Warm-up routines prior to exercise are a widely accepted practice by coaches and athletes, but there is little scientific evidence supporting their effectiveness (10). Moreover, the efficacy of warm-up routine is dependent upon the procedures and techniques used. The primary objective of any warm-up routine should include injury prevention (36), performance enhancement (17), and, last but not least, a “potentiation” of psychological values (28). An effective warm-up routine leads to performance enhancement notably through the manipulation of temperature-related mechanisms and through the achievement of such physiological effects as postactivation potentiation, resulting from an increase in neuromuscular activation (44).
Rhythmic gymnastics is an artistic sport, performed with technical apparatus (rope, hoop, ball, clubs, and ribbon). The purpose of its successful performance is to obtain a high score in competition. The evaluation of the routines is based on precision, originality, coordination to music and technical difficulties as jumps and leaps, balances, turns, flexibility elements, and waves (23,31). The international program of competition regards only female gymnasts. Achievement in rhythmic gymnastics requires high values of strength, flexibility and movement precision (12). Flexibility has long been indicated as an essential component of successful gymnastics performance (4,20).
Static stretching (SS) is an essential warm-up procedure used to improve flexibility and to achieve wide shape of technical elements requested by International Code of Points. The inclusion of SS as part of the warm-up routine has been commonplace in a multitude of sports (28,36). Static stretching could decrease the risk of injury by 5% in a typical 12-week muscle stretching program (37) and reduce soreness by 2% over the first 72 hours after exercise (1). Preactivity SS allows for improvement in the range of movement, if it is used with an appropriate volume load and intensity (43). Despite these findings, several previous studies established that acute SS had an adverse effect on various different maximal performances (31,32) and suggested that neuromuscular inhibition may be the mechanism responsible for muscular impairment, rather than changes in muscle stiffness (24).
Different types of sports require different levels of musculotendinous compliance. In cycling, jogging, wrestling, and boxing, the aim of optimal performance is to convert metabolic energy into mechanical work as efficiently as possible. These athletes need to be stiffer than those competing in gymnastics, in which case SS actually prove to be detrimental. Conversely, in rhythmic gymnastics performance, rapid force production through stretching may increase the conversion of elastic strain energy to movement, facilitating performance in a stretch shortening cycle movement (11). A previous study indicated that any type of warm-up had little real effect on jump performance in men or women (25). Research suggested that stretching prior to competition may not negatively affect the performance of trained women (39).
The purpose of this survey was to examine a variety of precompetition warm-up methodologies and to describe the common conditioning practices employed by the coaches who reached best results.
Experimental Approach to the Problem
We hypothesized that elite conditioning practices are used to attain better results than subelite and that elite coaches followed contemporary, scientifically based warm-up protocols. To ascertain which precompetition warm-up methodology is most convenient to rhythmic gymnastics optimal performance, we interviewed coaches of elite and subelite clubs, then compared answers to assess, through a comprehensive survey, differences in their warm-up routines.
A total of 150 female coaches (age range 25-45 years) of national and international rhythmic gymnastic clubs were questioned for the study. The interviewed coaches had been competitive athletes in this sport discipline. The Italian Gymnastics Federation (FGI) requires their coaches to have a certificated and specific expertise to prepare and accompany gymnasts at the premier leagues competition. The coaches obtain this certificate after passing 3 examinations of increasing level. Coaches training, education, and examination were organized by the FGI in collaboration with the Movement Sciences University.
The sample was divided into elite (n = 60) and subelite (n = 90) coaches according to technical level of their clubs (Table 1). Participants were coaches of 3 different categories of gymnasts: prejunior category (age range 8-11 years), junior category (age range 12-16 years), and senior category (age >16 years). Elite gymnast competitions are based on 4 compulsory apparatus performances, with a technical level more difficult than subelite. Subelite competitions are based on a simplified program on one or two apparatus. Questionnaire asked about junior and senior precompetition warm-up. Elite clubs took part in premiere leagues of the Italian Championships in the last 4 years and/or in international tournaments. Subelite clubs took part only in national competitions, in the second and third national divisions.
We developed a questionnaire that asked the coaches information about precompetition warm-up in rhythmic gymnastics. The survey, composed of 13 questions, was divided into different areas of inquiry, including demographics and background information. The questionnaire contained items related to warm-up organization prior to competition. The questionnaire collected self-report information about the following: demographics (age, sex, nationality); club's technical level and coach's gymnastics experience; warm-up behaviors (participation in warm-up prior to competition, description of warm-up phases and their length, length of whole warm-up); and warm-up structure (warm-up phases' succession).
