Is a warm-up ‘just a warm-up’ ? A quick guide to team warm-ups for sports performance

Traditionally, team warm-ups for training or competition have been a means to an end, a jog and a stretch. However, great coaches now value this 20 to 30 minute block as an opportunity to enhance movement competency and reinforce excellence, as well as the necessary neuromuscular preparation for the proceeding activities. In Athletic Development, Vern Gambetta emphasises the point that the warm-up sets the tempo for the session: It is an integral, not separate part of the workout.

As a strength and conditioning coach, there is nothing you will do more than conduct warm-ups, and these should all be taken as coaching moments to be taken advantage of. As an athlete, every warm-up should be a self-assessment; how do your joints and muscles feel during different movements at varying intensities? Kelvin Giles notes that the relatively short period of 20 minutes can see over 200 ‘movements’ taking place, developing the fundamental movements by connecting from fingernail to toenail. So, over time you can progress the challenge by increasing the complexity of the movement puzzles laid out for the athletes to mechanically solve. A bodyweight squat can turn into a squat with a trunk rotation; then a combination of a prisoner squat to a duck walk, or a drop squat to drop lunge.

The possibilities are endless, and the more you hear your athletes tell you that the warm-up is weird, the better. Crawling, rotating, hinging, hoping, pushing, lunging, squatting, and mixing them all together. It also makes things fun and interesting. When you introduce a movement sequence that is new to the athlete, you will witness an immediate surge in concentration and probably some laughs. You can’t sit there thinking about what you’ll have for lunch when you have to do a bear crawl + transition into a crab reach!

Marta Corredera (Arsenal Ladies). Arsenal Ladies Training and Team Group. Arsenal Training Ground. London Colney, Herts, 29/1/16. Credit : Arsenal Football Club / David Price.

Marta Corredera (Arsenal Ladies). Arsenal Ladies Training and Team Group. Arsenal Training Ground. London Colney, Herts, 29/1/16. Credit : Arsenal Football Club / David Price.

Warm-up Structure

The RAMP model, developed by Ian Jeffries, is widely used to structure warm-ups: Raise the body temperature with locomotion or light sport activities, Activate the muscles, Mobilize the joints, and Potentiate the neuromuscular system. Similarly, EXOS begin sessions with Pillar Prep: activating the shoulders, torso, and hips with integrative movements that promote stability, strength, and proper alignment. This is followed by Movement Prep; active movements that mobilize and co-ordinate the joints such as mini-band work, lunges, squats, marches and skips.

Integrating movement prep with sport-specific activities (Passing, possession games etc.) during the warm-up is a nice way to keep the players engaged by introducing the ball early on. We usually incorporate this by alternating between 3 mins of football and 3 minutes of physical preparation for three blocks, which takes about 20 minutes including water breaks and transitioning between drills.
When taking this approach, there are a couple of things that one should be careful about:

  1. Do not compromise on mobilisation. There can be an urge to rush through this when you’re working in three minute blocks, but remember this is the opportunity to enhance movement competency, and obviously helps keep you in one piece during the session.
  2. Start slow and easy and build towards the session/competition intensity. If you are starting with the sport activity remember it needs to be low-intensity, no sprinting or long-distance kicking.

Mindeset

You might not win a match during the warm-up, but perhaps you could lose one.

Picture the scenario; two teams of equal ability preparing for a match; one team dander out to the pitch chit-chatting and go through the motions half-heartedly, not going through full ranges motion and not hitting the cones during running patterns. The other team are lazer-focused, hitting the positions and postures with intent, ramping up intensity and going all out for the sprints at the end. Thinking about the first ten minutes of the game, their roles, how they will dominate their opponent. Who’s going to have the better start to the game?

It seems obvious of course, but if we take the ‘it’s only the warm-up’ approach, you’ll do yourself a disservice and all your preparation for the game can count for nothing. This is the same attitude that we see when an underdog take out complacent favorites.

What we are referring to here is your athletes’ mindset, an integral aspect of your game-day prep, 30 minutes out from competition. Vern Gambetta refers to it as ICE: Intensity, Concentration, Effort. And if we agree that ICE is important during match-day warm-ups, then it is important during training session warm-ups. Because focus and concentration, like anything, takes practice. So if you aren’t used to warm-up like this in training, you won’t do it for an important match. In fact, you won’t be able to do in on match-day, your mind will wander, you won’t hit the lines or the right intensity.

