Warm Up and Warm Down by Bobbie Drakeford

Advice and tips for keeping your body in excellent shape..


The Warm-Up

Exercises in a warm-up must focus on the muscles that are going to be used in the class that is to follow, to avoid injury.

Why do I need to warm-up, I am hot already?

The warm-up is not just to make the body feel warm, it is to wake-up the muscles making them more-easily stretched.Jogging alone will not do this. Wearing layers of clothes on top of practice gear during the barre work at the beginning of a ballet or jazz class is not sufficient. The body must be warm on the inside not just the outside before we even start the barre work. Some dance teachers would still have us believe the old fashioned idea that the first few exercises at the barre are the warm-up. This is completely untrue.


What does a warm-up do to the body?

  • It takes the body from a resting state to an alert ‘I’m ready for action’ mode. This should be done immediately before any movement or dance activity making the muscles longer, more elastic, therefore allowing joints to move more easily and consequently helping to prevent injury.
  • It makes the muscles warm and more able to stretch; the blood pumping at a faster speed around the body achieves this. A cold body with a sluggish blood flow through the muscles is more prone to injury.
  • It incorporates exercises that will warm the blood as it travels through the muscles, allowing them to soften and stretch more easily. Exercise and the blood work in the same way as the water in a car engine – it warms up the heater as the engine turns.
  • It allows the blood to be distributed more efficiently, re-routing more to the muscles and skin and less to the parts of the body that are not the focus of our energies, for example; the intestine or gut.
  • It gives the heart time to adjust to a faster and stronger beat. The oxygen and glucose will then be taken to the muscles in greater quantities. Oxygen and glucose are the fuel supply our muscles need to create energy and movement.
  • It makes the breathing deeper and faster. When we breathe down to the bottom of the lungs, we reach the blood vessels that absorb the most oxygen. More oxygen breathed in means more carbon dioxide breathed out, helping us feel more energetic for a longer period of time and less out of breath.
  • It helps to adjust the body’s temperature control. When we exercise the capillaries in the skin will open up making us look pink, then we start to perspire: as we perspire we lose heat, this is the bodies way of stopping us becoming too hot on the inside.
  • It gives our message carriers – the nerve fibres chance to build up to performance speed, carrying messages from the brain more competently, to muscles in the various parts of the body we need to use to perform particular movements. It will also cause the messages from the joints and muscles to travel back up to the brain more quickly and so keep it informed of what is happening within the body. If the brain senses that we are endangering our muscles it needs to be able to react quickly, by sending instruction to the muscle receptors telling them to take action to prevent injury.
  • It is a time to focus the thinking, causing us to go through each move with care, concentrating on how we are moving, making injury or accident less likely to happen.
  • If you are tired and hot at the end of the warm-up, then the exercises did not have the correct balance and were too vigorous. You should feel fighting fit and raring to go if your warm-up was well planned and to the correct time scale.


What a warm up should include:

  • Gentle movements that do not over exert or over stretch the body. Stepping, jogging, or marching to a steady rhythm. Isolated movements of the shoulders, hips, knee and ankle joints, such as arm swings, knee swings, ankle circles, gentle stretches, and exercises to improve posture and balance. (See the information on breathing and stretching).
  • The length of time the warm-up takes will depend on age and fitness, your teacher will advise you of the correct and most beneficial time allowance for you. The older and fitter you are the longer your warm-up will be. If you are young and less able, then a shorter time allowance will be needed.


The Cool-Down

This is a gradual slowing down to ‘Street Level’ to avoid cramps and spasms.

  • The exercises and movements involved are designed to disperse the lactic acid – a substance that builds up in the muscles during vigorous exercise. If this is not dispersed then we are more likely to suffer cramp (a painful muscle spasm). This is easy to avoid by taking care to gently slow down to the resting state – or as I have previously called it ‘Street Level’.
  • During or after the cool-down remember to replace the fluid lost through perspiration and in the tiny droplets of water in the carbon dioxide we breathe out during dance or exercise, by drinking plenty of water. The water will re-hydrate the skin and body tissues and again help with regard to muscle spasm.
  • The cool-down should include gentle stretches and exercises that should achieve the reverse of the warm up.


