By Mark A. Lisica
Physical Prep, more commonly known as a ‘Warm Up’, is one of the most significant pieces to an athlete’s performance and health (it is also among the most neglected).
♦IT IS IMPORTANT TO UNDERSTAND that there are one million and one ways to go about an effective warm up. This guide is not designed to argue one method over the other, but rather to show all sides relating to a quality warm up. This guide is intended to bring forth the scientific facts, dispel any misconceptions and show you how to make the most of your time and energy in a warm up for competition or training. It is my goal as a performance coach to not only hand you a fish, but to transform you all into fisherman.♦
Would you like to maximize your athletic ability and significantly reduce the risk of a sports injury? Then you should be focusing on a proper warm up.
Would you like to spend as little time and energy as possible in your warm up, while still receiving all of the benefits ? Then you came to the right place – this is the complete guide in showing you how to do just that.
I spent over 20 years immersed in the world of sports and the last 5 years coaching athletes. I take pride in improving an athlete’s performance, health and confidence. That is why I put this complete guide in helping you learn everything there is know about warming up for you.
Now, I always understood that warming up the body before activity was a good thing. I just didn’t always understand the best way to approach it. When I was younger, I had an issue that should have easily been corrected by a simple warm up routine but instead it hindered by performance. The issue pertained to my right hip flexor and both hamstrings, which would commonly tighten up when I needed it most. The team’s typical warm up routine (which consisted of only cardio and long held stretches) proved ineffective in correcting the issue, so I would typically come an hour earlier to stretch more. While the extra hour did improve the tightness, I felt I was wasting more time and energy than needed.
In hindsight, the problem was not of a lack in flexibility but in failure to address all of the stages required in an effective warm up routine. Once you understand the factors that play a role in performance and general athletic health than you can finally take the next step as an athlete.
In this article you will find the scientific facts that make for a complete warm up, while learning of the misconceptions and issues in the traditional routines and how to create an efficient approach so you can be at your best from the get go.
The Warm Up
I. What is a ‘Warm Up’?
The ‘Warm Up’ simply refers to the preparation an athlete takes to physically and mentally ready themselves for competition and training. It is a series of exercises, drills and movement patterns utilized by an individual to transition from a ‘RELAXED STATE’ to an ‘EXCITED STATE’ for optimal performance and health.
The major effects and benefits of a proper warm up is:
- an increase in body temperature
- an increase in metabolic chemical reactions
- an increase in the communication between the cental nervous system and the musculoskeletal system
- an increase in strength, speed and fitness performance
- an increase in mobility and flexibility
- a reduction in sports injuries
The traditional and popular model of ‘warming up’ consists of a light 5-10 minute cardio session followed by long held static stretches. This method is incomplete. Scientific experiments have concluded that this method is ineffective in improving performance and may increase the risks of injury.
A complete warm up should be done through the 4-stages:
- Stage 1: Activation
- Stage 2: Aerobic Activity
- Stage 3: Mobility
- Stage 4: Technique
While the order of these stages can easily be debatable, we find this order to work best for our athletes. Some warm up routines may be include an exercise or drill that meets multiple stages in one activity. More details will follow in chapters below.
NOTE: The warm up should be specific to the individual’s sport, conditioning levels and experience. Additionally the warm up should be done with heavy focus and proper form always.
II. Who, When & Where?
The warm up up is beneficial to any athlete looking to optimize their immediate & long term performance. If you seek any of the benefits listed above, you should take the time to complete a thorough warm up specific to your needs.
The warm up should be completed before game-time or a training session. Much of the same drills found in our warm up routines can also be used at a isolated times (away from sports) to help address movement inefficiencies, physical discomfort and focus.
The warm up should be performed in a location that will not potentially risk the athlete of an injury.
DISCLAIMER: The warm up is an exercise that should be done by experienced athletes or under the supervision of an experienced/certified trainer. The information in this post is for information purposes only. Always put focus and form above intensity and pride.
III. How To Warm Up!
Now is the time to get into the real fun.
Below you will find the details pertaining to the 4-stages of a complete and effective warm up.
STAGE 1: Activation
In order to move optimally and freely, the right muscles need to be firing and the right signals must be activating them. You are a computer – the body is the hardware and the mind is the software. The communication between them is imperative to higher levels of athleticism and fitness.
The 2 major systems at play here are:
- The Central Nervous System (CNS)
- The Musculoskeletal System
In the relaxed state these systems are cold and working slowly. Activation drills and exercises can turn these systems on to full gear. This can be done through deep breathing, static holds and dynamic warm ups.
