What Are the Components of a Great Warm-Up?

By Ingrid Marcum

The basic goals of a warm-up are to prepare the body for exercise and to decrease the chance of injury during training. But on top of that, it’s also a great time to start to shift your focus away from everything else in life, and to instead mentally prepare for your upcoming workout. A well-designed warm-up that includes diaphragmatic breathing, general mobility work and activation of main muscle groups also provides the additional benefits of reinforcing alignment, encouraging better breathing patterns and building efficient movement patterns.

A proper warm-up should prepare you for training not just physically, but mentally as well.

Components of an ideal warm-up include and should follow this order:

  1. Self-myofascial release (optional)
  2. Diaphragmatic breathing and core-pelvic floor connection breathing
  3. Cardiovascular warm-up (optional)
  4. Dynamic warm-up and movement preparation
  5. Warm-up sets (optional)

You may not always have time (or need) to do an ideal warm-up, so while all of these elements have their place, it’s up to you at each training session to determine what you need most that day. As some elements from the above list are marked optional, prioritize the ones that aren’t, namely diaphragmatic breathing and core-pelvic floor connection breathing, as well as dynamic warm-up and movement preparation.

Self-Myofascial Release: Don’t Go Overboard

Self-myofascial release (SMR) is performed using one of several tools — such as a foam roller — and allows you to use pressure to self-massage soft tissue, most often muscle tissue.

Soft tissue includes the tissues in the body that are softer than bone tissue: muscle, tendons, ligaments, fascia, skin, fat, vessels (blood and lymph), peripheral nerves, and the fluid and tissue in your joints (synovial tissue). Despite being called soft tissue, many of these tissues are not that soft at all. They are very strong structures that are difficult to mechanically alter in shape or structure, and contrary to popular belief, SMR does not lengthen things like fascial tissue.

Foam rolling can be a simple and effective way to begin to shift your focus from whatever activity you were doing before your workout (sitting at a desk, commuting, sleeping, etc.) to an “it’s time to work out” mindset.

Self-myofascial release has been shown to improve range of motion, decrease muscle soreness, and decrease fatigue. If you have chronic pain or feel stiff, tight, or tense in certain areas, you may find some relief and may feel more mobile after a short bout of foam rolling in a few targeted areas before your workout.

However, there is some evidence that doing a lot of foam rolling prior to training may dampen the central nervous system (the exact opposite of what should be happening before a workout). So, if you enjoy foam rolling before your workout, choose a few targeted areas and foam roll each of them for 20 to 60 seconds before your workout using light to moderate pressure.

While you may experience some discomfort when rolling, know that SMR work should not be painful.

If you enjoy longer foam rolling sessions, or want to apply deep pressure, you may want to spend more time after your resistance training session doing self-myofascial release work on the areas of the body you targeted with your most recent workout. You can also do more for recovery on your days when you’re not doing resistance training.

A Crucial Step: Diaphragmatic and Core-Floor Connection Breathing

The Connection Breath helps you coordinate the functions of the core and pelvic floor muscles so that they work together to stabilize the core during resistance training exercises. Integrating the Connection Breath into your warm-up is a fantastic way to increase awareness of how your pelvic floor engages during your workout.

Follow our three-step “Ready, Set, Go” protocol to make sure you are performing Kegels and the Connection Breath effectively:

Step 1: Ready

Mastering your alignment is the first step to getting your body ready for pelvic floor exercises.

Many people consider alignment to mean the same thing as posture, but alignment goes beyond your mom telling you to sit up straight or to pull your shoulders back when you were a kid. It is more accurate to say that alignment is how the joints and bones stack up to create posture.

The top of pelvis should not be tilted too far forward (anteriorly tilted) or too far backward (posteriorly tilted). Ideally, it should be stacked right in the middle with the rib cage sitting over the pelvis. Just right. In the same way, alignment should not require much muscular work — don’t “hold” yourself in position, rather allow your body to relax into better alignment.

Consider these tips when assessing and improving your alignment:

  • Create a tall upper body, “growing upward” through the crown of your head. Do not round your body forward. Imagine a piece of string attached to the crown of your head that draws you up toward the ceiling.
  • Allow a gentle arch in your lower back without sticking your hips out behind you or trying to tuck your tailbone under your body.
  • Stack the base of your rib cage directly over your pelvis. The ribs should not flare out and the upper chest should not lift toward your chin.

Step 2: Set

Your alignment from Step 1 allows your breath to flow easily and allows for better activation of your deeper muscle system.

With that, let’s review something that you thought you already knew how to do: breathe. Proper breathing patterns ensure that you’re recruiting the core muscles as a unit. The core starts from the diaphragm, goes all the way down to the pelvic floor muscles, and is surrounded by the abdominal and spinal muscles.

