Warm-up Must-Haves for any Activity

What should I do in my warm-up?

I am asked this often.

I think this is because there are many different ways that warming up the body has been presented over the years that people get lost in the over load of information.

What’s correct? What’s dated? What might be good, but maybe not for what I’m about to do?

This blog post also is based on the workshop we presented at the American Circus Educators 2018 EdCon. Although that workshop was presented to circus arts educators, these ‘must-haves’ are honestly really ‘must-haves’ for pretty much everyone living in today’s ‘modern lifestyle’ and anyone fitness training or training a circus arts discipline.

Why Warm-up

Warming up is more than just–it’s good for us to raise our heart rates before training, we also warm-up because we know it can help reduce the likelihood of injuries. Mitigating injuries is especially important since we know that injuries are quite closely related to proper joint function, or more accurately, to joint dysfunction.

The movements in our warm-ups are an opportunity…

  • To prepare our muscles, etc. for the upcoming training session.
  • To prepare our nervous system and prime the brain-muscle connection for the work to come.
  • To prime our mobility and stability we already have.
  • To address our body’s “weak links” by reducing tension in overactive muscles and activating underactive muscles.
  • To develop/reinforce optimal joint function and functional movement patterns—essentially, to practice moving well (moving the right things while stabilizing the others) so that over time it becomes a habit.


Each of the following is intended to become a regular feature in all of your warm-ups. Doing them once will be helpful, but doing them repeatedly, over time, begins to ‘groove’ good motor patterns. And while we are not going to be able to completely undo our compensations from our ‘modern lifestyle’ during our warm-up, these exercises provide us with an opportunity to shift things closer to “neutral”.

Quick note: As noted above these ‘must-have’ warm-up exercises are a great for pretty much everyone, but there of course some folks that might not need all of these. Although it should be noted that if you already have quite amount of mobility while performing one of the exercises, there is no ill effects that will come from you performing that exercises. If you want a more individualized warm-up that will address your individual compensatory movement patterns this is something I offer and you can contact me about arranging an assessment session.

First I need to address breathing while performing these exercises. In the descriptions below I will cue breathing. We want to inhale through our nose and exhale with a 5 second exhale out through the mouth as if you were breathing out through a straw.

The importance of good breathing patterns is numerous, but here are a few:

  • There is a powerful link between a good breathing pattern and core activation.
  • Good breathing will also encourage a “parasympathetic shift”—stimulating a decrease in unwanted muscle tension.
  • Good breathing: think “below the ribs”; Bad breathing is just chest breathing during  these warm-up exercises. Chest breathing isn’t always bad, but for the warm-up exercises it is not what we’re looking for.
  • On inhalation, the diaphragm contracts (which is the top of the cylinder of the core-think of your core as a cylinder or a can).
  • Deep abdominals assist towards the end of exhalation phase.
  • Pelvic floor involvement, which works in conjunction with diaphragm and also part of your core musculature (the bottom of your cylinder/can).
  • Good breathing makes good core activation happen automatically!

T-spine rotation


  • Sit back on heels and grab ribs with opposite hand.
  • Press elbows or hands into floor.
  • Exhale and pull ribs while looking over shoulder towards the ceiling.
  • 3-5 breaths/reps each side
  • Make sure to keep your hips back so that the rotation happened in your thoracic spine and not your lumbar spine. (Rotation in our lumbar spine is not what the lumbar spine is designed for and repeated exposure can cause injuries).

Why we should include this in our warm-up

  • This is a breathing exercise to stimulate a parasympathetic shift.
  • Improving our thoracic spine range of motion (ROM) improves scapula movement on the rib cage for any overhead movements we many be doing in our training sessions

Adductor Rock-backs


  • Set up in half-straddle, half-froggy position.
  • The foot of the straddled leg is planted flat on the floor with toes forward. Make sure to maintain this foot contact throughout the exercise.
  • Exhale, engage core and rock pelvis back.
  • Make sure to keep your pelvis and low back in neutral. Make sure not to round your pelvis under as you rock back or to over arch as you come back to the starting position.
  • On the rock back you will actively need to keep your pelvis from rounding under and this may feel like you are arching your back while in the rock back portion of this exercise.
  • Do 5 rock-backs on each side.

Why we should include this in our warm-up

  • It’s an opportunity to practice moving at the hip joint without moving the pelvis or low back.
  • An opportunity to practice core engagement with movement–core control which is needed in physical activity.
  • It works our hip mobility–rotating the femur (our upper leg bone) in the hip socket.
  • Gets our adductors moving through their ROM.

