The warm-up is a crucial part of the performance puzzle for the squash player, and is a topic we devote a lot of attention to here in the content on the site, and in the sessions at our SquashSkills training camps.
A lot of the benefits from the warm-up are not related just to injury prevention as many believe, but can also help actually boost your physical performance. One way to really maximise that is through ‘muscle activation’, or ‘muscle engagement’ exercises.
The dynamic multi-directional movements that make up so much of the game of squash, place a lot of strain on certain key muscle groups. The lunging, turning, and rapid accelerations/decelerations that we make in a rally, all require multiple muscles to fire in set patterns and work together synergistically to optimise these on-court efforts.
It’s important before we go on court therefore, to consider how best to ‘prime’ those muscles that we’re going to rely so heavily on during the game, to help ensure that they’re going to be ready to work at their peak. This is where muscle engagement exercises are useful, to activate the muscles so they’re ‘turned-on’ and ready to go.
Now saying muscles need to be ‘turned-on’ may be a little bit of a misnomer, in the sense that no muscle involved in a compound multi-joint movement is ever completely ‘turned off’ and completely not firing at all. For optimal muscle activation however, spending several minutes at the end of your warm-up engaging and priming those key muscles ready for performance can be very beneficial.
Some of the best activation exercises for squash players to use to engage the key muscles specific to the game, are glute bridges, stability planks, and lunge variants. Tempo for these exercises should be kept relatively slow, really taking the time to squeeze the appropriate muscles at the peak of the movement.
1 or 2 sets of no more than 10 reps is usually sufficient, but you can experiment with this to find what suits you best – remember though that the goal is engagement, not fatigue.
These exercises are not meant to be especially taxing, but rather they’re designed to get the signals between your nervous system and your muscles firing effectively – think of it as ‘waking the muscles up’.
For more advanced athletes, there are several good videos from renowned sports conditioning specialist Mike Boyle on some single leg bridge variants, and mini-band exercises that are well worth a look as well.
You can see from those exercises mentioned, that most of the engagement for the squash player pre-match revolve around the muscles of the core and the glutes. Really focus on these areas as you carry out the activation exercises, to ensure they’re properly firing before you go into your game/training session.
For the healthy athlete then, activation exercises are best utilised as part of a pre-performance routine. The benefits of these exercises aren’t limited to just the warm-up however – a lot of the work that more progressive physical therapists do with injured individuals is also based around getting them to more effectively utilise muscles which aren’t firing correctly, which can sometimes be the root cause of injury.
Another benefit of muscle activation exercises comes from those training in a gym environment, with exercises such as deadlifting and particularly squatting. A lot of people are quite weak in their glutes, especially those who spend all day deskbound and inactive, so when they carry out these large compound lifts they’re not firing these muscles as well as they should. This leads to a far more ‘quad dominant’ squat, which further exacerbates the issue of the weak, inactive glutes, and sub-optimal muscle function. Being such a big, powerful muscle group, the glutes really need to be firing on all cylinders to contribute to maximum power and efficiency.
When it’s time to train or compete then, you want the body to be ready to perform at the highest possible level, with the pathways from the brain to the muscles through the central nervous system to be clear and smoothly communicated, to help facilitate maximum performance.
A good warm-up should incorporate a variety of different elements to ready the muscles for performance, focusing predominantly around mobility and activation – just basic ‘static’ stretching doesn’t cut it. Research shows some pretty significant performance enhancement with neuromuscular activation improvements, and some simple routines at the end of your usual warm-up prior to bouts of exercise can be very effective at improving this.
One of the great things about activation exercises is that they don’t take much time, usually no more than just a few minutes max, so they can easily fit into your warm up routine. They’re also generally quite simple to perform, and most don’t require any equipment – if you’re looking for somewhere to start, try our bespoke SquashSkills Pre-Match Muscle Activation Session.
So, if you want to optimise your warm-up and improve your game, take the time to get engaged!
B.Sc.(Hons), CSCS, NSCA-CPT, Dip. FTST
SquashSkills Fitness & Conditioning Director
Get your warm-up right!
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