How to warm-up effectively

Warming up before training or matches is one way to prevent injuries.  

A structured warm-up should consist of progressive activities combined with dynamic flexibility (stretching within active movements) and followed by specific movements that are close to the motor mechanics (rugby movement patterns) of the sport. 

If well planned and executed, stretching becomes an important tool, be it assisting in injury prevention or increasing player performance during a match or coaching session.  

Why you should warm-up

The objectives of the warm-up are as follows: 

  • Assisting in injury prevention by executing functional movements. Functional movements are any movements that are normally done within the sport and are replicated in the warm-up at different speeds. Examples include straight-line running, stepping, jumping, accelerating, jumping for a ball, falling down, getting up, and backwards running.
  • Physical preparation
  • Mental preparation.

 During the match warm-up, movements that have been the focus during the coaching sessions earlier in the week, in preparation for the match, can be rehearsed. Such movements may include anything from running patterns (lines), contact skills or specific activities like stepping, swerving, turning, etc. 

The type, duration and intensity of every warm-up will be manipulated by the type of coaching session (static, active or collision-type), the objective of the coaching session or match (what are the goals of the session?), the time allocation (how long is the coaching session and how much time is available?) and the equipment available. 

Benefits of warming up

The physiological benefits of a warm-up before a coaching session or match are: 

  • Increased body temperature: an increase in body temperature will cause a slight sweat on the forehead. As soon as this happens, one can be sure that an optimal core temperature (the internal temperature of the body) has been reached and that there are other physiological benefits which accompany an increase in body temperature.

  • Increase in muscle elasticity(elastic ability / stretching ability of the muscle): a warm muscle can move through a larger range of motion at a higher speed compared to a cold muscle.

  • Specificity(Muscular movements within specific activities): specificity in both the coaching drills and in the warm-up is crucial. For example, 1-on-1 and 2-on-1 grids and exercises represent attacking and defensive situations in rugby. By completing these drills, the player mimics the exact movements needed for the match and is thus physically prepared for the 1-on-1 and 2-on-1 demands.
  • Stimulates the cardiorespiratory(heart and lungs) and Central Nervous Systems (CNS): the cardiovascular system and the central nervous system (the network in the body that transmits messages to and from the brain and muscles) is the body’s ‘engine’ and needs to be in excellent condition to send messages back and forth, and to generate ‘horsepower’ for the needs of the sport. The warm-up prepares these systems to function optimally during the coaching session or match.
  • Improved muscle coordination: Muscle coordination requirements in rugby are similar to those of gymnasts and circus experts, who also have to do more than one movement at a time. A circus juggler handling 3-5 balls at once is a good example of hand-eye coordination. In the case of muscles, it is important to have muscle synergy in achieving movement goals.  Warmer muscles are better coordinated than cooler muscles.
  • Improved reaction time due to the stimulation of the CNS:there are many examples of attacking and defending situations in a rugby match where improved reaction time is advantageous for performance.
  • Energy can be produced at a faster rate: a consequence of an increased body temperature, improved cardio-respiratory and CNS functioning, muscle elasticity and increased blood flow which occurs with warming up, results in an increased metabolic rate. This makes it easier to suddenly accelerate energy demands, as may occur at the start of a high-paced game.

Types of warm-ups

There are different types and phases of warming up, these include: 

  1. Passive: warming up using external sources such as a shower, warm bath, bean bag, etc. This technique is best used in injury rehabilitation, where no active movements are needed for warming up the muscle.
  3. Active: warming up by completing active movements on the field, creating an increase in core temperature and inducing many other physiological benefits. This warm-up can also be sport-specific if the movements during the warm up simulate the movements during training or competition. For example, rugby-specific movements such as jumping, stepping, catching, tackling, kicking, passing, accelerating and decelerating are used during the warm-up.
  5. General: involving the whole body by completing activities that require most of the muscles to function (jogging, cycling) with effects on the heart, lungs and blood vessels. It does not allow for very specific movement patterns.

