Warming up and cooling down: how to prepare as a substitute

Warming up, substitute players & sitting on the bench

Substitute players, who warm up with the rest of the team but then proceed to chill-out on a bench before being catapulted into the game at a crucial moment, are a common feature of many team sports. But are these players putting their backs as well as their performances at risk?

That is the question a team of Canadian researchers set out to answer in a study of nine varsity-level volleyball players who volunteered to have their lumbar-spine stiffness measured before and after a 30-minute warm-up and then after a further 30 minutes of bench rest.

The results of this study were broadly in line with the researchers’ hypothesis that the athletes’ backs would stiffen up after sitting on the bench: in general, lumbar spine stiffness increased as a result of bench rest after warm-up, although this effect was seen only in extension and lateral bend movements and not in flexion or axial twist.

But the biggest surprise was the finding that the warm-up itself did not lead to a decrease in stiffness in most subjects. ‘Perhaps’, speculate the researchers, ‘the stretching at the end of the warm-up contributed to this finding. Even though the warm-up would have led to an increase in muscle temperature and a reduction in muscle viscosity, it has been shown that activity itself does not always result in a decrease in stiffness. Additionally, the stretching exercises provided participants with a chance to “cool down” as their body temperature returned to normal. This could have counteracted any significant effect that the warm-up may have had on decreasing stiffness.’

So what are the implications for athletes? ‘Because a period of extended sitting is common to many team sports, athletes and coaches alike should be aware of this stiffness change as well as the potential threat to low-back health and the possibility of decreased performance that may accompany this behaviour.

In addition, the researchers point out, sitting with a flexed spine – which is what people do when their backs are unsupported, as on a bench – is not only linked with disc herniation but is also an injury mechanism.

These results may be generalisable to other team sports, including football, basketball, rugby and hockey. And the researchers point to the need for further studies into the length of time on the bench required to increase stiffness as well as alternatives postures or tasks for ‘bench players’ waiting to play.

Med Sci Sports Exerc 2002 Jul 34(7) pp1076-81

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