Chris McGrath by Chris McGrath

Warm-ups for cardio workouts have traditionally consisted of performing your cardio activity of choice at a lower intensity with gradual increases to higher intensity (walk before jog, jog before run, etc.). While gradual increases in intensity are still advisable, adding dynamic warm-ups to your routine can add multi-dimensional benefits to your cardio workouts as well as your overall fitness and general wellness. This can create more efficient workouts and decrease the chance for overuse injuries.

What is a Dynamic Warm-up?

Also called “movement prep,” dynamic warm-ups consist of integrated movements that can improve muscular strength, mobility, stability, balance, coordination, agility and/or even power. Warm-ups can include foam rolling, balance exercises, yoga-type movements, agility drills and even plyometric drills.

Because most cardio activities are performed with relatively small ranges of motion and are dominant in one plane (straight ahead, such as walking, running, cycling, stair climbing, elliptical, etc.), it is important to incorporate movements that move the body in more complete ways. This should include full ranges of motion, rotation and side-to-side movements. While the connection may not be obvious, less dynamic movements (like running) can greatly benefit from preparing the body more dynamically.

What To Do

Here is a quick guide with a few examples that can be incorporated into your dynamic warm-up:

“Loosen” Up

Foam rolling can help reduce excessive tension in chronically tight areas. It can also improve blood flow and circulation. If you have a muscle that is chronically tight, taking a few moments to “loosen” that area up can be beneficial for your workout and protect against overuse and/or unbalanced movements (Figure 1).


Most people spend much of their day sitting, which puts the knees, hips and spine in a flexed position. Incorporate movements that extend and lengthen, especially the parts that may be hunched up when sitting (hip flexors, hamstrings and upper spine).

Full range-of-motion movements

We generally have few opportunities to move through complete ranges of motion during the day. Therefore, we can greatly benefit by introducing full ranges of motion, even if (and perhaps especially because) the cardio workout will not.


The hips and upper spine, in particular, are designed to rotate more than other parts of the body. If these areas lose that ability, other parts may be required to do more rotating than they are designed to do (for example at the knees and lower back). Therefore, find ways to add mobility to the hips and mid-upper back.

Move sideways

Spend some time moving the body laterally. Side-to-side movements can wake up lateral stabilizers, resulting in better control and protection for when you do move straight ahead.

All of the following cardio warm up exercises should be performed through slow, methodical movements and repetitions, holding longer at the tightest points. Go for time (30-60 seconds) or reps (6-10 slower reps). If one side feels more restricted, go slower and spend more time (and reps) on the tighter side. None of these exercises are designed to fatigue you, and keep in mind that this is just a cardiovascular warm-up. If some of the movements are too difficult, use a range of motion that is most comfortable to you.

Exercise 1 – Foam Roll Middle-upper Back

Foam Roll

Benefit:LOOSEN. This exercise helps reduce tension and increase blood flow to the muscles between your scapula (shoulder blades) and can help improve thoracic (upper back) extension.

How to do:Start by keeping your hips on the floor and place the roller on the middle to upper back (avoid the lower back and neck). Slowly shift your body around in search of points that are more sensitive—usually between the shoulder blades.

Exercise 2 - Lying Figure-4 Rotations

Lying Figure 4

Benefit:ROTATE. This exercise improvesrotational core control, mid-upper back (thoracic) mobility and shoulder stability, strengthens obliques, and lengthens the glutes and lower back.
How to do:

  • Lie on your back with your arms stretched out like a T and palms up.
  • Cross your right ankle onto your left knee (so it resembles a figure 4) and keep the right knee pointing toward your right elbow.
  • Anchor your shoulder blade (scapula) to the floor and do not let it leave the floor (THIS IS IMPORTANT). Slowly rotate your lower body toward the floor to the left and lightly touch your right foot.
  • To return to the starting position, make sure the right shoulder blade is pressed firmly to the floor. Keep the core activated and use it to rotate the lower body back to the starting position.
  • Repeat on other side

Exercise 3 – Side-lunge With Opposite Hand Reach

Side lunge

Benefit: LATERAL MOVEMENT, EXTEND. This exercise lengthens the hamstrings, adductors (inner thigh), calves, lats, and lower back, and strengthens side lunge and lateral directional control. 

How to do:

  • Take a very wide stance.
  • Reach your left hand to your right foot in a windmill-style position. If the foot is too far to reach, aim for the ankle or calf as low as possible. You should feel a lengthening/stretching of the right hamstring, left lower back and lat.
  • Hold tight with the left hand and do not loosen your grip.
  • Slowly lower into a right side lunge. You should feel a stretch in the left inner thigh/groin (adductor). Allow the right knee to move forward slightly, but keep the heel firmly on the ground to stretch the right lower calf stretch and increase ankle mobility.
  • Still holding right foot firmly, return the right leg to starting position.
  • Repeat on other side.

Exercise 4 – Crawl-out Squats

Crawl Out Squat

Benefits:FULL RANGE OF MOTION. This exercise helps maintain and/or improve squatting mechanics, core strength and shoulder stabilization.

How to do:

  • Stand with feet slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.
  • With feet flat on the ground, squat and reach your hands to the floor inside your feet. Make sure you squat and avoid bending.
  • Slowly crawl your hands forward and straighten your body into a plank. Hold the plank for a couple of seconds.
  • Slowly crawl your hands back to the bottom of the squat and stand up.
  • When crawling hands back to the bottom of the squat, keep your feet from turning out and try to force your heels toward the floor without letting your hips raise excessively—like crawling into a squat under a 3-foot ceiling.

Exercise 5 – Reverse Lunge With Rotation Reach

Reverse Lunge

Benefit: EXTEND, ROTATE. This exercise features lunge/stepping and upper-spine rotation, and lengthen/stretches the glutes, lower calf (forward leg) and hip flexors (back leg).
How to do:

  • Lower your body into a long stride with both hands on either side of forward foot.
  • Rotate your torso toward forward leg with arm reach.
  • Hold for two seconds and return hands to the floor and stand up toward the front leg
  • Repeat on other side.