The survey was administered upon manager and coaches' approval from the clubs recruited. Prior to the beginning of the survey, all participants received introductory comments concerning the rationale for the study, the use of the data, and the issues and topics to be pursued. Verbal instructions on how to complete the questionnaire were given. Signed informed consent was requested prior to data collection. The university's institutional review board approved all procedures of this investigation.
The following questions were addressed to assess warm-up exercises: duration of total preparation before the competition; duration of warm-up; rest time between the end of the warm-up and the beginning of competition; duration of the slow run before the warm-up; specific walking, rhythmic leaps or skips used during the warm-up; the use of passive stretching; duration and methodologies used; in which point in the warm-up exercises were active flexibility exercises performed by the athletes; analytic muscle strengthening; and the use of precompetition mental movements simulation (imagery).
All of the background information data was collected. For clarity, answer percentages were calculated. The sample was divided into two subgroups based on performance level (elite and subelite). Each coach was assigned to one of two groups which corresponded to her competition level: elite (international and national premier league) and subelite (second division). Data was analyzed using chi-square to verify significant differences between elite and subelite coaches' answers (p ≤ 0.05).
Elite gymnasts' coaches reported 6 training sessions per week instead of 5 for subelite gymnasts. Training session duration was almost 5 hours for elite and 3 hours for subelite gymnasts. A total of 49% of the coaches interviewed spent more than 1 hour to prepare their athletes for the competition, including 45 minutes dedicated to warm-up exercises. Elite clubs reserved more than 45 minutes for the precompetition warm-up; for subelite, this period was significantly shorter (p < 0.01) than that of the elite group (between 20 and 45 minutes) (Figure 1).
The time between the end of warm-up and the beginning of competition was more than 5 minutes for 68% of those interviewed, without significant differences between elite and subelite groups. The slow run was the activity of choice to begin the warm-up (96%). Significant differences between elite and subelite were found in the slow run duration (p < 0.01), shorter for elite. Lower limb power training, performed with specific rhythmic steps and leaps, was used by 94% of participants (duration 5-10 minutes) and the duration of this phase was longer (more then 10 minutes) for elite (p < 0.01).
Static stretching was used at the beginning of the warm-up by 50% of clubs up to 30-60 minutes before competition. In the middle until the end of the warm-up, SS was repeated and alternated with dynamic stretching (75.3%) and muscle analytical strengthening (98%). The duration of dynamic stretching was significantly (p < 0.01) longer for elite gymnasts (Figure 1). No heavy overloads were used by 70.7% of participants. Technical element warm-up, with and without apparatus, followed the free body training, for about 15 minutes (53.4%) or more (36.6%). Competition performances were repeated at the end of the warm-up by 92% of participants, and 67.4% divided the competition routine into parts. The duration of this phase was significantly longer for elite (p < 0.01).
Elite gymnasts used imagery during the time between the end of the warm-up and the beginning of the competition, significantly more than subelite (p < 0.05; Figure 2). A total of 79% of them performed their routines mentally. Data are reported in Tables 2 and 3.
Precompetition warm-up has received recent attention in rhythmic gymnastics. Despite limited scientific evidence supporting the effectiveness of different warm-up methodologies (5,9,30), warm-up prior to competition is a common practice, widely accepted by coaches and athletes (28). Rhythmic gymnastics is classified as a sport requiring intermediate maximal effort for >10 seconds but <5 minutes. To maximize performance in this type of sports activity, several scientific studies recommended that the warm-up be structured with such factor as duration (10-20 minutes), intensity (60-70% O2max), and an appropriate recovery period not longer than 5 minutes (8,9,35).
The purpose of this study was to investigate current precompetition warm-up methodologies used by elite and subelite rhythmic gymnasts and to ascertain which warm-up is usually performed by the most successful athletes, the elite rhythmic gymnasts. The overall duration of the warm-up is longer than the scientific investigation suggested (9), probably because gymnasts had to dedicate time to their “technical warm-up” apparatus training and technical element repetition, for example. (38). Moreover, well-conditioned athletes may require a longer and/or more intense warm-up to sufficiently increase muscle temperature (9), due to a more efficient thermoregulatory system (2). Finally, the warm-up, in this type of sports activity, closely mimics the actual routine to be performed in competition.