Those who have short breathing cycles, or who are known as “chest breathers”, will have a difficult time in activating the diaphragm – a powerful muscle which lays the foundation to one’s overall performance and soft-tissue health.
The diaphragm is the large, odd-shaped muscle located under the rib cage.
Proper breathing techniques should allow for the pressure located in the thoracic cavity (upper spinal area) to be fully released when the diaphragm contacts (exhale). This will allow for air to properly enter the lungs on the following inhale.
The proper technique should see the mid-section expanding during the inhale, without the rise of your chest or shoulders. The exhale should see the reverse.
When done properly the diaphragm will be utilized appropriately in creating core stabilization and improving soft-tissue quality.
This method of breathing is natural, however over time through bad habits they are often forgotten as early teenage years. Look at any baby or child and you will see a proper breathing pattern, yet most adults I come across today are chest breathers – those whose chest rise on a inhale.
You can fix this problem by practicing the good habits. Start by taking notice of the way you currently breathe – during sitting, standing, walking and in sports. Follow the patterns explained above and practice them whenever possible to develop a new pattern. Remember that while a full breathing cycle is important, it is also imperative for you to
maintain a neutral diaphragm – meaning the pelvic floor and bottom of the rib cage are parallel to one another.
For a simple exercise to work on, try this for example:
- Tie a small string around your stomach. Tight enough to feel the tension but not tight enough to cause pain or discomfort.
- Lie your back on the floor, palms and toes facing up.
- Focus on taking a deep breath in using the diaphragm. The chest should stay flat and in position while the stomach and sides should slightly expand.
- Slowly exhale and let the core naturally relax itself thus relaxing the diaphragm as intended.
It is also important to allow the exhale to be longer in duration to the inhale. As you improve your mechanics on the floor, you may try the same exercise while standing.
We find that deep breathing practices are best to start any quality warm up with.
Once our breathing is in proper alignment we can begin to activate other significant muscle groups.
The next in line being “the core”.
Don’t confuse the core with just your abs. And don’t think that just because someone has a 6-pack that they have a strong core. A strong core is a foundation for athletic performance as it serves to keep the body stabilized even in movement or under a weight load or opposing force.
It is the main muscle to transition power throughout the body. The best way to activate the core is no through the traditional crunches and sit-ups. But rather static holds and anti-flexion exercises.
Static hold exercises include:
- Planks (all variations)
- Hollow Rocks
- Superman Hold
Anti-Flexion exercises include:
- Farmer Carries
- Body weight Hand Walk Outs
- Back Bridges
- Good Mornings
Select 1-3 exercises in each category. Complete a 3-5 sets/rounds of each exercise chosen. By completing these exercises properly you will be slowly activating the muscles required in the upcoming game or training session.
Dynamic Warm Ups
Performing dynamic warm ups will help activate the right muscles located around our joints and within our extremities. Something static stretching will not do.
That’s why it is important to go through a basic warm up that consists of our general movement patterns.
Start off simple and slow, working up to sport specific movement patterns and game speed/intensity.
We will dive more into our specific routine later.
Active Release Technique (ART)
ART is a state-of-the-art soft tissue system that helps improve problems with muscles, tendons, fascia, nerves and ligaments. These problems occur typically through overuse or poor movement patterns developed over time.
ART should be performed by a certified ART instructor. While the treatment is very interesting and proven to be extremely effective/efficient in preparing an athlete for higher levels of performance, it is a topic of discussion worth saving for another time.
The details involved would significantly increase this guide and so I will leave it for another time.
Conclusion of Activation & Stability:
Proper activation techniques can help improve movement efficiency, force development and the quality of soft-tissue.
When correctly done, activation will enhance range of motion and flexibility. You should one step closer to peak performance.
STAGE 2: Aerobic Activity
This is the stage in which the name the ‘warm up’ derives itself from. The thought was that aerobic activity will help increase the body temperature to help improve our performance.
While the effects were right, the science behind it was wrong.
For those interested:
The body does not actually warm up from exercise but rather cools down. Muscles release heat as a byproduct of work. The more work performed, the more heat released and the more the body needs to cool itself down to remain in a state of equilibrium. Muscles release heat by:
- the conversion of chemical energy to mechanical energy. A muscle can only utilize about 25% of its chemical energy, the excess becomes heat.
- metabolic reactions (during aerobic activity) also produce a lot of heat.
This heat produced by the activated and working muscle will cause the blood vessels in your skin to dilate – increasing oxygen and blood flow to the skin. The skin then serves to release this heat to the surrounding air.