To practice proper breathing:

  • Sit on a hard chair or other hard surface and adjust the flesh of your glutes out to the sides.
  • Sit right on top of your sit bones, paying attention to the tips in Step 1.
  • Put one hand on your abdomen and the other hand above it on your rib cage.
  • On the inhale breath, breathe into your hands and think about inflating or filling your pelvic floor with air. Be sure not to push the belly out, but rather allow the belly to fill as you breathe in.
  • On your exhale breath, notice your hands descend as your rib cage and abdomen deflate and at the same time, imagine the pelvic floor deflating upward.

Step 3: Go

Building on Steps 1 and 2, use your breath to connect your core and pelvic floor with the Connection Breath. It’s extremely important for all of the pelvic floor musculature to release and contract effectively.

To perform the Connection Breath:

  • On your inhale breath, imagine inflating or expanding your pelvic floor as if you’re filling your vagina and anus with air or driving your sit bones apart with air.
  • Flow through your breaths, releasing your vagina and anus with the inhale breath, and picking them back up with the exhale breath.

Remember, the relaxation occurs on the inhale, and the contraction occurs on the exhale. If the relaxation portion seems tricky at first, forgo the contraction and continue working on the relaxation.

Practice the Connection Breath in your day-to-day life as well as in the gym. It’s best to practice daily, especially when starting out. You will learn core and pelvic floor connection in your training program, but performing these breaths on your days away from the gym is important, too. It shouldn’t take more than five minutes. Eventually you won’t have to think about it so much, and it will happen automatically when you need to lift, sneeze, sprint, laugh, or exert yourself in any way.

As stated above, these muscles do not contract continuously, so it is just as important to be able to relax your pelvic floor muscles as it is to be able to contract them.

Are Cardiovascular Warm-Ups Necessary?

Cardio warm-ups are intended to shift the body from being in a resting state to being ready for more intense activity.

These shifts include, but are not limited to:

  • Increased blood flow to active muscles, heart, and lungs
  • Increased core and muscle temperature
  • Increased breathing rate
  • Decreased joint stiffness
  • Increased nervous system activity
  • Increased demand for oxygen

Unless you have a specific need or preference for this type of general activity before a workout, it may not be necessary. However, you may find that doing a short cardio warm-up helps you get into the right mindset. So, if you have the time to include one, it can be beneficial to include. If you’re preparing for a cardio-focused workout, it makes sense to prepare your body with a light, general cardio warm-up first.

This warm-up may include five to ten minutes of activities such as bodyweight movements, brisk walking, jogging, or any other type of low-exertion, full-body aerobic exercise.

Lastly, if you’re feeling more stressed than usual or are unable to focus mentally, doing a short cardio warm-up may be a good bridge between whatever you were doing before the training session and what you’re about to do.

Prepare Your Body With a Dynamic Warm-Up

The dynamic warm-up focuses more directly on preparing your joints, muscles, and movements prior to beginning a more intense training session. Research has found that dynamic warm-ups also have the potential to decrease muscle soreness after a workout (delayed onset muscle soreness; DOMS), improve flexibility, and improve strength [1].

The general goals of a well-designed dynamic warm-up are as follows:

  • Increase core temperature to prepare for exercise
  • Increase blood flow to active muscles
  • Increase muscle temperature for improved ability to stretch through appropriate ranges of motion
  • Improve mobility in areas that feel stiff
  • Improve alignment to potentially influence better muscle activation patterns
  • Help with central nervous system activation, muscle activation, and mind-muscle connection

How to Do a Dynamic Warm-Up

In general, we recommend six to ten exercises for a dynamic warm-up, depending on your needs, time constraints, and the workout you are about to do. You should choose a combination of movements that target mobility, connection, activation and stability. These exercises should allow you to move through the ranges of motion that you’ll be performing during your workout and prepare you for the more intense loads to come.

What About Warm-Up Sets?

Once you have finished your dynamic warm-up, depending on the program you are following, you may perform a few warm-up sets of the exercises you will be doing in that workout using a lighter weight — or even just your bodyweight. The number of exercises and warm-up sets you do to prepare for the more intense training will depend on your schedule, as well as how heavy you are training that day and whether your workout is a full-body workout, upper-lower split workout, or body-part split workout.

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About the author:  Ingrid Marcum

Ingrid Marcum, CSCS, is a successful multi-sport athlete with a great passion for teaching and coaching. Since 1997, Ingrid has been helping others reach their own fitness and athletic goals as a speaker, educator, strength & conditioning coach and movement specialist. To learn more about and from Ingrid, visit her website, and follow her on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.


  1. McCrary, J & Ackermann, Bronwen & Halaki, Mark. (2015). A systematic review of the effects of upper body warm-up on performance and injury. British journal of sports medicine. 49. 10.1136/bjsports-2014-094228. http://bjsm.bmj.com/content/bjsports/49/14/935.full.pdf

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