The type of warm-up will be determined by the player’s fitness level. The fitter the player, the more intense the warm-up can be. Players who are not fit will get premature fatigue during the match if they warm up at a high intensity. Less fit players need more rest and lower intensity during the warm up.  

Phase 1 – General Aerobic (Low intensity); Combined with Dynamic stretching: The focus of this phase is to increase body temperature, improve cardiorespiratory function of the lungs and heart, and improve muscle elasticity slightly. During this stage, the players complete a light jog with dynamic stretching during their breaks.  

An example would be to jog across the width of the field in twos or threes while passing the ball in depth at different distances and completing a lower-body dynamic stretch every time they reach the other side. Including passing during the easy jogging is beneficial in achieving passing and catching movement patterns (specificity).  

Phase 2 – General Skill (Medium Intensity): Rugby movement patterns are stimulated and the mental preparation begins. Communication and visual awareness are other benefits during this phase.  

Phase 3 – Specific Skill (High Intensity): Position-specific exercises are completed. This stimulates the muscle contraction speed and stimulates reaction time. Exercises done during this phase are to be completed at match-pace. Outside backs do 30-40 metre speed run-throughs with a swerve at maximum pace, loose forwards and inside backs complete turning with acceleration and a subsequent ball steal against a hit shield, while the tight forwards complete turning in a short space and 1-1 scrumming.  

Passing and catching are practised at the distance and speed required during the match. Upper-body warm-ups on the hit shields are done at the same intensity as during a tackle or ruck clean-out on the playing field.  

Phase 4 – Functional Skill – Position specific OR Technical specificity (Positional split): This is one of the most important phases, as it is very specific to what would happen in the match.

Forwards and backs split up into separate groups. The backs kick and pass, step and sprint and the forwards jump and throw, support and drive during this initial part of this phase. Then the backs and forwards join to run through one or two plays before entering the last phase.  

Phase 5 – Final Dynamic Stretching / Upper-body Specific Movements: By this phase all the preparation should have been completed. The only thing left to do would be the final dynamic stretches to ensure an optimal range of motion, and that the muscles can function optimally and respond quickly. The last upper-body corrections and preparations would be completed during this phase. It is the shortest of all the phases and players should rehydrate at the end of it.

 How long should the warm-up be?

The length of the warm-up should last on average about 25% of your training session and, depending on the focus of the session, should be directed to the movements, actions and needs of the subsequent training session. 

Therefore, if the training session is scheduled for an hour, the warm-up should be 15 minutes long, making the total duration of the session 75 minutes.  

The beneficial effects of the warm-up last about 45 minutes. This should be considered when managing the players on the bench in a match. These players should be encouraged to stay “warmed-up”. 

Continued sweating is a good sign that the player is ready to go onto the field and participate.  

The cool down 

The cool-down enables the body temperature to decrease and for the heart rate to return to a resting state.  

This period should last between 5-10 minutes but will depend on the intensity and duration of the preceding session or match. The cool-down period is often neglected because of post match activities or fatigue. However, this is not best practice as a cool-down initiates the recovery process.  

Two components of the cool-down are the following:

  1. Static muscle stretching
  2. Cardiovascular activity, to promote the circulation of blood and for the heart to return to a resting state.

If high intensity exercise is stopped suddenly, there is pooling of blood in the legs which can cause a decrease in blood pressure resulting in feelings of dizziness. Slow jogging and/or fast walking for at least 2-5 minutes reduces the pooling of blood and the accompanying symptoms.  

This is an extract of Practical Guidelines for Rugby Warm-up’s on SA Rugby. For the full article click here

Source: Practical Guidelines for Rugby Warm-up’s by Stephan du Toit is a Strength and Conditioning Trainer with the Western Province Rugby Union; Cape Town, South Africa.

(Health24, August 2011) 

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