Dynamic Warm-up Strategies

The strength and conditioning community is long-gone from the times of showing up for training, static stretching, and getting on with the session. Also considered to be “old-hat” is trying to get away with doing no warm-up at all.  Both of the above have been proven over and over to not only take away from performance, but to be an inherent risk to the athlete’s well-being overall.  “Dynamic Warm-up” has replaced the above as the go-to term for the activity that is done in preparation for training.  “Movement Prep” is another catchy term, but regardless of the name, it is agreed upon that there should be a movement-based and systemic approach to the warm-up period before one even begins to consider doing something strenuous.

In my opinion there should be a comprehensive approach to the warm-up session.  The warm-up can be divided into the following phases: soft tissue work, torso/trunk activation, glute activation, multi-directional activation, and neurological activation.  The following is intended to be a GENERAL template to follow, as the warm-up session may vary depending on the focus of that day’s training.  The following movements and activities are intended to be done in the order written. Depending on the training situation including time, terrain, conditions etc. this plan can easily be modified to fit.  A movement or two at least should be integrated from each phase when time is a factor.

Soft Tissue

Gently lengthening the muscles and connective tissue via gentle mechanical stimulation is tremendously effective as part of the warm-up period.  There are many ways to go about doing this.  The following are some of the general ideas that I use personally before I train, as well as what I employ with the athletes that I see on a daily basis.

Using a foam roller, stick, softball, baseball etc. gently massage all of the lower extremities.  I find that the roller is effective for IT Band, Glut Med, Quads, Hip Flexors, and Anterior Tib. I find that the structures of the posterior are difficult to apply direct pressure to with the roller, so here the stick (www.thestick.com) and ball may be more effective. Calves and adductors are easily reached with the stick. Hamstrings are done as follows.

From a seated position with legs straight out in front of you, place the softball just inferior to your ischial tuberosity, and peel the ball through the hamstring group. Remember that the hamstring group divides at roughly the distal third of the thigh and attaches to both sides of the knee.  Be sure to roll out both sides.
I will then use the roller perpendicular to the spine and roll out the entire spinal column.  The last thing I will foam roll are the lats, because they will likely be involved in any lifting or running activity.

Torso/Trunk Activation

This is usually done best via planks, although there are a few other quick and easy things as well.  The Front Pillar Bridge and Side Pillar Bridge are adequate here.  Usually 30-40 seconds, 1 time for each is sufficient. No equipment is necessary.  Next, hyperextensions can be performed on the GHD (glute-ham developer) or just in a prone “Superman” position.  Perform 1 set of 12 reps with a 1-2 second isometric contraction in the extended position.  Another version is the oblique, or side crunch which can be performed with a partner, on the GHD, or simply on the floor.

For partner oblique work, the active participant can be side-lying on a bench.  They then shift toward the head of the bench until enough of their weight is off the bench that they need to post an arm on the floor for support.  At this time the partner may lean over the lateral portion of the lifter’s thigh to hold their body to the bench.  The operator may now remove their arm from the floor and execute the oblique crunch.  There are many variations of these trunk activation movements.  The goal is to activate the paraspinal musculature, abdominals, obliques, and some glutes.

Glute Activation

Hip extension will likely be the primary engine for most weight-bearing training activity.  It is important to activate these muscles properly to prepare them for the stressors of training.  Supine Glute Bridges are easiest to execute as they require no equipment.  There is the double-leg, or single leg variety. One set of twelve bilaterally is plenty. For the single-leg version, the operator is supine (on your back) with one leg straight out on the floor and the other leg bent so that the foot is flat on the floor.  The bent leg is the driving leg and will bridge, and elevate the hips high into the air.  Be sure to push through the heel of the foot.  The other leg remains straight at the knee, but the hip is flexed maximally to get a hamstring stretch as well. Perform 12-15 reps bilaterally.

My other favorite is mini-band monster-walks. Mini-bands are cheap and come in varying tensions.  I get mine from http://www.performbetter.com , but you can get them just about anywhere. Thera-bands or surgical tubing work just as well if mini-bands are not available.  Simply band just above the knee, and at the ankle.  Widen your stance outside hip width, and sink into your athletic base (roughly quarter-squat).  Maintain outward tension on the bands as you move forward and backward about 10 yards each way. Feet must face straight away.  Start with a pair of lighter bands until the form is perfect. Often I will use bands of different resistance here; the heavier one at the knee, and lighter one at the ankle. Your glutes should be on fire if done correctly.  Remove the bands for now.

Multi-Directional Activation

This part of the warm-up session can be as short or long as you see fit.  It can be tailored to complement the movements of the days training activities, or it can be non-specific.  For example, if the session’s focus will involve linear speed work, then the warm-up can focus on muscles that support that movement.  At my facility, I usually have the time to conduct a full-body warm-up.  I think that even if you are not doing those particular movements that day, your body will still benefit from the increased flexibility and stability over time.
First, I like to have the athletes moving up and down the turf.  There are various ways in which this can be done.  Jog, backpedal, high-knee-skip, shuffle, crossover, carioca, gate-swing skip, high-knees, heel recoveries (butt-kickers) etc, all accomplish this goal.  30-40 yards up and back is plenty.

