint. Regardless, I kept giving the leg cradle a chance and used it on occasion until finally deciding to eliminate it entirely from my programs after attending a physical therapy workshop called "Diagnosis of Mechanical Dysfunction and Stability Retraining of the Hip" taught by Mark Comerford.

During the workshop, Comerford thoroughly explained why stretching the piriformis from any position (standing, sitting, supine, etc) with the hip externally rotated and abducted (as in the leg cradle) will actually do more to stretch the posterior lateral hip capsule than the piriformis muscle.

According to Comerford, consistently stretching the hip capsule in most cases is a bad thing because it can develop uncontrolled motion (i.e., instability). This type of instability can eventually lead to a number of hip dysfunctions such as hip impingement syndrome, which occurs when the head of the femur (thigh bone) butts up against the acetabulum (hip socket). In the process, the labrum (cartilage around rim of socket) gets pinched.

It was at that point that I realized something very important. I realized that both the leg cradle and traditional supine piriformis stretch placed the hip in virtually the same position as when sitting cross legged. What Comerford was teaching us went along with what physical therapists have been saying for years about limiting cross legged sitting as it can lead to hip dysfunction. Until then, I had never made the connection.

It was fairly obvious to me at that point that the leg cradle was a warm up don’t.

Putting the final nail in the leg cradle’s coffin is research on hip impingement by Dr. John C. Clohisy that states: “Improved MRI technology has made it possible to study [hip impingement] more closely. As a result, we now know that many people who have no symptoms have femoroacetabular impingement.”

This is very important to understand because it means that someone can actually have hip impingement and not even know it. What’s just as important to understand is that the first thing any qualified physical therapist instructs a patient with hip impingement to do is avoid cross legged sitting because it enhances the problem. So, by performing the leg cradle or the traditional piriformis stretch (which imposes the same forces as cross legged sitting), you could very well be promoting a dysfunction, and that is why these poorly designed movements should be eliminated from your program.

Can you stretch the piriformis muscle without possibly causing hip dysfunction? Yes. To help you better appreciate the rationale behind the stretching protocol I’m about to show you, you need to understand some basic biomechanics of the piriformis. According to Travell and Simons, "In the neutral hip position, the force vectors of piriformis action contribute to hip abduction, extension and lateral (external) rotation. It might be assumed that the hip must flex, adduct and medially rotate to stretch piriformis, but this is not the case. As the hip flexes, the rotation moment of piriformis such that by full hip flexion it becomes a medial (internal) rotator.” 

The transition point for this change in action is considered to occur at about 60 degrees of hip flexion. Because the piriformis, like all muscles, functions in all three planes of motion, it must be stretched in all three planes of motion in order to be lengthened effectively. If we look at the leg cradle, we can clearly see that the hip being stretched is in flexion, external rotation and abduction. 

The piriformis contributes to hip abduction and therefore is shortened in that position, which is why the leg cradle does not stretch the piriformis effectively.

In order to effectively stretch the piriformis as an internal rotator (above 60 degrees of hip flexion), we need to must place the hip into flexion, external rotation and adduction. You will see this occur in the protocol below.

Note: The below sequence displays how to stretch the right side hip.

Step 1- Assume a quadruped (all fours) position, with your right ankle crossed overtop the back of your left knee as shown below.

Step 2 – Place your right hand out to the side.

Step 3 – Shift your hips and shoulders toward the right until you feel the stretch.

Be sure to move your pelvis and shoulders together in rhythm while avoiding any lateral flexion or rotation at the pelvis and/or trunk. This helps you prevent any substitution patterns (such as lumbar flexion, which is commonly seen in the supine version) and build some awareness of spinal stability.

This stretch can be performed dynamically by moving the hips back and forth every one to two seconds, or it can become a static stretch by holding the position for 20 to 60+ seconds. (I use this hip stretch as a level one progression.)

Let’s face it, with all of the new training methods, styles, systems and opinions out there, it can be difficult to decide what’s really good... and what’s really good for nothing. Use the above philosophy, and that decision will become much easier.

References:

  1. Boyle, Mike. Is Rotation Even a Good Idea? http://www.StrengthCoach.com, 2007
  2. Clohisy, John. PhD. Clinical Orthopedics and Related Research Journal. Vol. 462 p.115-121. September 2007
  3. Comerford, Mark. Diagnosis of Mechanical Dysfunction and Stability Retraining of the Hip, Live Workshop. 2006
  4. Kapandji. Physical Therapies in Sport and Exercise: Principles and Practice. Churchill Livingstone. 1970
  5. Kolt, Gregory S. and Snyder-Mackler, Lynn. Physical Therapies in Sport and Exercise. Churchill Livingstone. 2003
  6. Kumar S.; Narayan Y.; Zedka M., Strength in Combined Motions of Rotation and Flexion/Extension in Normal Young Adults. Ergonomics. Volume 41, Number 6, 1 June 1998, pp. 835-852
  7. Sarhmann, Shirley. Diagnosis and Treatment of Movement Impairment Syndromes. Mosby. p61-62, 70-72
  8. Schamberger, Wolf, PhD. The Malalignment Syndrome: Implications for Medicine and Sport (2002): p. 244, Published by Elsevier Health Sciences.
  9. Serhan, Hassan. Ph.D.; Varnavas, Gus. M.D.; Dooris, Andrew. Ph.D.; Patwardhan, Avinash. Ph.D.; Tzermiadianos, Michael. M.D.; Biomechanics of the Posterior Lumbar Articulating Elements, http://www.medscape.com, 2007
  10. Siff, Mel, PhD. Fact and Fallacies of Fitness, p.36, 89. 2003
  11. Travell & Simons. Myofascial Pain and Dysfunction: The Trigger Point Manual. Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 1992