Many athletes have so much adrenaline before a game they don’t want to take time to stretch. Their focus is to get on the field and start play. Skipping pre-game exercises, though, can lead to painful injuries.
Here are 15 exercises you should add to your warmup routine so you’re at peak performance at game time and keep muscles and ligaments healthy.
Paul Ingraham is a major advocate of mobilizations, or quick repetitive movements to help increase your body’s range.
“Choose a joint, perhaps one closest to the pain if your pain is in a specific location, and begin to explore its range of movement,” the athlete and former Registered Massage Therapist writes at PainScience.com. “If you are injured or in pain, usually there is some limitation to the movement. Approach your limits, feel the edge, and retreat.”
These mobilizations are based on repetition, not intensity, with the goal of making your body more comfortable and expanding your range of motion over time.
Shoulder Blade Rotations
Gaelyn Rogers at Peak Physical Therapy has found the best way to keep vulnerable areas like your knees and neck safe is to strengthen the areas around them. For your neck, Rogers says to add shoulder rotations to your warmup.
Shoulder rotations are performed with a resistance tube, which you hold in front of you. Your arms at your sides, hold your palms face up and bend your elbows at 90-degrees. Then pull your forearms outward, stretching the tube and drawing your shoulder blades together. Repeat this 10-20 times.
Alexa Tucker does a great job of explaining this workout, which improves the mobility in your elbows, shoulders, and upper back:
“Start on your hands and knees with your wrists under your shoulders and knees below your hips. Place your right hand behind your head with your right elbow opening wide to the right. Now bring your right elbow down to point toward the ground while keeping the rest of your body still. Now extend it back up through the starting position and beyond, twisting your upper body to the right as you try to get your right elbow to point at the ceiling. Do this five times, then switch sides.”
Single Leg Medicine Ball Toss
Physical therapist Ben Musholt at is a proponent of General Physical Preparedness (GPP), or maintaining a baseline fitness level so you can engage in physical activity safely and comfortably. This means adding balance, strength, and agility training to your workouts regardless of your sport.
These don’t necessarily have to be intense. To improve balance, for instance, Musholt recommends single leg medicine ball tosses with a partner. Do three sets of 60 seconds on each leg. This can serve as a good warm up too.
Forward and Side Lunges
Mollee Smith, physical therapist at CHOC Children's, recommends lunges to help warm up the muscles and get the legs loose. Traditional forward lunges involve kneeling forward on one knee and holding for 20 seconds, while side lunges require bending one leg and leaning toward that knee, letting the other leg stretch for 20 seconds.
Athletes should spend 10 minutes warming up with light exercise before a game in order to increase bloodflow to the muscles and tendons. Lunges are just one option for achieving this.
Figure Four Stretch
This is a standing exercise: Place your right ankle on your left thigh, then shift your weight onto your back heel. Once you’re balanced, bend your left leg and lean slowly forward. Hold for 30 seconds and then switch.
Personal trainers Kisar Dhillon and Matt Dawson recommend this stretch because it opens your hips and gives your IT band a stretch while improving your balance. It also forces you to slow down and focus on your stretches, so you don’t rush through them to start playing.
“Stronger glutes mean a stronger deadlift, squat, and even bench press,” Tony Gentilcore says. The Strength and Conditioning Specialist and co-founder of Cressey Sports Performance encourages athletes who are working with weights to start their workout with a Supine Bridge.
Lie on your back with your knees at 90-degree angles. Squeeze your glutes and lift your hips, without using your hamstrings. Repeat this 10 times.
Active Straight Leg Raises
Molly Galbraith, co-founder of Girls Gone Strong, encourages athletes to complete 10 repetitions of each exercise. However, she knows that’s not always realistic for athletes who don’t want a long warmup. In this case, six should suffice and is better than skipping it completely.
Leg raises are a simple way to stretch your muscles if you do them correctly. Lie on your back and slowly raise your extended leg without moving your back. You can place your hand on the small of your back to feel the pressure pushing against it, which will let you know you’re doing the exercise effectively. Galbraith demonstrates this technique in a tutorial video on her site.
Andrew Peloquin at FitDay created “The Astronaut Workout,” which combines high intensity movement and bodyweight training. He says wall sits strengthen your legs without impact that can strain your joints. Use your quads and hips to keep your back pressed against the wall, and hold for 30 seconds.
High Knee Skips
This exercise will help stretch your ankles, knees, and hips. Deblina Biswas says this also works as a cardio warmup if you’re looking to stretch and get your blood flowing at the same time.
Start these skips by raising your knee to a 90-degree angle and pushing your opposite arm into the air. Keep switching and continue this exercise for one to two minutes at a time. This exercise is sometimes called the “victory lap” warm up because you look like you’re running across the field triumphantly pumping your fist into the air.
Holistic nutritionist and fitness expert Yuri Elkaim explains that dynamic exercises before a workout can “dust off the cobwebs” of your joints and get them ready for use. One of his top exercises is a yoga staple, called the Vinyasa Flow.
There are four stages to this flow that you should slowly ease through to strengthen your body and improve your balance. Start in a push-up position, with your hands and feet on the ground and body raised. Lower yourself to the ground and then push just your arms up, stretching from your back. End with a reverse stretch, arching your back high in the air with your legs and arms fully extended. You should complete five flows at a comfortable pace.
Overhead Reach with a Toe Touch
Another warm up exercise from yoga is the overhead reach with toe touch. Standing with your feet shoulder-width apart, lift your arms up, then glide down to touch your toes. Focus on keeping a straight spine when your arms are up and a round back when your arms are at your feet. Inhale as you reach the top and exhale as you bend over.
The team at Fitness Blender created a helpful video demonstrating these motions if you need to see them in action before replicating them on your own.
Rocking Ankle Mobilization
This workout comes from trainer Mark Barroso at Men’s Fitness. While you’re in pushup position, place one foot on the heel of the opposite foot. Once you have you balance, move your hands back so your butt is raised. Then rock your heels back so they touch the ground. Keep moving your hands back until you reach the point where your heel can touch the ground.
Complete these heel touches 8 times and then switch. Take your time with this exercise so you can improve your balance while stretching.
Light Jogging or Biking
Getting your heart pumping can push blood through your muscles and turn on your nervous system. To jog or bike without overdoing it, make sure you can have a conversation with your exercise partner without feeling winded.
If you’re going solo, personal trainer Jen Cassetty recommends singing along to your playlist. If you can’t make it through a song, then you’re pushing yourself too hard for a warmup.
Foam Roller Usage
Before you’re ready to hit the field or court, grab a foam roller for your arms and legs. Dr. Ben Kim created a video to demonstrate the best ways to use these tools to loosen your muscles. Kim recommends five passes with each muscle group for a general warm up, but encourages runners and other athletes to increase this up to 10 passes for heavy workout days.
If you’re unsure how to use these tools effectively, reach out to a coach or personal trainer to help. Explain where you are experiencing tightness and ask for their recommendations on rolling, stretching, and preventing pain.
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