Ever notice the odd rituals that many professional athletes across all sports have in preparation for competition? This preparation is huge in baseball, for example. Think Garciaparra and how ritualized his at bats were. How about fighters? Many fighters slap themselves from head to toe or pace around the cage in predictable ways. And I can’t even begin to count how many powerlifters get slapped or scream at the bar to pump themselves up, and they always approach and the bar the same way every single time.
I’ve long been interested in this competition preparation phenomenon. First of all, it seems to help simply get your head in the game. In my strongest days I did pretty well on pull ups so I tested this. I’d always set my grip the same way, always breathe the same way, and always imagine the same things. It seemed to work, even if just for the placebo effect of it; I’d be able to do more with this ritual than I could without.
Is there something else behind this performance effect? A study published this month in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning seems to think there is. The researchers chose performance on vertical leap as a means of testing various preparation activities. What they found was very interesting.
The researchers looked at three different preparation strategies: a cycling warm-up, a dynamic stretching protocol, and heavy back squats. They looked at all three methods together and independently, and each improved both the performance of the vertical leap and also the activation of muscle tested by electromyography. The stretching and the squat improved vertical leap significantly more than the warm-up did all by itself.
Now this might fly in the face of how you prepare. A heavy back squat before training for a leap? Crazy! However, this effect seems to be because of potentiation of the muscles. That basically means your body becomes primed for the activity. Your muscles and nerves are more prepared for action. The potentiation is different from the possible psychological effect of a mentally priming ritual like opening and closing your gloves before swinging a bat. This would be more like GSP sprinting across the cage and leaping into the air before every fight. And if it works, then why not?
It appears then, the issue of preparation rituals is a complex one. From psychology to physiology there seem to be many factors influencing a warm-up. A review by the National Strength and Conditioning Association determined that not every ritual is a good one. In fact, the weighted bat warm-up seems to only lead to high bat velocities when it’s similar in weight to the game bat. Otherwise, the swing velocities of the players studied may actually decrease as compared to no warm-up at all.
One this is for certain, a ritual in general seems to help, but more research is needed to look at the nature of the rituals and why they work. Why does a heavy squat help vertical leap, but a heavy bat slows swing velocity? It may be because a bat swing is a more complex motion than a squat, and the vertical leap works only against gravity, whereas a heavy bat can actually change your swing mechanics. In the meantime, it may be a good idea to look at what you do to prepare for your sport or your gym training and see if changing up your ritual a bit might help your performance in the long run.
1. Iain Fletcher, et. al., “An Investigation into the Effect of a Pre-performance Strategy on Jump Performance,” Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 27:1 (2013)
2. Coop DeRenne, et. al. “Effects of Baseball Weighted Implement Training: A Brief Review,” National Strength and Conditioning Association, 31:2 (2009)
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