So should the warm up instead be called the cool down? Let’s not complicate things.
Just understand that through aerobic activity we can help increases oxygen and blood flow to the muscles to kick start this very important stage. This is why non-active attempts (like a sauna or hot bath) at warming up our muscles do little, if anything, to improve our performance.
Here are some exercises you can perform to complete this stage adequately.
- Light jogging
- Jump rope for single/doubles
- Jumping Jacks / Military Jacks / Burpees
- Row Machine
- Biking / Cycling
- Sprints / Ladders / Plyos
The specifics of these exercises are left to the experience and condition of the athlete. The “trick” in completing this stage is to do it long enough where it can help you break a small sweat while not ruining your energy levels for the actual game or training session.
Generally speaking I tend to combine Stage II with Stage I to save time and energy. I will explain the specifics in later chapters.
Conclusion of Activity:
The “warming” of the body should be done through a light aerobic exercise to help deliver oxygen to the muscle tissue. This process will increase flexibility and mobility throughout the body naturally, which improving performance and decreasing the risk of a pulled muscle or other sports injury.
STAGE 3: Mobility
Most athletes tend to over-stretch during a warm up and neglect their mobility.
Remember my story from earlier before? About the extremely annoying hamstring that would tense up before my games. The problem wasn’t flexibility and it never was for me. Most people who experience this have problems more upstream of the body – at the hip. The muscles surrounding my hip joint (IT Band, Glutes, Flexors, Lower Back) were relatively weak to my demands. These muscles would be overused through competition and training that occurred all yearlong. In essence, my hips were really bashed up, tight and sore. It was through mobility practices and drills that I was able to release the tension at the hips, which eventually released the tension on my hamstrings.
It was never a flexibility problem. It was a mobility issue.
Mobility is to the range of motion (ROM) capable at a given joint.
Flexibility is the ability for a muscle to stretch/elongate.
Generally speaking, both are required for sports and fitness. However it is best to leave flexibility for after the game/training, while focusing mostly on mobility drills during the warm up.
This is because:
- mobility can improve ROM and force development
- improving mobility can improve flexibility
- flexibility training can cause over-stretched muscles which damper performance and increase the likelihood of a sports injury.
- flexibility training takes too long of a recovery time to regain strength and speed levels.
You can improve your mobility through:
- Self-Myofascial Release (SMR)
- Foam Rolling Drills or other mobility tools
- Active Release Therapy (ART)
- Dynamic Stretching
These exercises should focus on correcting inefficiencies in any functional movement pattern.
While I will eventually create a list of the best mobility drills for you all to implement, it would probably require a whole different book.
Instead I highly recommend checking out Kelly Starrett, founder of MobilityWOD. Kely is known as “The Guru of Mobility” and over the last few years he has helped put forth thousands of how-to videos to improve mobility and general physical preparation for all athletes.
Check out their site or do what we do:
When you come across a physical problem or pain, go to the MOBILITYWOD Youtube Channel and simply search their list of videos by the body type you wish to work on.
It’s one of the best tools for athletes out there – try it out!
Conclusion of Mobility:
Outside of the final stage, mobility may be the most important part to your warm up as it can directly improve other areas of performance at the same time. Leave flexibility training outside of your warm up as mobility can indirectly fix any flexibility problems or you may be experiencing. Work on your mobility by slowly and steadily working towards the healthy ranges for each joint.
STAGE 4: Technique
The body and mind are activated, “warm” and mobilized.
The final stage is known as TECHNIQUE which pertains to getting yourself familiar with the functionality of your sport. Functionality in this case refers the specific movement patterns, frequency, volume and intensity found in your sport. The same goes for the functionality of the training day.
This stage will look vastly different between different athletes in different sports or on different training days.
A hockey player should start focusing on their skating and stick handling.
A soccer player should focus on their dribbling, shooting and passing.
A weightlifter should start working up to their 1-rep max lift.
A wrestler should start to work on take downs.
A sprinter should work from the start blocks.
Conclusion of Technique:
The 4th stage is greatly influenced by the sport or training. The goal of this stage is to take the primed athlete to become accustomed to the game speed or training intensity desired. While we can give suggestions, it is best to complete this warm up with a sport specific coach. This stage should take approximately 25-50% of the total warm-up time for an athlete before a game or training day.
Fascia plays a significant role in the support and function of our physical body. And yet it is an often overlooked system that runs throughout our entire body – covering and interpenetrating every muscle, bone, nerve, attery, vein and internal organs of our body. When you think fascia, think a very strong and densely woven spider’s web.
