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Elements of the perfect warm-up

Updated: Oct 19, 2021

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. You can read more about the benefits of warming up in the first article of this series. In this article I’ll discuss what exercises you should include according to the latest research.

What should the perfect warm-up programme include?

In this article:

  • The elements of an effective warm-up routine

  • Deciding on the right warm-up for you

  • Warm-up Phase 1: Raise core temperature and increase cardiovascular activity

  • Warm-up Phase 2. Activate and Mobilise

  • Warm-up Phase 3: Max potential

The elements 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 found to not only prevent muscle and joint injuries but also concussions.

All of these programmes have the following elements in common:

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. The warm-ups are done regularly. The researchers found the best results when the programmes were completed 2 to 3 times a week or before every training session and match.

  4. They consist of 3 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 challenges 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 on that day. A track session will require a different warm-up than an easy run.

Step 4. Decide if you need to include exercises that provides 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 the different phases.

Warm-up Phase 1: Raise core temperature and increase cardiovascular activity

The aim of this phase is 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 slow running drills may be more appropriate.

Warm-up Phase 2. Activate and Mobilise

The aim during this phase is:

  1. To mobilise the joints and lengthen the muscles to allow for the full range of motion that you need for your chosen sport or activity. Dynamic stretches are best for this. Choose movements that also occur in your sport. If you choose to do static stretches, you should not hold them for long and have to follow them up with dynamic drills else it may switch your muscles off.

  2. To wake the nervous system up. Balance exercises are great to improve your position sense, but other exercises e.g. backward lunges may be a better choice as it’s a combination of an active stretch and balance exercise and also requires strong muscle contractions that wake the muscles up.

  3. To activate the muscles. Which muscles are important for your specific sport? Choose exercises that contract those muscles e.g. the bridge exercise is great for activating the glutes.

Unsurprisingly the researchers 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 you may have to include upper body exercises as well. I prefer to save time and do exercises that provide me with range of motion as well as nerve and muscle activation all in one!

Some examples include lunge walks (improves hip range while it activates the quads, glutes and hamstrings and challenges your balance), single leg deadlifts (develops position sense while it improves hamstring flexibility and at the same time activates your core, glutes and hamstrings).

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: They would do things like shuttle sprints or quick direction changes.

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.

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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