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By Hazel Fish MSc BSc(Hons) CertEd(PCET) MCSP SRP AISTD DipHSW

The Warm-up... Why?

Whilst some injuries are true accidents in the sense of being unavoidable, many are the result of your body being unprepared for tasks that you have set it. There is an unwritten law among both élite athletes and casual exercisers that a warm-up prior to exercising is essential for any programme to be successful, and is an important part of prevention of injuries.

However, within the population of dance teachers and students there has been confusion in the past as to what that warm-up should involve. Many in the Ballet world have believed that the preparatory exercises at the barre constitute the warm-up, but this is a fallacy. The body needs to be thoroughly warmed up before any set exercises take place if they are to be carried out as successfully and safely as possible.

A good warm-up is a group of exercises performed immediately before an activity that provides the body with a period of adjustment from rest to exercise. It is designed to improve performance and reduce the chance of injury by preparing the dancer mentally as well as physically.

A warm-up should have the following beneficial effects:

•Increased elasticity of the muscle/ tendon unit.

This allows greater flexibility of the joints and reduces the risk of injury. Muscle elasticity is dependent upon blood saturation, therefore cold muscles with a low blood saturation are more susceptible to injury or damage. Think of muscle being like a blob of Blu-tack. When Blu-tack is cold you can stretch it so far and then it will snap. But when Blu-tack is warm you can stretch and stretch it and it feels gooey. So it is with your muscles – it is simply the warm blood rushing through the muscle that warms it up on the way past and makes the muscle fibres more elastic.

•Breathing becomes faster and deeper.

This allows more oxygen to be breathed in and more carbon dioxide breathed out.

•A rise in the heart rate.

This delivers more oxygen and glucose to the muscles for energy production.

•A rise in the internal body temperature.

Capillaries in the skin will dilate (open up) and you will start sweating as the intensity of exercise starts to increase.

•More efficient transmission of signals along motor nerves.

This allows quicker and smoother muscle contractions, so the muscles can react in a more co-ordinated manner.

•Improved proprioception.

There is a greater awareness of joint and muscle positions and movements due to improved transmission of feedback messages along the sensory nerves.

•Time to focus.

This means the dancer can concentrate on the exercise to follow, and if less distracted then is less likely to have an accident.

•Increased joint range of movement.

This is due to an increase in the extensibility of the tendons, muscles, ligaments and other connective tissues.

•Change from parasympathetic to sympathetic control of the autonomic nervous system.

The body moves from a state of relative rest to one of activity.

•Redistribution of blood.

Blood is diverted away from some areas of the body (e.g. gut) and into other areas (e.g. muscles and skin).

•Release of energy fuel from storage.

That is, the conversion of glycogen to glucose by the hormone glucagon.

The Warm-up... How?

A warm-up is necessary no matter how warm the environment. All the above benefits can be obtained by a warm-up routine that should include the following features in this order: -

•Gentle jogging, marching, skipping or similar rhythmical activity.

•Exercises of a steady rhythmical nature involving other joints of the body, such as gentle knee bends, arm swings, sways, trunk rotation, step ball change. None of these should reach end of range of movement at this stage so muscles and joints are not overstretched. Incorporating arm movements at this stage will accelerate the effects of the warm-up.

•Gentle stretches to the large muscle groups, holding each stretch for 10-15 seconds. An increase in flexibility through stretching may reduce the incidence of musculo-tendinous injuries.

•Balance exercises, such as standing on one leg, then being able to control bending and straightening the supporting leg and rising on to demi-pointe.

Make the Warm-up specific

How long a warm-up takes will depend on the age and fitness level of the dancer. A 5-year old would be exhausted if they had to jump around for more than a couple of minutes, but for a full-time student they would need to take 10-15 minutes to be fully warmed.

Interestingly, the fitter you are and the more often you train, the longer your warm-up needs to be to have the same effects.

The warm-up should be gradual and sufficient to increase muscle and core temperature without causing fatigue or reducing energy stores, and should not involve technical demands on the dance student.

Remember that the warm-up should be specific to the age and fitness level of your class, and also related to the activity they are about to do. A warm-up for a Tap class should have different elements in it compared with a warm-up for a Ballet class. Considering full time students, you should also adapt the warm-up to reflect what the following class is going to concentrate on. For example, if the class is going to concentrate on lifts in partner work then the males and females will need different components in the warm-up specific to their needs, and it will be different from a warm-up where the following class is going to concentrate on adage, or grand allegro etc.

One other thing to consider here is that if there are long rest periods in a rehearsal, or complicated costumes or make-up before a performance, the body might well lose the benefits of a warm-up carried out earlier.

What about a Cool-down?

Cool-down at the end of class is also beneficial. After working hard in class, it allows the systems of the body to gradually wind down towards the resting state rather than suddenly stopping. Interestingly, your body returns to its pre-exercise state more quickly if you perform light exercise during the recovery period than just stop.

A cool-down allows you to relax physically and mentally. It aids recovery and helps to prevent muscle soreness and injury.

(First published in DANCE magazine, Summer 2002 issue)