Next I move from one region of the body to the next.  I start from the ground up.  Heel walks and toe walks help activate the muscles of the leg (below the knee-to distinguish from thigh). Walk 10-20 yards doing each.  I do hamstrings next.  Straight-leg march, inchworm (with or without arm-ups), and single leg-RDL’s are my favorites.  Supine 90/90 stretch can be done here, as well as solo, or partner straight-leg lowering. The first three are usually done for distance, i.e. 10-15 yards, and the latter two for reps, about 10-12 bilaterally. I will usually do a walking quad-stretch next with a reach overhead, and calf-raise again, for distance.  I will then begin a sequence of split stance, and lunge movements.

I like the lunge sequences because they display a number of realistic positions that you may encounter during training.  After all, running is merely a series of one-legged; split stance positions repeated thousands upon thousands of times. It is a good position to be strong in.  Plus it reinforces development of cross-body patterns that are essential in movement, plus dissociates the hips.  Many major muscle groups are being worked at the same time, but in a unilateral and symmetrical manner.  Other movements can be incorporated into the lunge series very easily, as you will see coming up.

Reverse Lunge With Reach: This movement is exactly as it sounds but has a few details.  The operator should take a drop-step back into a lunge.  Hold this position with upright posture and the back knee hovering right above the ground, but not touching.  With the same side arm as the leg that is back, reach to the ceiling and then lateral bend (not rotate) over the lead leg.  This is to stretch the iliopsoas, a deep hip and trunk flexor.  For the entire time you are in this position, you should be contracting the glute hard on the leg that is back.  When doing this, the opposing hip flexor (rectus femoris) has to relax due to reciprocal inhibition.  This gives us a better stretch.  Toe-off with the lead leg to a neutral base, or go directly thought to the next lunge step.  Repeat 5-6 times on each side.

Quarter-squat/Knee-hug/Lunge/Rotate:  Perform a single leg-quarter squat on your left leg.  Do not rush through it.  Challenge the ankle, hip and quad to slowly lower you into position. When coming out of the squat grab your right knee and pull it high to your chest before striding out into a lunge with the same leg.  Once in a lunge position with upright posture, rotate your body around to the right maintaining and upright and rigid spine.  The right arm should rotate straight around at shoulder level with no bend in the elbow.  Eyes follow the hand around to open up the thoracic spine even more.  The knuckles of the left hand should be placed on the outside of the right thigh.  Hold this position, and then repeat on the other side. Perform 5-6 reps bilaterally.

Quarter-Squat/Knee-hug/Lunge/Elbow to knee/Rotate up:  Begin the same way as described above.  Once in a lunge stance, lean down and touch your right elbow down to the inside of your knee or approximate the instep of your shoe. Place the palm of your left hand on the floor.  Remove your right arm from your knee, straighten it out, and rotate it up toward the ceiling. Eyes follow your hand. Hold. Repeat for 5-6 times per side.

For lateral movement I keep thing simple.  Put the mini-bands on just as described earlier, and this time move laterally instead of linearly.  Be sure to maintain the wide, base stance and the movement cadence should be “big step, little step”.  This will ensure that the wide based is maintained, and the knees keep tension outward. Remove your bands.  Next, 10 lateral lunges bilaterally make a good secondary exercise.
One more thing before we jump into neurological warm-up.  I like to do a quick shoulder series which consists of Y’s, T’s, L’s, and W’s.  This can be done standing, prone, or on a physioball and either un-weighted or using very light weight.  This will activate the rotator cuff, upper back and other shoulder muscles.

Neurological Activation

This is the last step before we are ready to begin the actual training session.  Although it seems lengthy, all of these phases combined should take only about 15 minutes from start to finish. To wake up the CNS I like to do some rapid response drills (RR), jumps, and/or sprints.  The easiest RR Drill to do is out of the base linear position.  Assume this position to start.  Begin jogging lightly in place, and moving your arms in natural rhythm with your feet.  On a verbal signal the operator will move their feet as fast as they can, keeping them very close to the ground with the goal to get as many contacts as possible in about 5 seconds. The arms move half the tempo of the feet when you are at speed.  With this drill the operator is stationary.  2-3 sets are adequate.  This type of wake-up can be done moving linearly, laterally, and unilateral in multiple planes and even with rotation.  The idea is to move fast….to get ready to move fast, if that makes sense.  Squat jumps, or tuck jumps are a good follow-up (2×5).  One or two short sprint starts (10-15 yds.) can conclude this part of the warm-up.

Congratulations!  You are ready to train now.  After incorporating movement like this into your routine prior to training, the measureable difference will be extraordinary.  You will have increased mobility, stability, and proprioception, plus the quality of your movement and training will improve as well.  Remember that this can be easily scaled to fit time, equipment, and needs of specificity.

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