Give Your Workouts a Turbo Boost with Tim DiFrancesco’s NBA-Proven Movement Preparation

As a coach, you probably spend an awful lot of time and effort tinkering with the details of each workout. Whether it’s tweaking sets and reps, figuring out optimal lift percentages, or messing with rest periods, there are an almost infinite number of ways to alter, and hopefully improve, the quality and impact of each session.

Then on the back end, you’re doing all you can to help your clients maximize recovery. From sleep hygiene to adequate protein intake to mobility, enabling your athletes to facilitate maximum adaptation to those carefully tuned stimuli they encounter during their workouts is a big deal, and rightly so.

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Yet what happens before each session can often become an afterthought. Sure, you know your clients’ bodies can’t go from zero to max speed without a little encouragement. But you’ve only got a limited opportunity to make the most of each day’s session. When you factor in the exercises themselves and that all-important cooldown afterwards, that likely leaves you with five minutes or less to get everyone warmed up and hyped up for the exertion to come.

Why Add a Warmup?

The trouble with leaving the warmup out in the cold is that it can have a big negative impact on performance, limit movement quality throughout each session, and increase the chance of injury.

Maybe you’ve heard the veteran coaches’ adage, “If you don’t have time to warm up, you don’t have time to work out” and always rolled your eyes at it. But those old timers were on to something.

You simply cannot get optimal output from your athletes unless you’ve first adequately prepared every system in their bodies. And short-changing movement activation isn’t going to get that done.

Conversely, there are a few coaches who go nuts with their warmup protocol, to the point where it becomes detrimental to performance. While researchers like Tomaras and MacIntosh have found that inadequate pre-workout intensity and/or duration reduces performance, they also discovered that too much of either can drain athletes once they get to the main event. Their 2011 study concluded that a 17-minute warmup at moderate intensity helped a group of cyclists perform better than a second group that did a higher intensity warmup for 51.5 minutes. “Who does a warmup for almost an hour?” we hear you ask. We’re feeling you, but there are coaches out there who make their pre-workout protocol way too long, hard, complex, and physically and mentally taxing.

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As with many other elements of coaching, finding the right balance is important – enough of the right type of exercises to prep the body and movement pathways in the brain for optimal performance, without pushing clients too far and wearing them out before the actual workout gets going.

Complementing the findings of Tomaras and MacIntosh’s work, a 2015 University of North Carolina study concluded that a 15-minute dynamic warmup enhanced vertical jump, boosted strength, and increased flexibility compared to a static stretching routine. Soccer’s global governing body, FIFA, has found that a dynamic, movement-focused warmup of similar duration (they call their 20-minute warmup for youth players “11+”) decreases overall injury rate by 48 percent and serious injuries by 74 percent.

Movement Preparation Principles

So now that we’ve found a line of best fit for the duration and type of warmup, we need to consider what we’re trying to achieve before every workout and how this prepares your clients to perform at full capacity and with minimal risk of injury.

It’s important to note that there is no one-size-fits-all prescription that is perfect for every context, every sport, and every athlete. But we can begin with some sound foundational principles that we build a framework of movement upon to ensure adequate readiness for whatever demands the athletes encounter – such as speed, load, and intensity – during their workout or team practice.

During every warmup, I want my athletes to get into, hold, and explore fundamental human positions (which Kelly Starrett calls archetypes), have them move through full ranges of motion across multiple planes, and progressively ramp up the nervous system so that by the time the workout starts, everything is fired up and ready to roll.

It’s also worth noting that we typically have our athletes start on the ground, then move to kneeling or crouching positions and finally stand up.

These exercises are not just randomly cobbled together or picked out of the ether. Rather, there’s a progression from static holds to slow movements to faster, more dynamic motions. Again, this is deliberate and by design. It allows us to progressively “grease the groove” of various movement pathways that will be used and taxed during a practice or workout and ramp up as we get closer to ending the movement activation sequence.

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A further point is the athlete should be warmed up, not worked out, by the time you’re done with the movement preparation phase. Some coaches make the mistake of being so preoccupied with this preparatory stage of their sessions that their clients are huffing and puffing when they get to the real work itself. This ends up compromising not only endurance, but also strength and power output and movement quality.

