Beyond Warm-ups: How to Make Your Warm-up Count

Guest author Devan McConnell is one of Volt's contributing strength coaches. Coach McConnell is the Head Sports Performance Coach for UMass Lowell's Division I Hockey Team. Today he shares his insights on how to plan out your team's pre-practice warm-up to be an effective factor in game-day performance.

Pre-practice warm-ups can be much more than a time to merely “get loose” before the real work begins. In fact, with a little thought and creativity, the warm-up can become a regular opportunity for development.


Out With The Old, In With The New

Unfortunately, pre-practice warm-ups that consist of a light jog followed by 15 minutes of lying down while static stretching still occur today—but, thankfully, these catch-all warm-ups are becoming fewer and further between. Dynamic warm-ups have largely taken the place of these antiquated pre-practice routines, as strength and conditioning science slowly disseminates more effective ways to prepare the body for athletic tasks.

Much can be accomplished in the 10-15 minute timeframe teams are generally given to warm up before they practice. With a little planning, that short amount of time can not only serve the purpose of a traditional dynamic warm-up—i.e., increase core temperature, lengthen and activate opposing muscle groups, improve range of motion, and provide a specific time to mentally focus prior to practice—but can also serve as a chance to build athletic ability and improve performance.

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Depending on your particular situation, you might choose to include or emphasize any number of aspects of “athletic development” into your warm-up. For example, when strength work in the weight room is limited, isometrics or slow eccentrics might be used in various split squat or lunging patterns during the warm-up. Speed and multidirectional work can be improved by implementing lean/fall/run or lateral movement drills. Glute “activation” can quickly become glute “strength” by progressing variables such as reps, time under tension, and intensity—changing from green to blue or black mini-bands in exercises such as lateral band walks will accomplish this (click here to learn the value of glute strength and how it's developed). If you have access to medicine balls, these can be incorporated to “turn on” the Central Nervous System as well as develop power.

Mix It Up, But Stay Specific

The warm-up also affords you a chance to improve your athletes’ mobility and movement mechanics. For our men’s hockey team, I personally always include a single-leg plyometric hop variation towards the end of our warm-up. The emphasis is not necessarily on power development, but rather stability and proper lander mechanics. My goal is to reinforce proper control and proprioception to a particularly injury-prone movement. Core stability, ankle/hip/T-spine mobility, and even conditioning can easily be incorporated into your warm-up time, by simply changing the way you approach warm-up planning.

Dan John says that if something is important, you should do it every day. To me this means my athletes need to address the mobility and stability demands dictated by the joint-by-joint approach to which I subscribe, every day. However, college sports seasons are long, and mental fatigue is as much of an issue as physical fatigue when it comes to injury reduction and performance. Because of this, I program our warm-up in an A/B fashion for 3-week phases. This allows some change of pace from day to day, as well as progression every few weeks. It also lets me work my athletes at a higher intensity through a greater number of exercises or drills, without overworking them. I will still address fundamental movement patterns, important activation needs, and mobility/stability demands, but I will use different exercises from the A to the B warm-up, and progress the demands of these exercises throughout the 3-week phase, just like I do in our strength workouts.


Make Warm-ups More Than Just Dynamic

Looking closely at the needs of your team when designing an effective warm-up is important. Critical thinking and a little creativity go a long way towards reducing the incidence of injury, increasing performance, and simply preparing your team for practice. Maybe you need to spend more time on mobility, or perhaps acceleration. Maybe your team will be on the road for a long stretch and will miss several workouts, so including some strength work would be beneficial. Or maybe you really do need to include some static stretching. Whatever your team’s particular needs, the warm-up you design can be more than just dynamic.

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Devan McConnell is is a guest contributor to the Volt blog. He is the Head Sports Performance Coach at UMass Lowell, working primarily with the Division I hockey team. Learn more about Devan and his innovative Sports Performance department here.