This system is one continuous structure that covers your body in one uninterrupted flow. It is because of the fascia that our body is interconnected the way it is.
Healthy fascia is relaxed and wavy in configuration. It has the ability to move without restrictions. Physical stress or trauma through sports, surgeries, training or inflammatory responses can have a negative impact on the fascia’s health and ability to move freely. This will create movement dysfunction, physical discomfort and possibly pain.
A complete warm up of all stages in a quality warm up can help in keeping the fascia healthy and unrestricted.
While I will now dive into efficiency, I hope the guide presented above was able to show you the ins and outs of a complete warm up. If you have any questions, do not hesitate to ask but also feel free to check out the FAQ section on the bottom.
We now know that an effective warm up includes activation, activity, mobility and technique. However, how do we apply all of these in a short enough time?
That’s where a quality coach or trainer comes into play. That’s also why we are here – to show you the approach we take our athletes through.
The Vulkan Warm-Up
The Vulkan Warm-Up is our unique approach to a complete warm up, in the shortest amount of time, with the least amount of energy wasted. Additionally this warm up can be done by yourself or with a group.
First we need about 10-20 yards of free space to move. You can get away with less but this is the ideal situation.
On one end of this free space you have Point A – the starting point. And Point B – the end point.
The athlete will start from Point A and move onto Point B completing a specific movement pattern. The athlete should repeat the movement on the way back to Point A, but if time is an issue than you can get away without the repeat.
Movement Patterns can include, but not limited to:
- Forward Jog
- Backwards Jog
- Side Step (each side)
- Karaoke (each side)
- Reverse Lunges
- Low Kicks
- Soldier Kicks
- Higher Punting Kicks
- Hip Opener (outside-in)
- Hip Opener (inside-out)
- Broad Jumps
- Bear Crawls
- Crab Walks
- Quick Feet into Sprints
- Acceleration Starts
- High Knees
And whatever else you can imagine. You can start off with something simple and slow, then work your way up in complexity and intensity until you reach game speed. Because you are basically going back and forth from 10-20 yards, this warm up goes by relatively fast while allowing you to warm up the body, mobilize and stabilize. Add in some isolated mobility drills, deep breathing exercises and technique work and you should be ready for high intensity in no time.
Here is a video of myself completing a Vulkan Warm Up Variation before a hockey game.
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If you would like to see more videos of The Vulkan Warm Up & other W.U exercises then please like our Youtube channel here: Vulkan Athletics –
Thank you in advance for the likes as we continue to grow our athletics academy and share the best training knowledge for all of you.
It’s a long guide, no doubt about it, but I promise you that it took longer for me to put this all together than it took to read. However, it was something I wanted to do for a long time and finally happy to bring it forth for you all to enjoy. As a competitive athlete myself, I could not find a warm up guide like this one out there. I found a million ways to complete a warm up but few were ever as detailed as this. Even fewer showed the methods in saving time and energy completing a warm up.
Don’t worry if you didn’t read it in full now. It will always be here for you to refer back to if you need some advice or simply want to debate it among friends.
If you have any questions, check out below as we compiled an entire list of FAQ for you to review. If you don’t see your question below then do not hesitate to contact our team and we will get back to you in no time.
Eat. Sleep. Play.
The Vulkan Team.
Should the Warm Up in training/practice differ from competition/game?
For the most part, I like to have my warm ups be the same for a practice or a game. The last thing I want before a game is a whole different routine and confuse my body. I want game day to be pretty much routine, with little surprises.
However this does not mean that warm ups should be the same in different types of sports. Max effort sports (weightlifting, powerlifting, sprinting) should be different than ballistic sports (rugby, hockey, soccer, basketball) and both should differ from endurance based sports.
What if my hamstrings are tight beforehand?
I had the same issue. Understand that if the hamstrings are tight, then stretching them will do little to release that tension. To fix the problem you will want to break up and loosen the tissue around the surrounding joints. The best way to do this is to perform specific mobility drills around the hips and glutes. Additionally try to use a foam roller or lacrosse ball and roll over the glute muscles. This helped me, all of my athletes and I believe it can help you too.
What’s the best order of the 4 stages discussed above?
Our favorite order is the order in which we presented it above.
Activation – Activity – Mobility – Technique.
You can debate the correct order forever, I know even among our academy we do the same. Sometimes we even change it up a bit depending on the situation. Mobility may come first or maybe activity. Depends what you feel is best. Just understand why and what to do in each stage as that is the most important factor.
Oh, and leave Technique work to last!
How do warm ups differ in different sports?
That is left for next time. I will dive into the examples found in different types of sports soon.