Breathing for movement and dance

This method has a different focus to the method used by actors and singers, and is a much more efficient and beneficial way of breathing on the move.

  • For dance the focus has to be on the back; imagine you are a fish with gills halfway down your back. By placing the back of the hands on the back with fingertips pointing towards the spine and down towards the waist. Breathe in; feeling as though you are taking air in from the back at the point where the hands are resting, the chest should expand sideways and backwards underneath the hands.
  • Try not to hold the breath when concentrating; this will lead to lack of oxygen in the blood stream which will mean that glucose is not being burned efficiently in the muscles, causing lack of stamina, breathlessness and ultimately tired muscles.
  • Breathing out must also be considered. Many problems with breathing occur because the higher abdominal muscles, muscles of the upper chest and the tongue are tense; this will inhibit the full exhalation of breath.
  • There must be a certain amount of release in the higher abdominal muscles and a softening of the upper chest when exhalation takes place so that the next breath can be taken. Even when at rest many students keep the upper chest and higher abdominal muscles too tense.
  • Think where the tongue is resting; it should be relaxed on the floor of the mouth, not pressed up along the roof of the mouth, if it is along the roof of the mouth this will cause great tension in the throat and neck, and therefore restrict the free flow of the breathing.


Stretching for dance performance

Stretching is a very complex subject and cannot possibly be covered in a few short paragraphs.

What we will try to do is simplify and put into order the most beneficial way to stretch the body, and hopefully eliminate one or two myths with regard to stretching.

One thing that must be understood is that stretching is not just a physical action; it is very much a mind-body activity. Always obey your body; if it hurts then resist the temptation to continue even if the person next to you has their leg way higher than yours. When stretching we must remember that as individual as our facial features are, then so is our physical make up, and just because one person can perform a split, it does not mean that by forcing you will achieve the same. Take it slowly and be ready to accept your limitations, if the muscles are over stretched then the joints will become unstable, leading to a whole catalogue of knee, hip and back problems.


What does stretching do for the body?

  • It creates greater muscle length over time
  • It diminishes tension in the muscles
  • It diffuses the build up of lactic acid, if done in the cool-down. Lactic acid can cause muscle spasm if not dispersed after vigorous exercise
  • It can prevent or ease muscle soreness, if the correct type of stretch is used
  • It creates long strong muscles, not unlike those of a racehorse (not bulky short muscles like a weight lifter)
  • It is a safety precaution to make the muscles more elastic and help prevent injury to muscles and joints
  • It is part of any physiotherapy session; therefore the correct type of stretch can be used as part of the treatment for injury


Types of stretches

Belonging to the family of moving stretches, e.g. lifting the leg in a controlled kick or grands battements and holding it there. Very difficult to hold for more than a few seconds but nevertheless regarded as a stretch.

A moving stretch that is not really a stretch at all, it is a bouncing action and NOT a good way of stretching. What occurs is that with every bounce there is a pull on the muscle fibres and given the speed of the action, this makes the stretch reflexes cause an involuntary tightening of the muscle fibres and cancels out any possibility of a long term lengthening of the muscles.
This type of stretch if attempted at all must be done when the muscles are very warm.

A moving stretch but a natural stretch, of the type you would do as you wake in the morning, or if you have been sitting in a car for a long period of time. This is also the type of stretch a newly born baby will do constantly in the first few weeks of life. The benefits of this type of stretch should never be under estimated. To gain benefit from this type of stretch it should be performed with so many repetitions without bouncy or jerky actions. Always stop stretching when muscles are tired, because a tired muscle is less elastic and working a tired muscle will make it have a short fibre memory, then it will be harder to stretch the muscle the next time you try.

