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How to Structure Your Warm-Up for Optimal Performance

An opportunity

The warm-up should be viewed as an opportunity, as it provides us with time to accumulate a large amount of training volume over a long period of time. Even on a small scale if we imagine that we warm up for 10 minutes before each training session, and we train 3 times per week we get the following simple maths:

  • 10 minute warm up per session

  • 3 times per week

  • 30 minutes per week in total

  • 26 hours of preparation time over the course of a year!

That is a huge amount of time which can often go unutilized if we aren’t careful. This becomes even more problematic the more frequently we train and the longer our warm-ups typically are.

What should we do with this opportunity?

An effective warm up should have three primary aims:

  1. Prepare for the upcoming session

  2. Increase short term performance

  3. Aid in long term athletic performance improvements

If we frame the warm-up in these terms it suddenly becomes clear that it can either be a valuable use of our training time, or a wasted opportunity.

Preparing for the upcoming session means aligning our warm-up with the content of the session. Is the session high speed in nature? Does it involve low positions? Are we likely to be changing direction a lot? All of these questions have different implications for the design of the warm-up.

Increasing short term performance means enhancing our body’s function in order to perform optimally. Increased range of motion, increased body temperature and increased neural drive might be some of the factors to consider in this.

Finally aiding long term performance is a little more difficult to align with the immediate needs of the session content but should in essence seek to plug ‘gaps’ in our athletic capabilities. Do we play a sport where we don’t reach maximal sprint speed often? Do we rarely change direction in our sport? Do we lack other physical qualities that our sport doesn’t provide us with? These questions will once again direct us down the path of improved athleticism. This could be hugely general, or individually specific dependent on a number of factors.

Terminology

The phrase ‘warm up’ can have connotations if we have always associated that phrase with a low intensity or passive phase of a given training session. ‘Movement preparation’ is perhaps a better piece of terminology as it describes what we aiming to achieve through this period – prepare for movement!

This also allows us to think more clearly around whether our movement preparation is aligned with short term session and performance aims, and whether it is contributing to long term performance.

A framework for movement preparation

Ian Jeffreys created the ‘RAMP’ sequence which has been adopted by sports organisations around the world owing to its simplicity and logical flow of increasing intensity. We can break this protocol into four phases: Raise, Activate, Mobilise and Potentiate. The word ‘RAMP’ itself embodies the concept of gradually increasing movement intensity to optimally prepare for the session demands.

Raise

During this period we are seeking to increase physiological parameters such as heart rate, body temperature and breathing rate in order to increase oxygen delivery to working muscles and provide the foundation for greater ranges of motion owing to increased muscle elasticity.

This can be approached in a few ways, either in general terms through low intensity jogging and movement tasks, or in a more engaging way through small-sided games (SSGs). SSGs are a fantastic way to achieve several aims when operating in team settings. However, what this looks like specifically is very much context dependent and based on the broader aims already described in this article. This phase should be performed for up to 10 minutes.

Activate

Certain muscle groups are responsible for producing large amounts of force in the body, particularly during running or changing direction. The ‘activate’ element of movement preparation is a great opportunity to increase neural drive to these tissues through activities which place demand on them. This might look like banded hip work to prepare the lateral hip/glute medius for running based tasks, or some lunging/squatting movements to begin preparing for higher intensity activities later. This phase should be performed for up to 5 minutes.

Mobilise

Range of motion is super important no matter what sport you are preparing for, and therefore a dedicated period of mobility work is vital if we are to reduce the risk of injury at key joints. In team sports, a focus around the hips, ankle and thoracic spine is generally advisable but this can be more individualized too based on movement screening that may have been completed by a physio or S&C coach. This can be integrated into other areas too, such as a SSGs that incorporate movement constraints requiring low positions. This phase should be performed for up to 5 minutes.

Potentiate

The final section aims to prepare the body for high intensity work that is going to be completed during the session. This might look like sprinting, jumping or bounding and is generally performed at high velocity. This signifies the final phase of the movement preparation sequence and should ideally be blended into the main session content at this point. This phase should be performed for up to 5 minutes.

Some fun ways to put this all together

Tag based games such stuck in the mud when working in team settings is a fun way to get moving no matter what the sport or age of the athletes! Everyone loves a game, and this quickly gets people having fun whilst ticking off many of the boxes described already.

You can constrain these games by including a movement forfeit when tagged such as a deep squat to include mobility elements too, whilst also providing a cognitive stimulus as athletes need to scan and make quick decisions.

Cat and mouse sprinting tasks add an element of fun to the potentiate phase, where one athlete chases the other over a set distance. This automatically creates intent, as no one wants to be caught! Add in a cognitive element too such as numbers, colours or sports specific movement cues to incorporate lots of stimuli into these games.

A more structured way to put this all together

If a more structured approach is needed and you aren’t performing as part of a team then a more traditional approach to the RAMP protocol might look something like this:

Raise – a few minutes of low intensity jogging, skipping and multi-directional movements to gradually increase heart rate and temperature. For example, linear jogging, lateral movements such as side shuffles, A skips, low skips and low bounding.

Activate and mobilise – 5 to 10 minutes of integrated movements to prepare the tissues for the upcoming session. Dependent on what sport you play or coach this might vary considerably but consider what the common injury risks are and if you have any individual predispositions to/history of injury. For hockey players, this might be multi-directional lunges, single leg RDLs, squatting, spiderman stretches or ankle rockers. For runners, this might be more foot/ankle focused including low volume calf raises, along with hip stretches as above.

Potentiate – the final phase is then where we look to really increase the intensity. Resisted sprinting, jumps and bounds have relevance no matter the sport you play. Again this is very much context dependent, but some resisted broad jumps along with progressive flying sprints are great options.

Summary

Movement preparation is a more accurate description of the warm-up, and the RAMP protocol provides a great framework to prepare the body for the upcoming session. View this period as an opportunity, as the cumulative work completed during this time can add up to huge amounts of time over a long enough time period.

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