Kelvin Giles referenced Bill Sweetenham (a world leading coach) as saying; ‘compromise once and you will compromise again’. In fact, Kelvin Giles has already figured this out a long time ago and sums it up perfectly in his book, This isn’t a Textbook:

By allowing any diversion from excellence you are attracting mediocrity and remember that those mediocre people always attain their aims… if something is allowed to be done badly then it shouldn’t be in the program – you have just made it into ‘stuff’, irrelevant, timewasting twaddle.

The warm-up sets the scene for the session to follow. In my experience, a good warm-up is followed by a good sessions, while a poor warm-up (players chattering and messing, not focussed, sloppiness in movement) is always followed by a poor session. This means that as a coach, you can potentially save the session at the very beginning by bringing awareness to this and re-focus the players’ minds. Sometimes, players can benefit from a reminder that the warm-up is not a pre-training social catch-up. As Vern says, it is an integral, not separate part of the workout.

Mindfulness

There is a meditation/mindfulness revolution in full swing these days (a much needed one) as a means for improved productivity, sense of control, and focus. Many high performers in all walks of life include meditation as one of the most important keys to their success, while there is tons of research supporting the benefits of meditation (here’s a comprehensive chapter from the Wiley Handbook of Mindfulness on Mindfulness in Sports Performance).

And as they say, if you could get it in a pill everyone would buy it, but because it’s free and takes practice it has been ignored for a long time.

But not anymore, the evidence is irrefutable. Certainly, there are many enlightened souls that already benefit from mindfulness practice, but it is still widely underutilized in sport. The next step is bringing the mindfulness revolution into elite sport preparation and making it the norm.

This can be our mental warm-up before the physical warm-up. On match-day, before going out on the pitch, or alternatively the night before in the hotel, getting all players together for ten minutes of mindfulness meditation, whether guided or in silence and focusing on the breath, would be a game-changer.

Match Warm-Up in Seattle

We recently had a week-long camp in Seattle culminating in an exhibition match against Seattle Reign. One thing I noticed from watching Reign training and warming-up is that they are well drilled on the concept of ICE. They do not cut corners or take short-cuts on the field. This attitude and mindset was particularly evident when the US National team won the World Cup of 2015.

Anyway, here is a video of the first ten minutes of our warm-up, broken down as follows:
0 – 2 mins: Low-intensity football passing game. Worth mentioning that you can see they are having fun!
2 – 5 mins: Locomotion movements; various skips and running.
5 – 8 mins: Mobilization and activation movements; squats, lunges, single-leg RDL’s etc. Also included some partner lateral mirror drills.
8 – 10 mins: High intensity skips, hops, bounds, runs, with some extra dynamic stretches.

The final twenty minutes of the warm-up included longer distance football passing activities, finishing and possession games, before finishing back with me for some all-out sprints.
For the training sessions that week we began each session with 3 minutes of skipping rope work and 3 minutes of mini-band work.

A lot of ideas for team warm-up I have borrowed from Vern Gambetta, which he goes through in great detail in his workshops (some of which luckily have been captured on DVD). He describes a warm-up routine with certain components that he follows religiously for injury prevention. These include:

    • Mini-band routine
    • Single-leg squat 5 second hold (hopping to opposite foot)
    • Walking rotations
    • Lunge routine
    • Skips + Carioca
    • Backwards running (which should look like running the projector backwards on a full running stride)

Warm-Up Checklist

Here is a checklist that will help ensure every warm-up optimally prepares your athletes for training and competition, while also facilitating positive training adaptations over time.

  1. The warm-up is organized in a co-ordinated manner and understood by the players so that it flows well.
  2. The tempo of activities gradually rises to ensure a seamless transition to the sport-specific session that follows.
  3. Marches, skips, sprints and plyometric activities reinforce quality speed mechanics.
  4. Players are focused and mindful, not compromising on effort. The players use this time to tune in to the task ahead.
  5. Joint mobilization and neuromuscular activation is achieved while challenging and developing the players’ movement vocabulary.
  6. It is fun and interesting, bringing good positive energy into the session. (Partner exercises and group games can light up the session. Watch the inner child come out with races and tag)
  7. When warming-up for competition, that players have adequate time to gather their thoughts, hydrate, and do their own individual prep.

Author: Cairbre

Cairbre is the face behind Feed Me Strength. Currently the Head Strength and Conditioning coach for Arsenal Women FC. He has a passion for athletic performance and an endless curiosity about the inner workings of the body and mind.

UKSCA accredited, with a Sport and Exercise Sciences BSc, and Sports Performance MSc from the University of Limerick.

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