An effective warm up is the precursor to an effective training session. As the saying goes, ‘fail to prepare, prepare to fail’. In order to effectively stimulate the body for the session ahead whilst at the same time reducing the risk of injury, an effective warm up should consist of 6 steps. The reasons behind including these different steps, and examples of what to incorporate at each stage, are detailed below to help inform your next warm up.
Step 1: Tissue Quality
When athletes train hard, trauma is caused to the tissues of the body which results in heightened activity of muscles spindles (mechanoreceptors which detects changes in muscle length and rate of this change) in particular areas of the muscle. As a result of this, ‘knots’ or ‘trigger points’ form in the soft tissue which decreases the normal elasticity of the soft tissue. Through the use of self-myofascial techniques (think foam rollers, lacrosse balls etc.) mechanoreceptors which detect changes in muscle tension and rate of tension change called Golgi Tendon Organs are stimulated resulting in autogenic inhibition, that is, inhibition of the muscle spindle causing the brain to relax to prevent that muscle from tearing .
Step 2: Get Warm
Many of the injury reduction and performance enhancement benefits of a warm-up can be attributed to the physiological benefits of increased temperature within muscle tissues. Fun fact – the nerve impulses in frogs travel 8 times slower than in humans due to frogs’ lower body temperatures . Raised tissue temperature allows the warm muscle to contract with more muscle fibres and at a faster rate than cold muscles. As such, raising tissue temperature should be the primary aim of the warm up and so if you are short on time prioritise this over the other steps. A good, and underutilised, method of increasing thermogenesis (tissue temperature) is skipping – it trains lower-body reactive strength whilst engaging the upper body and includes a high component of co-ordination .
Step 3: Mobilisation
Mobilisation can take the form of dynamic or static stretching. Overwhelmingly, the literature is against static stretching prior to training – it is argued that static stretching causes acute decreases in strength and power . Additionally, increases in flexibility (which static stretching promotes) prior to training may result in joint laxity or new joint angles that are not strong and stable . Instead, dynamic exercises that are chosen to prepare the body specifically for the day’s session should be incorporated. A joint-by-joint approach often works well in this case – think ankle (calf pulses), hips (spidermans), spine (reach and rotate) and shoulders (side lying rotation).
Step 4: Activation
Through the use of activation techniques, intramuscular coordination of muscles can be increased, that is, the ability of the neuromuscular system to allow optimal levels of motor unit recruitment and synchronisation within a muscle . Additionally, the rate and frequency of motor unit recruitment of a muscle can be increased prior to training resulting in increased force production capabilities of that muscle. In layman’s terms – an activated muscle is a stronger muscle. Typically, muscles are activated in low-velocity uniplanar movements; for example, banded glute bridges.
Step 5: Corrective Exercise
The warm up provides a great opportunity to include individualised corrective exercises that address specific movement restrictions within an athlete. This is best achieved through the use of integrated dynamic movements that increase multi-planar neuromuscular control. Multi-joint movements require high levels of intermuscular coordination, that is, the ability of the neuromuscular system to allow all muscles to work together with proper activation and timing between them. These exercises should therefore incorporate both bilateral and unilateral stances in all planes of motion .
Step 6: Neural Preparation
The final part of your 6 step warm up is neural preparation. Neural preparation makes use of post-activation potentiation (PAP) which is the term used to describe any exercise that acutely enhances muscular-force output. These exercises prime the muscle on a neurological level by activating more fast-twitch motor units to increase either maximal voluntary contraction or contraction speeds. This is often achieved through the use of low-level plyometrics to trick the muscles into producing higher firing frequencies . For example, a snap-down into vertical jump could be utilised.
In conclusion, a 6 step warm up sequence as described above should be followed prior to each training session in order to adequately prepare the body for the session ahead whilst at the same time reducing the risk of injury.
References M. Clark, S. Lucett & B. Sutton (eds.), NASM Essentials of Corrective Exercise.  A. Hedrick, ‘Physiological responses to warm-up’, National Strength and Conditioning Association Journal 14 (5), pp. 25-7.  R. Larson, ‘Customising the Warm-Up and Cool-Down’ in High Performance Training for Sports, pp. 99-112.  M. Clark, S. Lucett & B. Sutton (eds.), NASM Essentials of Sports Performance Training.