Whether you’re an elite competitive athlete, a weekend warrior, or just heading to the gym to tone up for the summer, a proper warm-up routine is key to avoid injury and get the most out of your sport or exercise.

Warm-up progressions will vary greatly based on the specific activity or sport, individual goals, previous injury history, time and equipment available, and setting. At FLO Physical Therapy we recommend a 15-20 minute routine that incorporates appropriate exercises from each of the following categories to prime the body and mind and maximize performance.

Soft Tissue Mobilization

Soft tissue mobilization is a widely-used warm-up and recovery method in the physical therapy, fitness, and sports performance realms. There are thousands of tools on the market that can be used to “loosen up” the muscles before working out, and they come in all shapes and sizes – foam roll rollers, roller sticks, lacrosse balls, massage guns.

Over the last several years there has been much debate over the effectiveness of foam rolling and other forms of soft tissue mobilization as it relates to exercise performance. Proponents of soft tissue mobilization often claim that it provides benefits such as:

  • Breaking down adhesions in the tissue that can restrict movement
  • Releasing trigger points or “knots”
  • Increasing blood flow to the area
  • Decreasing tension in the muscles by stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system

While the first mechanism is completely false (applying direct pressure to the muscles will not “break up” scar tissue or “stretch” fascia, despite what some products may claim) there may be some potential validity to the other benefits listed above. There may also be a psychophysiological factor to soft tissue mobilization, as anecdotally people tend to “feel better” and “looser” when they roll out their muscles before exercising.

At this time there isn’t a lot of quality research that explains how foam rolling works, but there are several studies that demonstrate that foam rolling may provide performance-related benefits. A 2019 meta-analysis by Wiewelhove et al. found that foam rolling likely has a positive impact on sprint performance, flexibility, and muscle pain perception. More specifically, MacDonald et al. found that foam rolling acutely improved joint range of motion without decreasing muscle activation or force, which may be a particularly relevant result for sports that require maximal power through a greater range of motion.

Bottom line: if soft tissue mobilization feels good, seems necessary for you, and you have the time to do it, there’s no reason not to include this in your warm-up routine.

Core Temperature Elevation

This is the true “warming up” portion of any complete warm-up routine. Incorporating some light cardio into your warm-up routine is a great way to get the blood pumping, increase muscle temperature, and initiate necessary metabolic changes, as well as mentally prepare for the task ahead.

Any activity that gets your heart rate up and maybe helps you build a light sweat is ideal, such as jogging, biking, jump roping, rowing, or swimming. Taking a few minutes to elevate your core temperature will be beneficial prior to doing any stretching or sport-specific movements.

Dynamic Stretching

Once your muscles are relaxed and your temperature is elevated it’s time to start preparing the body to move through a full range of motion. While static stretching (holding a stretch for 20-30 seconds or longer) has its place in every exercise program, dynamic stretching is more appropriate to perform prior to working out.

Dynamic stretching involves repeated movements that gradually take muscles and joints through greater ranges of motion. These movements should be more specific to the activity that you’re about to perform; a dynamic warm-up progression for a golfer will likely not look the same as a dynamic warm-up progression for a long jumper.

Besides continuing the benefits of a cardiovascular warm-up, dynamic stretching prepares muscles and tendons to absorb and distribute forces in both lengthened and shortened positions. Many of these exercises also have a balance component, which helps activate the core and smaller stabilizer muscles needed to prevent injury.

Some examples of dynamic stretches include arm circles, leg kicks, and walking lunges.

Joint Mobilization

Joint mobility exercises can be viewed as part of a dynamic warm-up, but rather than loosening up muscles and tendons these exercises are more focused on improving range of motion at specific joints. Depending on the sport or activity you’re going to perform, you may need to loosen up the spine, hips, knees, ankles, shoulders, elbows, and/or wrists to maximize your performance.

For example, ankle mobility exercises may be useful for a weight lifter prior to doing back squats to allow for better range of motion at the bottom of the squat. Likewise, full thoracic spine extension will be beneficial for a swimmer that specializes in breaststroke or butterfly to help them press their chest into the water more effectively.

A thorough assessment by a performance physical therapist is a great way to discover what joints may be limited and what exercises are appropriate for your specific needs.

Sport/Movement-Specific Preparation

At this point in the warm-up process your body is mechanically prepared for your sport or exercise, so now it’s time to neurologically prepare the body by going through motions that are specific to your activity. These motions may directly mimic your desired activity, or may consist of drills focusing on technique and movement quality.

In the gym, this may involve performing a few repetitions of each lift with lighter weights or even bodyweight exercises such as squats and push-ups. This is also a great time to work on any “activation” or prehab exercises designed to decrease the risk of injury, such as rotator cuff exercises prior to bench pressing.

Competitive athletes may perform a few practice repetitions while visualizing their movement (practice swings on the golf course) or break down their movement into smaller pieces to improve technique (snatch progression prior to performing a full snatch).

No matter what your goals are, if you plan to work out, you should plan to warm up first. If you’re having a hard time figuring out what your warm-up routine should look like, or if a lack of warm-up has you injured and out of the game, the therapists at FLO Physical Therapy & Performance can help! Email us or give us a call today!