It was indicated that the most effective precompetition warm-up protocol is one that permits a great muscle vascularisation (23). The slow run was the activity of choice to begin the warm-up according with previous findings (5,19). Forty percent of elite gymnasts interviewed used overloads in analytic strengthening exercises to enhance explosive force production (13,26,44), alternated with active stretching in the central part of their warm-up. SS is the only way to reach such high levels of flexibility necessary in the performance of difficult technical elements dictated by rhythmic gymnastic programs. In rhythmic gymnastics, it used to be common practice to warm-up with SS right before entering the arena for competition. Recent literature has shown, however, that an acute bout of SS may cause acute impairments in muscle strength (3,7,15,31), jump height (41), reaction and movement time (6), all of which are necessary to perform the rhythmic gymnastics difficulty elements. Moreover, an SS protocol cannot replace the warm-up (6).
Ogura et al. (33) showed that a SS of short duration (30 seconds) increased flexibility and did not have a negative effect on the muscle force production. Despite of these findings, gymnasts performed SS more than 15 minutes (table 2), and this long duration could be detrimental for jumping performances. Nevertheless, the coaches of the most important clubs in Italy declared the use of SS more than 60 minutes prior to competition. It is well known that at 5-6 minutes of interval between SS and the beginning of the performance, the impairment due to SS goes away (15).
Active stretching was performed and alternated with analytic muscle strengthening to increase muscle temperature, jump, and flexibility (41) in both elite and subelite groups. The elapse of more than 5 minutes reported between the end of warm-up exercises and the beginning of competition is much longer than literature has recommended (15). After 3 minutes, the peripheral circulation drops to the basal level and after 5 minutes O2 returns to rest values (9).
The significant differences between elite and subelite gymnasts warm-up routines were the overall duration of the warm-up, which was longer and more intensive for elite gymnasts; in addition, the duration of the slow run, which was shorter for the elite group, was only used to begin cardiovascular activation followed by a higher intensity of specific steps and leaps in order to increase temperature. Another difference was that elite coaches proposed simultaneous active flexibility and technical element repetition (43%), while subelite gymnasts did a flexibility warm-up first, and then proceeded to technical elements practice with wide shape (72%). In this manner, elite gymnasts had more time to dedicate to other parts of aspects preparation than subelite.
Significant differences were found in imagery methodologies used by elite and subelite athletes prior to competition. Subelite gymnasts used more time to perform relaxing exercises before mental movement simulation. Elite gymnasts avoided relaxing exercises before competition; for this reason, the duration of this warm-up phase was shorter than subelite. These differences between elite and subelite coaches were due to their different technical preparation. Subelite coaches have still to complete their training and to pass the second and third examination required by FGI. Elite coaches, who completed their training, have also more occasions to see and learn new warm-up techniques in international context and competitions.
An ideal precompetition warm-up in rhythmic gymnastics would last about 40-45 minutes and would include SS exercises to be performed far from the competition starting time. In rhythmic gymnastics, a great deal time must be dedicated to the precompetition warm-up, more time than that dedicated to warm-up activities in many other sports, probably due to the necessary technical preparation that follows the conditioning warm-up. Technical preparation must include practice of the eventual routines to be performed and emphasis must be placed on concentration (34). The present study showed that choosing to perform analytic muscle strengthening exercises by reducing duration of the slow run at the beginning of warm-up routine (which ultimately is not the most effective way to increase muscle temperature), as well as using specific steps and leaps in place of run time, will result in an increase in overall competition performance.
This article describes warm-up precompetition practices of rhythmic gymnasts of the best national and international clubs. The results of this study indicated that high-intensity warm-up prior to competition alternated with active flexibility exercises (41), a new tendency of elite coaches, could be shared and extended to subelite gymnasts to improve their competition performance. A precompetition warm-up should last more than 45 minutes to prepare the athletes physically (2) and technically (18,38). Fatigue due to warm-up is a problem of untrained athletes (39); in fact, elite gymnasts who trained more than subelite are prepared to sustain a longer period of warm-up without having fatigue. SS should be performed 60 minutes before competition or more (15) to attain better jumping performance in rhythmic gymnastics. Rhythmic gymnastics coaches now have a source of data describing warm-up precompetition practices as they occur at the sport's highest talent level. Coaches at all levels can use this data as a review of precompetition warm-up practices and a possible source of new ideas. In addition to this new source of professional practice knowledge, researchers are encouraged to continue to empirically investigate aspects of an important and delicate phase of rhythmic gymnastics training.
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