B.A.S.E. Sports Conditioning – Articles 6

Warming Up…or Slowing Down?

The importance of dynamic warm-ups for swimmers.

By Mike Mejia CSCS

If there’s one thing that coaches can universally agree upon, it’s that athletes need to engage in some type of warm-up prior to strenuous physical activity. Things like raising core temperature, increasing blood flow to the peripheral muscles and improving joint range of motion should therefore all be primary objectives before every practice and meet. The only trouble is, there still seems to be a fair amount of confusion as to the best way to accomplish these goals.

It used to be that a couple of quick stretches and some easy laps were considered enough to get kids ready for action. And in fact, many coaches still subscribe to this as the preferred method for warming up their young athletes. While there’s nothing wrong with including a few laps as part of your specific warm-up protocol, you also need to put yourself through a more generalized warm-up prior to getting into the water. Here’s the kicker though…stretching shouldn’t be part of it!

I realize that last statement is bound to cause some controversy, so please allow me to clarify. It’s not so much stretching that I’m against, but rather, how it’s typically gone about. Static stretching for instance, the type where you hold a muscle, or group of muscles in a stretched position for at least 20-30 seconds at a time, has long been considered the optimal way to prime muscles for physical activity. The theory being that by allowing muscles to relax and lengthen, static stretches will help reduce injury potential- the key word in that sentence being “relax”.

Numerous studies show, however, that relaxing muscles prior to intense physical activity not only fails to reduce injury potential, but in some instances may actually even increase it (1)! Not to mention the fact that static stretching has also been shown to decrease subsequent muscle force production and explosive power by 5-8% (2). Not exactly what you’re looking for in a sport where the top finishers are often separated by fractions of a second!

A far more effective way to get yourself ready to swim is through the use of what are known as dynamic flexibility, or mobility drills. Rather than passively holding a muscle in a lengthened position and as you do with static stretches, mobility drills require you to actively increase your flexibility by progressively moving your muscles through a larger range of motion. Besides helping to raise core temperature and improve blood flow, this movement essentially negates the aforementioned relaxation effect, and actually stimulates your muscles and central nervous system for activity. Things like arm circles, leg swings, torso rotations and even jumping jacks are all prime examples of effective mobility drills.

Don’t just focus on large muscle groups though; considering how much swimmers use their necks, wrists and ankles, you’ll also need to incorporate these areas into your dynamic warm-up routine. Simple things like slowly turning the head side to side, half neck circles (dropping your chin to one shoulder and then rolling it across to your other), wrist circles and ankle circles (while balancing on the other leg) can all be of tremendous benefit.

Below, I’ve put together two different dynamic warm-up protocols that you can use before getting into the water. The first is a bit longer and requires more space, so it would be a better choice before practices. The second is a more streamlined version that you can do right before getting up onto the blocks at meets. Try them next time in place of your usual routine and see how you perform. Just don’t be too surprised if you wind up going just a little bit faster than usual.

Be on the lookout for the accompanying video where I’ll show you the proper form for all of these drills!

Pre-practice Warm-up

Pogos x 20                       

Seal Jacks x 20        

Prisoner Squats x15   

Half Neck Rolls x 10-12 reps alternating sides

USA Swimming sanctioned shoulder warm-up x 15 reps each- see link

Torso rotations x 10-12 reps (alternating)

Leg Swings (front to back) x 10 per side (same side, then switch) Warms up the hamstrings and hip flexors.

Leg Swings (side to side across your body) x 10 per side (same side then switch) Warms up the inner and outer thighs.

Spidermans x 10-12 (alternating legs)

Thoracic Mobilizations x 8-10 each side (same side, then switch)

Pike Walk returns x 6-8

Balancing ankle circles x 8 clockwise and counter clockwise with each foot.

Wrist Circles x 5-6 clockwise and counter clockwise with each foot.

Pre-meet Warm-up

Pogos x 10-15

Seals x 10

Half neck rolls x 6-8 (alternating)

USA Swimming Shoulder Warm-up x 6-8 each

Torso rotations x 8-10 (alternating)

*Leg Swings (front to back) x 5-6 each

**Leg Swings (side to side) x 5-6 each

Balancing ankle circles x 5 each, both directions

* Before freestlye, backstroke and Butterfly only

** Before Breaststroke only


1. Gleim & McHugh (1997), ‘Flexibility and its effects on sports injury and performance, Sports Medicine, 24(5), pp. 289-299.

2. Rosenbaum, D. and E. M. Hennig. 1995. The influence of stretching and warm-up exercises on Achilles tendon reflex activity. Journal of Sport Sciences vol. 13, no. 6, pp. 481–90.

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