A non-moving stretch that is achieved by resistance and the tensing of the stretched muscle. It is one of the quickest ways to increase flexibility and also helps the muscle to gain strength, e.g. if you are trying to improve kicks by stretching the hamstrings you would lift the leg and hold it yourself or enlist someone else to hold it, you would then push against the held position – in other words;

1. Get into position

2. Tense the stretched muscle for 6 to 12 seconds

3. Relax but keep hold for 12 seconds then repeat the tensing

The stretch works because you are stimulating the reflexes that lengthen, and in doing this you are overcoming the stretch reflex that will cause you to shorten the muscle.
This type of stretch should never be done on children or teenagers with growing bones and muscles, if muscles become overstretched the joints will become de-stabilised. Problems with knees and hips will then occur because the over stretched muscles are not stopping the joint being moved beyond the capabilities of its structure (rather like the problems that occur when there is natural hyperextension). Joint structure varies from individual to individual, therefore, to avoid damage, these stretches should only be tried when the bones and muscles have reached their adult length.

PNF Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitating
This stretch is made to work by encouraging movement in the muscle fibres. It is a moving stretch and is a combination of passive and isometric stretching. Originally this stretch was used to get dancers back into training after an injury.

The difference between this and isometric stretching is that the limb or part of the body is moved after the tensing phrase. The movement occurs at the time that the brain is still focused on the tensing phrase, the muscle does not have time to switch into shortening mode, this therefore gives time for the limb to be moved slightly to achieve greater length in the muscle without the stretch reflexes kicking in and making it hurt. This stretch can again be done alone or with a partner.

1. Get into passive stretch position

2. Tense the muscle for 6 to 12 seconds

3. Relax the muscle for only 2 or 3 seconds

4. Immediately increase the passive stretch, hold for 10 to 15 seconds

5. Relax for 20 seconds

This is not a stretch for small children and it is recommended that it should only be done once in a 36 hour period. What is actually happening is that you are training the stretch receptors to accept greater length.


Stretching is easier to do after a good warm up and if done in the correct order:

1. Upper and lower back

2. Sides

3. Arms then chest

4. Buttocks before groin

5. Calves before hamstrings

6. Shins before quadriceps

When embarking on a programme of stretching it is important to remember that if the move or exercise pulls or hurts the muscle as the movement or exercise is repeated, then this will set in place a short fibre memory within the muscle, and inhibit the action in the future. In other words, the muscle sends the message to the brain that it hurts so the brain responds by sending messages to the muscle to restrict the action.


Posture and problems in dance

Most people have postural problems to some extent. Unfortunately an imbalance of posture may not affect function in an obvious way initially and so go unnoticed. The time comes however when it starts to manifest itself in contorted movements and a distorted posture. Quite often this is brought about by developing a visual image of how a step or line should be achieved but not the correct technique to achieve it. This will establish a faulty muscle pattern that will lead to strain distortion and difficulty in performing the step.

The most important thing to remember is that good postural alignment, centre and inner strength are vital when performing whatever standard we are, and observation of the central point of balance is the only course for a successful performance whatever the subject.

Points worthy of note for good posture:

  • The importance of the distribution of the weight equally over the feet
  • Feeling the length of the muscles in the legs and buttocks
  • Being aware of lifting the abdominals and the diaphragm to allow the lungs to function
  • Feeling the navel being pressed back towards the spine
  • Feeling the length of the muscles from waist to neck equally at both the front and the back
  • Easing the shoulder blades down the spine and outwards away from the spine, not pinched together
  • Relaxing the shoulders
  • Feeling the length of the neck and the distance between the ears and the shoulders, not pulling  the shoulders down causing tension in the pectorals and strain in the neck
  • An awareness of moving the head from the base of the cervical spine, not from the atlas joint where the head or skull sits on top of the spine
  • Eye line and focus

All these points being noted, we then stand a good chance of being able to perform our dance or exercise with greater ease and cause ourselves less damage over time.