Warm Ups – A Simple Framework

With over a decade within the Australian Institute Strength & Conditioning network, Emily Nolan has worked with a number of Olympic sports teams and individual athletes. In 2014, Emily was presented the Bruce Walsh Award - the highest award in Australian Strength and Conditioning. 

Too many times in my career have I observed coaches who are 10-15minutes late to their own training sessions… can you believe that!?

Let me explain:

While the athletes/players arrive and start getting warmed up, the coach is busy setting up the drills on the field, talking to parents, catching up with players, talking to assistant coaches, physiotherapists… you get the idea. They aren’t actually involved in running the warm up; they don’t actually coach the warm up.

Perhaps they assume the players “know what to do”… but too often I’ve seen coaches who think their role begins with the first drill and everything before that is up to the players.

I think that is wrong.

Those coaches are missing valuable coaching time, and their players are being ripped off and missing valuable learning time.

Think about it – we have finite time to develop these players, so 10-15minutes out of say, a 90minute session, 2 – 3 times a week adds up! When you think of it like that, that is an extra 20-45mins of coaching and performance enhancement that can be achieved each and every week!

Dr Ian McKeown (who you may remember from this excellent post) through his PhD studies found that …

”short concentrated warm up drills that are well designed, coached, and focused on movement quality can improve movement ability alongside improvements in performance and reduce injury risk…”.

Dr McKeown got positive changes in power production with a group of teenage basketball players doing 2x 15 minute sessions a week following the mantra above – short, concentrated drills that are well designed, coached, focusing on movement quality.

That is with these athletes doing no other physical training.

Now imagine taking that piece of information and adding it to your already well designed, well coached and well-structured technical session and imagine the positive changes that could occur!

If that doesn’t convince you to revisit how you approach your warm ups as a coach then I don’t know what will!

Here is a simple framework to help guide you as you design and deliver a warm up that not only prepares your players for the session ahead more effectively, but addresses movement dysfunction and helps lay a foundation for long term athletic success.

I’ve found 3 simple words that govern the content of any warm up I design – for the gym, on the field, in the pool, wherever it may be and whatever the session.

Mobilise - Activate - Stimulate

Mobilise the areas of the body to enhance movement capacity.

Activate the supporting musculature along with activating the relevant movement patterns.

Stimulate the neural system to integrate the demands of the session ahead.

Mobility, or the ability to move fluidly through movements without physical hindrance, is not flexibility.

It is not simply stretching or lying over a foam roller.

It is taking joints through a full range of motion and it is done gracefully, smoothly, fluidly.

It is not necessary to mobilise the entire body for each training session – use the specificity principle and prioritise areas that are required for the immediate session ahead.

Basic mobility activities like ankle circles and figure 8’s, hip circles, leg swings and hurdle walks, laying thoracic twists such as crucifixes and scorpions, shoulder rolls and circles are all fine and nice to start with, but to get more bang for your buck look at compound movements such as squatting and lunging.

Use the equipment from your sport; a stick or a bat, a ball and hold them overhead, out in front, across the shoulders.

Work in different planes of movement – go forwards, backwards, and laterally.

Mix it up!

Look to integrate basic Yoga positions such as downward dogs and cobras, inchworms, spiderman walks into this.

With all of these movements there needs to be an element of exploration and of play.

Each mobility movement will feel different to each player and your coaching cues should direct athlete’s attention to the ‘feel’ of the movement. “You should feel a lengthening through here….” Or “you may feel a deep stretch through here…”

A Symposium for Coaches of Developmental Athletes.

A Symposium for Coaches of Developmental Athletes.

Using compound movements contribute to our “activation” of the muscles and the movement patterns as well.

The activation of isolated or specific muscles is important to ensure that the body is firing in the correct sequence at the correct time for the correct task.

We know from the literature that ineffective activation of muscles can lead to injury – and a very common example is poor gluteal activation and firing which could not only lead to increased risk of hamstring and lower back injuries, but also down the chain linking to foot and Achilles injuries.

For a running based session it is most important to fire the gluteals for that reason – simple hip raises or hip thrusts as well as the basic single leg squats are nice methods.

The focus of these exercises must be on good body alignment and cueing the athlete to squeeze with their glutes first and foremost.

Lateral sliders or crab walks using a theraband around the knee or ankle is a nice example to switch on the lateral gluteals to assist with stabilisation of the hips in running, jumping and agility patterns.

Movement pattern activation is not limited to squatting and lunging. It is important that players can draw upon the correct motor pattern or respond to any given task quickly so proper priming of them is crucial.

Running, jumping and landing, both double leg and single leg, with and without reaction to an external object or cue, as well as actions like throwing and catching all need to be considered should the session ahead contain those elements.

These activities lead nicely into the “stimulate” theme of the warm up. Preparing the neural system for the tasks ahead.

Do the players need to move fast? Then the neural system needs to be ready and primed to do this. Do they need to coordinate their feet and/ or hands perhaps with a ball or a stick? Then you can’t expect that first drill to look very “pretty” unless you first prepare their bodies for those high coordination demanding tasks.

This is the fun part of the warm up: the tone shifts, the mood changes, the intensity lifts.

Introducing little games, challenges or partner work. I

It is easy to get engagement from the players during this phase and begin to get them communicating and working together as a team to problem solve.

So you players are now all primed up and ready to go!

The worst thing you can do now is sit them down and spend the next five minutes explaining the remainder of the session. Do your talking before the warm up starts.

Be planned well enough that you can transfer from warm up to Drill 1 smoothly, easily and with minimal break to ensure the intensity, flow and engagement you create in your warm up is carried through to the session proper.


A warm up is a 10-15 minute coaching opportunity, where the benefits of actually “coaching” the movements and having the athletes fully engaged, practicing deliberately reach far greater than the immediate session as it can contribute to improving the basic physical qualities of speed, strength and power without the need for fancy equipment or a separate specialised session.

The 3 themes are inter-related and intermingled. An effective warm up should be a seamless mix and progression of movement from

  • simple to complex,
  • basic to compound,
  • controlled to chaotic,
  • slow to fast.

It should represent a crescendo of movements and activities that have flow and progress into that first drill.

But above all else, the biggest take home message is to actually coach it. Coach the movements. Correct technique. Make the athletes engage in the movements and give you feedback.

Don’t let your players get away with poor technique as this just reinforces a bad pattern which can become almost impossible to correct.

Emily Nolan is a Level 3 S&C Coach, an “Elite” coach in the ASCA pro-scheme, as well as being an accredited Weightlifting, Sports Power, Track & Field (Throws) and Boxing Coach. Follow her on Twitter @Mizmle.

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