As I stated earlier and the research studies that I referenced showed, you’ve got to find a sweet spot between not doing enough and overdoing it.

You want your athletes to have all their systems – nervous, muscular-skeletal, aerobic, anaerobic, etc. – online, without them being like a computer that’s overheating and needs to be shut down or restarted.

One of the ways to avoid going too far is to cap the duration of the warmup at 20 minutes. While the time it takes for an individual to complete all of the exercises at the end of this article varies from person-to-person, I’ve found that 8-12 minutes is the average. That shouldn’t cut into your workout and is sufficient to check all the boxes – movement pattern rehearsal, range of motion, exploring multiple planes, and so on – without being detrimental to the practice session or workout itself.

Assess your movement activation strategy by looking how it correlates to performance.

  • If you implement the principles, exercises, and sequence I’m sharing here, what happens to the output of your athletes over the next few sessions?
  • Does their power production, strength, and movement quality increase?
  • Or is there a negative effect in one of these areas?

This is where your own expertise and coach’s eye come into play. The movement activation tips in this article are not meant to be infallible by any means, or a rigid plan. You can and should tweak my routine, remove certain exercises and replace them with others. Or try switching up the order a little. Sometimes such fine-tuning is based on the sport itself or the goals of a particular session or training block.

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On other occasions, your knowledge of teams and individual athletes will prompt you to make some adjustments.

  • Perhaps a player is coming back from an Achilles tear and hasn’t been cleared to jump yet. If so, remove that component of the warmup.
  • Or if you’re going to be emphasizing a particular physical quality in the workout, you might want to do more of a certain type of exercise. For example, if you’ll be focusing on plyometrics, maybe you do a bit more jumping, hopping, or bounding in the warmup.

The key is that you’re thinking critically and intentionally about the movement activation of your athletes and the connection between this and the results of their workouts. That alone is an important first step. Trying what I suggest in the upcoming protocol is the second, assessing what’s working and what’s not the third, and continually tinkering and experimenting the fourth.

The destination is improved performance and athlete health.

Movement Preparation Protocol

Now that we’ve explored some of the basic principles that should form the bedrock of any warmup, it’s time to turn our attention to the actual movement preparation exercises themselves, and how we combine these in a manner that gives you maximum bang for your warmup buck.

Here’s a movement activation sequence I developed while working with the Lakers. I’ve also utilized it successfully with a broad range of other clients in both personal training and working with coaches, athletes, and teams in many different sports. Here goes:

2-Leg Bridge

 

  • BENEFITS: This exercise targets your posterior hip muscles, as well as your core.
  • COACHING KEYS: Keep your core short by imagining you’re about to take a karate chop to the stomach. Press your low back flat to the ground before pushing your hips to the ceiling. Avoid arching or bridging your hips past the height of your knees at the top.
  • HOW TO USE: Use this as a warmup for any sport or activity. Shoot for 1-3 sets of 8-20 repetitions.

1-Leg Bridge

 

  • BENEFITS: This exercise targets your posterior hip muscles, as well as your core.
  • COACHING KEYS: Keep your core short by imagining you’re about to take a karate chop to the stomach. Press your low back flat to the ground before pushing your hips to the ceiling. Avoid arching or bridging your hips past the height of your knees at the top.
  • HOW TO USE: Use this as a warmup for any sport or activity. Shoot for 1-3 sets of 8-20 repetitions.

Side Plank/Hip Thrust

  • BENEFITS: This exercise targets your lateral hip muscles and your core.
  • COACHING KEYS: Push your rib cage and hips away from the ground. Sit your hips down and back to tap the ground without letting your back arch in the process. Squeeze your glutes tight at the top position.
  • HOW TO USE: Use this exercise as a warm-up to any sport or activity. It can also be used during your workout as a core or hip exercise. Shoot for 1-3 sets of 8-20 repetitions.