World’s Greatest Stretch


  • Begin in a high plank position.
  • Create a straight line from the top of head through your shoulder through your hip to knee or ankle. (It’s your knee or ankle depending if you are performing this exercise with your knee on the floor or not–knee down is an option). We do not want an overly flexed spine. If you are having trouble maintaining a straight spine use some yoga blocks under your hands.
  • Engage your quads and glutes of your straight back leg and engage your core. Keep them engaged throughout this exercises. This is an active stretch!
  • Breathe and hold this active stretch for 3 deep breath cycles.
  • Next add a twist on each exhale, twisting your sternum towards the ceiling, inhaling return to starting position. You are trying to turn your sternum to the ceiling, not your arm behind you.
  • Perform 3 twists on each side with the long exhale on each twist.

Why we should include this in our warm-up

  • Because stretching is actually good: this is a great way to reduce tension.
  • Stretching for about 30s is ok, but really only if it is followed by dynamic warm-up.
  • It opens up your hip and upper back mobility.
  • Give us an opportunity to practice “active engagement” in a stretch (because the active stretch will help reduce tension and most bendy folks really don’t need to be doing passive stretching anyway).

Floor Slides


  • Lie on your back with a neutral spine and pelvis, knees bent, feet flat on the floor and arms in a goal post shape.
  • Press forearms, wrists and fingers into the floor. If they don’t all get to the floor try your best to to pull them there.
  • Exhale as arms slide straight up overhead using the exhale to draw your ribs down as the arms extend and forearms press into the floor.
  • As you extend the arms you are trying to push them through the floor to the space below the floor your laying on.
  • Focus is on maintaining core engagement rather than how far straight overhead your arms go.
  • Make sure your rib cage doesn’t flare and you dont’ lose your core engagement. The strong exhale as you raise your arms helps maintain that engagement.
  • Make sure wrists are always in contact with the floor. Do not tip hands back to touch the fingers and forget about pressing the wrist into the floor.
  • Perform 5-8 floor slides.

Why we should include this in our warm-up

  • This activates your lower traps-which tend to be under activated in many people. This also activates your serratus muscles-one of the muscles, along with lower traps, that works to upwardly rotate the shoulder when we raise our arms overhead to create good scapula movement.
  • Is an active stretch for your pecs and internal rotators.
  • Activates your core control, because you need to keep it engaged and keep the rib cage and spinal positioning while you raise your arms overhead.
  • Activation of external rotators as you press your hands/forearms into the floor-which many of us need more strength and stability there to help keep injury away.

Leg Lowers


  • Lie on your back with a neutral spine and pelvis, knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Low back must remain neutral-with a small space between it and the floor. No tucking your pelvis.
  • Arms by your sides and just a little bit away from your torso-like jet airplane wings. Palms facing up.
  • Contract core with a pelvic floor lift and rib cage drawing together and maintain core engagement and control throughout the exercise.
  • Exhale and float one leg then the other into table top (knees directly over hips)  without changing your pelvis-it shouldn’t arch or tuck to lift the legs. Also do not rock pelvis side to side or lose your core contraction/puff up your abs to lift the legs.
  • Straighten both legs up to the ceiling, making sure not to hyper tuck the pelvis. Stack ankles over hips.
  • Both legs must be straight and active …the whole time. SQUEEZE the muscles of the legs. Can use a strap, towel or band around foot of stationary leg if you find holding the other leg still/up too challenging (limit in flexibility where you can’t stack the stationary leg’s ankle over the hip or limit in strength or endurance) while also trying to focus on the moving leg. (there are a few options shown in the video)
  • Lower leg via pulling it towards the floor-squeeze the glute!
  • Exhale as you lower your leg on a 5 second exhale…only lower leg as far as you can without arching your back or losing your rib/core engagement.
  • Perform 5 leg lowers on one leg than the other.

Why we should include this in our warm-up

  • Works your hamstring and calf flexibility.
  • Fires up your core engagement and control during movement.
  • Glute activation.
  • Contralateral lumbopelvic dissociation-working your core engagement and control  during hip joint (the leg attachement into the pelvis-your hip socket) movement and learning to move the hip joint without moving the spine-something many people struggle with. Also moving in a contralateral fashion mimics many things in life: walking and running are the two biggest.

