How to Warm-up Your Young Athletes
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How to Warm-up Your Young Athletes

This may be among the most controversial and misunderstood topics within the entire youth development industry.

Warming up for sport or activity is, in essence, preparing the body for the task it is about to do. This includes increasing body temperature and improving the efficiency of the nervous system (which controls movement). Warm-ups can generally be classified into two categories:

General – Incorporates a broad assortment of movements in order to prepare the body as a systemic unit. Arousal of an appropriate ‘mental attitude’ for the upcoming competition or practice is a valuable component of this phase.

Specific – Involves precise actions or exercises relating to the particular sport. This serves as a more accurate neuromuscular preparation for the movements and tasks about to take place in the game or practice.

There are two misleading notions regarding warm-up design that are generally believed to be true by many coaches, trainer and parents:

Aerobic activity is the best choice as a warm-up exercise.

Static stretching must precede all workouts, practices or games in order to reduce the potential for injury.

The ‘aerobic activity’ phenomenon is a wide spread myth to say the least. Soccer, football and baseball coaches often send their athletes on 5 – 10 minute jogs around the field prior to the start of a game. Likewise, Personal Trainers will habitually have their clients ‘warm-up’ on a stationary bike or treadmill prior to a strength-training workout. This type of pre-event warm-up equates to dogmatic practice without any analysis of what the warm-up is meant to supply. Specifically, a warm-up must elevate body/muscle temperature to a certain point, increase both respiration and blood flow as well as enhance nervous system activity thereby heightening coordination and movement aptitude – this must all be done to level at which the athlete is not fatigued but prepared.

With aerobic-based warm-ups, energy reserves may be diminished and the ability to exhibit speed, strength and motor control lessened. This is quite problematic considering most sports and workout programs involve either displaying speed and strength abilities or are designed to enhance speed and strength capacities. More over, if a given training session is geared towards upper body strength exercises, how does running on a treadmill or riding a stationary bike prepare the body for the specific neuromuscular demands about to be placed on it?

With static stretching, it must be understood that any type of prolonged, held stretch can actually CAUSE injury. The concept of flexibility as a whole is largely misunderstood in contemporary sport performance (and fitness for that matter). The notion that static flexibility exercises are necessary as a pre-event habit in order to both prevent injury and prepare the body for movement are two primary incorrect ‘facts’.

Firstly, static flexibility exercises can disturb the stability of joints to a point that may actually serve to increase the potential for injury. Acting on nerve transmissions from the brain and spinal cord, muscles serve to move joints through various ranges of motion in order to produce a desired task. Understanding the laws of human motion, their exists a delicate balance between mobility and stability within the context of any movement. A muscle’s job then (in conjunction with both ligaments and tendons), is to produce movement (mobility) while protecting a given joint from ‘over-movement’ (stability). ‘Over-movement’ refers to uncontrolled motion that exceeds the natural limits of a joints capacity - this could result in acute trauma of varying degrees of severity. This mobility-stability interplay can be disrupted if statically held stretches are performed prior to a period of physical exertion.

The other primary factor to consider is that static exercises of any kind cannot be judiciously thought of as precursors to a movement-based activity. All sports and training exercises involve movement in varying extents. Slow and easy-paced multi-directional movements, sudden bursts of speed and maximal strength efforts are all part of either sport participation or training programs. It is only sensible to prime the athlete specifically for what they are about to do – Prepare To Move By Moving To Prepare.

In reality, understanding the concepts of warming-up for sport could be a book unto itself. How to design an efficient and functionally-sound warm-up is based on several factors including –

Type of activity
Duration of activity
Age of Athlete
Injury History
Exercise history
*Adapted from ‘Facts & Fallacies of Fitness’ by Dr. Mel Siff

Here is what a general warm-up may look like for an adolescent athlete (of virtually any sport):

Movements are performed for 20 – 30 feet. Walk back to the starting point and begin again.

Jog X 3
High Knees X 3
Butt Kicks X 3
Carioca X 2 each way
Back Pedal X 3
Lunge Walk X 3
Walking Hip Thrust X 2 each leg
Walking Skips X 2 each
High Skips X 3
Skipping Bounds X 3
Tempo Runs X 3
Movement aptitude is taught and perfected during warm-ups. It is not enough to simply ‘go through’ the motions – coaches and trainers must teach adequate movement habits and force productions skills.

For both lower and upper body strength training days, I will incorporate a specific movement complex prior to the actual lifting exercises:

Lower Body

These exercises are performed with a 45-pound Olympic bar without any other external loading. Each exercise is performed in sequence one after the other.

Good Morning X 5 reps
Overhead Squats X 5 reps
Back Squats X 5 reps
Front Squats X 5 reps
RDL’s X 5 reps

Perform 2-3 sets

These exercises are specific preparations for the movements the athletes are about to perform and elicit a more particular neuromuscular response. Again, impeccable form is both taught and practiced during these movement complexes.

Upper Body

These exercises are performed with 3 – 5 pound dumbbells and are performed in a sequence or circuit type manner.

Rainbow Arc X 5 (start in anatomical position, raise your arms in a rainbow-type motion until the dumbbells touch above your head)
Shoulder Press X 5 (standard)
Forward Arm Circles (standard)
Crisscross X 5 (start with dumbbells held at 90 degrees of shoulder abduction, ensuring that the scapulae are retracted and depressed. Horizontally adduct until the dumbbells reach the sagittal midline of the body. Perform a quick over-under crisscross with the dumbbells and return to the starting position)
Bent Over Fly X 5 (standard)
* Perform 2 – 3 sets

About the Author: Known as 'America's Youth Fitness Coach', Brian Grasso spends all his time training young athletes, children with disabilities and those encumbered with body weight concerns.

He has authored two books on the subject and was recently featured in Newsweek magazine for his work in youth fitness and sports training. He has also been named as one of the 'Top 100 Trainers in America' by Men's Health magazine.

Brian is the Founder and CEO of the International Youth Conditioning Association and can be contacted through his website - by hudsco

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