Clam Shell 

 

  • BENEFITS: This exercise targets your lateral hip muscles. These muscles are important for single leg balance and stability.
  • COACHING KEYS: Imagine a sheet of glass behind your back that you want to avoid rocking back on. Keep your core short by imagining you’re about to take a karate chop to the stomach. Line your heels up with your hips behind you.
  • HOW TO USE: Use this as a warmup for any sport or activity. Shoot for 1-3 sets of 8-20 repetitions.

Spiderman

  • BENEFITS: This exercise targets hip and shoulder/upper body mobility.
  • COACHING KEYS: Follow your thumb with your eyes as you open up in the upper body action. Drop your back knee down to the ground without going into excessive low back extension/arching. Push your chest away from the ground and squeeze your glutes tight in the transition point at the top of your push-up.
  • HOW TO USE: Use this as a warmup for any sport or activity. Shoot for 1-3 sets of 2-4 repetitions.

Inchworm

  • BENEFITS: This exercise challenges the upper body, core, hips, and hamstrings all in one move. It’s great to work on hamstring and calf flexibility.
  • COACHING KEYS: Push your chest away from the ground and squeeze your glutes tight in the transition point at the top of your push-up. Go slow and imagine a rope attached to your back belt loop that is pulling your hips up to the ceiling in the pike position. Avoid sagging on your shoulders.
  • HOW TO USE: Use this as a warmup for any sport or activity. Shoot for 1-3 sets of 2-4 repetitions.

Catcher Rock Back

 

  • BENEFITS: This exercise targets your groin/adductor flexibility as well as overall hip joint mobility.
  • COACHING KEYS: Keep the extended knee straight during the motion. Avoid letting the inside of your ankle on the extended leg side drop to the ground. Keep the bottom of your foot flat on the ground. Push your chest away from the ground throughout the motion.
  • HOW TO USE: Use this as a warmup for any sport or activity. Shoot for 1-3 sets of 8-20 repetitions.

Med Ball Lateral Squat with Press

  • BENEFITS: This exercise targets strength and mobility of your hip and adductor/groin muscle groups.
  • COACHING KEYS: Sit your butt down and back instead of gliding or shifting your hips laterally during this motion. Keep your chest up as you sit down.
  • HOW TO USE: Use this as a warmup for any sport or activity. Shoot for 1-3 sets of 5-8 repetitions.

Squat to Stand

  • BENEFITS: This exercise targets your hip mobility. It’s a great way to work on your squat depth and groove your hip hinge and squat pattern.
  • COACHING KEYS: Work to keep a flat back throughout the move. Avoid rocking forward toward your toes or back on your heels.
  • HOW TO USE: Use this as a warmup for any sport or activity. Shoot for 1-3 sets of 3-5 repetitions.

Closeout to Run

  • BENEFITS: This exercise targets your single leg deceleration and agility skills. It’s a great way to prepare your body for any activity that involves changes of direction and deceleration.
  • COACHING KEYS: Stay low on the landings and quick on the footwork to transition.
  • HOW TO USE: Use this as a warmup for any sport or activity. Shoot for 1-3 sets of 2-4 repetitions.

Squat Jumps

  • BENEFITS: This exercise targets jump and landing force production and absorption. It’s a great way to get your lower body on high alert before any sport involving jumps or landings.
  • COACHING KEYS: Jump and land in the same spot for the entire set. Spend as little time on the ground during each landing as possible.
  • HOW TO USE: Use this as a warmup for any sport or activity. Shoot for 1-3 sets of 8-15 repetitions.

Med Ball Slam

  • BENEFITS: This exercise targets jump and landing force production and absorption. It’s a great way to get your lower body on high alert before any sport involving jumps or landings. It also targets the upper body in an explosive way.
  • COACHING KEYS: Sit your butt down and back as you slam the ball to the ground.
  • HOW TO USE: Use this as a warmup for any sport or activity. Shoot for 1-3 sets of 8-15 repetitions.

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About The Author

Tim DiFrancesco, PT, DPT, ATC, CSCS spent 6 seasons as the Head Strength & Conditioning Coach of the Los Angeles Lakers and founder of TD Athletes Edge. He is nationally renowned for his evidence-based and scientific approach to fitness, training, nutrition and recovery for athletes and fitness enthusiasts.

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