Cook Hip Lift, aka “Lumbar-locked” Single-leg Hip Lift 


  • Lie on your back with a neutral spine and pelvis, knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Low back must remain neutral-with a small space between it and the floor. No tucking your pelvis.
  • Hug one knee into your chest without tucking the pelvis under.
  • Dorsiflex both ankles, but most specifically the foot on the floor.
  • Drive your heel into the floor as you exhale and have the heel drive cause the pelvis to lift.
  • Hold the lift for 5 seconds as you continue to exhale.
  • Inhale lower hips down on a 1 second count.
  • Make sure that as you lift your pelvis, that your knee doesn’t pull away from your chest. Pull the knee into your chest with your biceps strength and activating your hip flexor, not by shrugging shoulders up towards ears.
  • Make sure the foot on the floor remains flexed. Do not push through a flat foot, you will not find the glute-which is the reason for doing this exercise.
  • You should feel this in the glute of the leg that is on the floor. You should not feel it in the hamstring or the quad of that leg. If you are, 1) make the hip lift less high, 2) focus on contracting your glute-maybe even put your hand on your own glute to feel if it’s contracting. Many folks have under-active glutes and it may take a little bit of time to really feel it there.
  • You may get a hamstring cramp, this is a sign that your hamstrings are trying to the work when it’s not really their job in this position. You can also try sliding the heel closer to your hips to isolate the glute more.
  • Perform 5 repetitions on each side.

Why we should include this in our warm-up

  • Because for many people, their glutes are underactive, this will help them to get their glutes working better.
  • Because of underactive glutes, many folks can’t perform hip extension without lumbar extension, they will generally extend (arch) their low backs to extend their leg behind them-this is incorrect, eventually, if you do this repeatedly your spine gets unhappy.

Dead Bugs 


  • Lie in the “Dead Bug” position, on your back with a neutral spine and pelvis, knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Low back must remain neutral-with a small space between it and the floor. No tucking your pelvis.
  • Contract core with a pelvic floor lift and rib cage drawing together and maintain core engagement and control throughout the exercise.
  • Exhale and float one leg then the other into table top (knees directly over hips) without changing your pelvis-it shouldn’t arch or tuck to lift the legs. Also do not rock pelvis side to side or lose your core contraction/puff up your abs to lift the legs.
  • Exhale bring opposite hand to opposite knee and press them firmly into one another. Maintain a straight elbow. Make sure knee doesn’t pull up past hip height. If you can’t reach use a yoga block between hand and knee and squish the yoga block.
  • Other arm floats up and stacks over shoulder.
  • Exhale for a 5 seconds count as you extend your arm and leg out and away. Squeeze the muscles of the arm and leg and pull the arm/leg out and towards the floor. I often tell students and clients to image they are in the scene with Princess Leia in the trash compactor and you are trying to press into the walls to keep them from crushing in on you. Because the extending of the arms and leg is to be very active and not passive.

Why we should include this in our warm-up

  • Core control with overhead ROM and hip extension, plus cross-body patterning. All the things!!!

Bear Crawl—forward/backward


  • Set up on all fours. Hand directly under shoulders and knees directly under hips.
  • Neutral spine and pelvis.
  • Engage core with pelvic floor lifts and rib cage knitting together.
  • Press into hand and toes to lift the knees just one inch off the floor. Shoulders are actively pressing down, but are not protracted.
  • Take only small steps when crawling, about 1-2 inches forward and back. Too big of steps will cause postural deviations and rotating through your spine/shoulders/pelvis.
  • Image you are balancing a wine glass on your pelvis and do not spill it.
  • Press into the floor with opposite foot and hand as you crawl.
  • Go slow to ensure good spinal positioning and that your shoulders or pelvis do not rock side to side. Don’t spill your wine glass!
  • Forwards crawling you push into the toes (down and away from body) to locomote forward. Backwards crawling your push into your hand (down and away from body) to locomote backwards.
  • Make sur ether knees maintain that they are only one inch off the floor.

Why we should include this in our warm-up

  • Challenges our core control.
  • Dynamic scapular stability so needed in circus and all fitness workouts.
  • Activates your serratus muscles.
  • Dynamic hip stability.

CNS primer: Wacky Jacks/Cross Jacks 

Why we should include this in our warm-up

  • Cross-body movement stimulates the CNS and primes the mind-muscle connection
  • This is the beginning of your dynamic warm-up (to continue to raise your body temperature). Do these and other jumping things or dynamic movements.
    • Dynamic movements: jumping jacks, skipping, jogging, high knees, arms circles, body weight squats, split squat (some may know this as a stationary lunge), lateral squatsand grape vine to name a few.
  • *Note: maintain straight elbows during any jumping jack to focus on good shoulder mechanics.

Wrapping Up

The benefit for these exercises comes largely from their repeated use. If you include these in every single warm-up, you will learn good form and good movement patterns  over time. As I said earlier these evercies address many of the common movement dysfunctions and compensations we have from our “modern lifestyle”. If you want something specifically designed for you please contact me to arrange that.

Happy warming up and training! Mike and Theresa