Components of the perfect warm-up: What exercises to include
Updated: Feb 17
You’re missing a trick if you don’t do a good warm-up before you run or do sport. Not only does it enhance your performance but it also prevents injuries. In this article, I’ll discuss what types of exercise you should include in your warm-up, according to the latest research. You can read more about how warming up prevents injuries here. Remember, if you need more help with an injury, you're welcome to consult one of our physios online via video call.
In this article:
Warm-up Phase 1: Raise core temperature and increase cardiovascular activity
We've also made a video about this:
The components of an effective warm-up routine
The FIFA 11+ was the first warm-up programme that was found to effectively reduce injuries for young and adult players. A similar programme was tested with rugby players and was found to not only prevent muscle and joint injuries but also concussions.
These programmes have the following components in common:
The exercises are sport specific. This means that they’re not a one-size-fits-all. They use movements and exercises that actually mimic what happens in that sport.
It is athlete specific. The programmes start at an easy level for less experienced or less fit athletes and become progressively harder and more advanced as the athletes improve.
The warm-ups are done regularly. The researchers found the best results when the programmes were completed two to three times a week or before every training session and match.
They consist of three phases. Phase 1: Aims to raise your core temperature and increase cardiovascular activity. Phase 2: Aims to activate and mobilise your muscles, nerves, and joints. Phase 3: Aims to prepare you for performing at your maximum level. I’ll discuss this in more detail below.
Deciding on the right warm-up for you
When you design your warm-up programme, I suggest that you follow these steps to ensure that it’s right for you:
Step 1: Decide what range of motion you need for your sport, which muscles need to be activated, and what type of movements you should include. I’ll explain this in more detail below.
Step 2: How fit are you? Choose exercises that challenge you a bit, but that aren’t too hard.
Step 3: Do a warm-up before every exercise session. What your warm-up includes may vary depending on the activity that you’re about to do. For example, a high-intensity track session will require a different warm-up from an easy run.
Step 4. Decide if you need to include exercises that provide max effort prep. Only doing an easy run? You could probably leave this phase out.
Now that you know what you need from your warm-up routine, let’s take a look at what type of exercises you should do in each phase. I have used runners and rugby players as examples to demonstrate how the warm-ups should be sport specific.
Warm-up Phase 1: Exercises that raise core temperature and increase cardiovascular activity
The aims of this phase are to increase the body’s core temperature, heart rate, respiratory rate, blood flow, and joint fluid viscosity. This is achieved through easy, low-level exercise, e.g. easy jogging or cycling.
Making it sport specific:
Runner: Doing an easy jog may be enough.
Rugby player: Playing small-sided games or doing slow running drills may be more appropriate.
Warm-up Phase 2: Exercises that activate and mobilise
The aims during this phase are:
To mobilise your joints and lengthen your muscles to allow for the full range of motion that you need for your sport or activity.
To wake your nervous system up. This is done through any exercise that contracts your muscles and challenge your balance.
To activate your muscles. Which muscles are important for your specific sport? Choose exercises that contract those muscles.
The best exercises to achieve all of these goals are dynamic or active stretches. Dynamic stretches are movements that take your joints and muscles through their full range while also requiring you to contract your muscles. They often resemble the movements you would do as part of your strength training regime, e.g. squats and lunges. I've written a detailed article about the benefits of dynamic stretching, which includes exercise examples for the legs.
Unsurprisingly, researchers have also found that a warm-up routine that included these types of exercise had the added benefit of making the athletes stronger over time.
Making it sport specific:
Runners: It is mainly your core and leg muscles that you use when going for a jog. But if you’re doing sprinting, your arms and upper body will work much harder, and you may benefit from including upper body exercises, using bands.
Rugby players: They would include similar movements for their legs, but they should also include exercises for their necks, arms, and upper bodies. Examples include push-ups, side planks, and buddy-resisted neck pushes.
Warm-up Phase 3: Max potential
The aim during this phase is to take your body to the point where everything is primed to fire at maximum capacity. These are usually quick speed or agility drills and include plyometrics.
Again, this should be sport specific:
Running: If you’re just going out for an easy jog, doing some active stretches and activation movements as described above may be enough. If, however, you’re about to do the 100m sprint, you would have to include sprints, plyometrics, and other drills that fire your muscles at full power. Check out this quick warm-up that you can use before an easy run.
Rugby players: In addition to plyometrics, they would do things like shuttle sprints or quick direction changes, falling to the floor and getting up, etc.
How we can help
Need more help with your injury? You’re welcome to consult one of the team at SIP online via video call for an assessment of your injury and a tailored treatment plan.
We're all UK Chartered Physiotherapists with Master’s Degrees related to Sports & Exercise Medicine. But at Sports Injury Physio we don't just value qualifications; all of us also have a wealth of experience working with athletes across a broad variety of sports, ranging from recreationally active people to professional athletes. You can meet the team here.
About the Author
Maryke Louw is a chartered physiotherapist with more than 15 years' experience and a Masters Degree in Sports Injury Management. Follow her on LinkedIn or ReasearchGate
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