The warmup: where PE and athletic development meet

The typical warm-up lasts around 10 minutes and starts most training sessions or classes. It is either a garden blooming with possibility or a wasteland of lost potential. Unfortunately, it usually the latter, a perfunctory prelude rather than training with specific long term adaptive and educational goals.

It doesn’t have to be if we simply reimagine the warmup as a place where physical education and athletic development meet. Physical education uses the warm-up to promote good movement and wellbeing; athletic development and sport uses it to develop quality athletic movement and performance. The goals are slightly different, but the warm-up can do both by developing coordination, physical structure, confidence, and good training/exercise habits. Below are a few ideas about how to put this concept in practice.

» Learn more: GAIN recently launched the GAIN PE initiative, including a free newsletter which provides insights, videos, and more about PE from Andy Stone and other coaches in the GAIN community.

How it works

Movement can be broken down into simple building blocks. The body uses movement synergies or blocks of already learned and usable movement to build more complex actions. The component parts of movement are dependent on the biomechanical constraints of the body and constraints of the environment. In addition we create maps of our body and the space around us, so we will know the position of our arms and legs and can navigate the world. A movement workout builds upon this idea and carries it into training.

Movement starts with the squat, lunge, push, pull, hinge, tuck, extend, brace, and give, which are variations of Kelvin Giles and Vern Gambetta’s movement breakdown. We take these ideas to training, expand on them, and add variation to develop more complex and available movement solutions. Finally we strengthen and enhance these foundational movements. In early years these movements will look more like play with kids being more comfortable with some things (e.g. rolling and tucking) and less comfortable with others (e.g. extension and force production). The movement workouts should reflect this and slowly add to what they already do well while teaching and coaching new movements.

As I’ve argued, the foundational purpose of physical education is movement education. The purpose of a sports warmup is movement preparation. The goals are not that far apart, and therefore the warm up is a great place to inject some physical education into training. This short daily session will accumulate and accomplish much over a season and transform an athlete over several seasons. For older athletes, movement training reinforces or remediates quality athletic movement; maintains hard earned abilities, and re-educates an injured body. For developmental athletes, movement training builds body structure as well as athleticism. A progressive approach to the training creates enough stimulus to get a positive adaptation developing strength and structure for young athletes and enhances resistance training that the more developed athletes are doing.

» Related content: The USTA’s Johnny Parkes explains how they are using the warm up to promote physical education in young tennis players on HMMR Podcast 227.

Some key elements to consider

With warmups often lasting just 10 minutes, coaches need to be precise in what they select. In my experience, here are a few areas that can match well to the warm up environment.

  • Foundational movements: As mentioned, movement starts with the squat, lunge, push, pull, hinge, tuck, and extend, brace, and give. Simple variations are added constantly, but the quality of the core movements like the squat are always maintained.
  • Locomotion: Locomotion is an important element that needs to be a part of this training from an early age. Young children need to learn to hop, skip, jump, land, and run. These basic locomotor elements are expanded upon and combined with foundational movements. The variation further develops focus and makes the locomotion patterns smoother and more stable. Sprinting is important for students not as a conditioning tool, but as something to help them learn and improve on their sprinting skill. The same method is used. Teach the basics and expand on what is already available to them with variation and progressions. Sprinting needs to be taught like skipping, hopping, leaping, and landing. It is a skill.
  • Ground based training: This element is too often overlooked. The use of ground-based movement to promote upper body strength, structure, and coordination are also a key part of movement training. From the start crawls are used, which are never abandoned but progressed, varied, and combined; they need to be part of everyone’s everyday training. Push-ups, donkey kicks, and handstands can be added to the crawls and combined for variety and challenge. Again, it is the accumulation of work over time that gets you to the goal; it is not about making everyday a push-up challenge.
  • Combinations and gymnastics: Locomotion and feet to ground and ground to feet combinations work well with the crawls. Such combinations are also vital to prepare for falling and improving ground based sport techniques. Jumps, turns, and locomotion add to the challenge of the combinations. It is not a circus act; the combinations are made with core movement elements. Gymnastics can be a good tool to address this area of training. All types of rolls and cartwheels are used in combination with the other elements to promote body awareness and control and are taught from an early age.

I am not arguing for reinventing the wheel. Many coaches and teachers use these elements in warm-ups. My point is if used in a comprehensive and progressive way to start class or training, the session becomes a vitally important foundation for good movement and athletic development that is a main course of physical education and long term athletic development. And, more importantly, it becomes interesting, engaging, and challenging.

» Learn more: Andy Stone recently joined the HMMR Podcast to discuss his lockdown PE project and how he structures PE class.

Putting it all together

How might this look in practice as a warm up? One of my lockdown PE sessions provides a good example below. This was a movement workout that was used with 10-15 year old students during the COVID lockdown. I also sent the same videos to my wrestlers (ages 15-18). This takes movement workout about 5-6 minutes and was to be completed twice. If we were in class, this would be combined with a tag game or sprinting games and take approx. 10-12 minutes to complete. As described above, it can easily be repurposed as a warmup:

  • Skipping w/ jack arms
  • Single leg roll backs (down on 1 up on 2) x 6
  • 180 cartwheel crawls f/b
  • Side skipping jills x 10
  • Forward lunge rotation & foot grab x 6
  • Bear crawl to crab walk
  • Side shuffles to grapevine
  • Reverse lunge to inchworms x 6
  • Lateral lunge to drop back lunge x 6
  • Roll back to shoulder stand w/ legs in V x 4