Warm Ups: Mobilize – Activate – Potentiate Part I

by Chris on August 29, 2012

The concept of a warm-up, like most things in strength and conditioning, has raised some controversy over the past few years. On one end you have the camp that thinks that a warm up should be so extensive that it ends up being a workout in and of itself. On the other end you have people who dismiss the necessity of any warm up altogether. If you look at the general gym population you’ll find that most people, whether intentionally or not, end up falling into the latter category. I rarely, if ever, see trainees performing a decent warm up and that’s a shame.

A good warm up to me might be very different than what most people think of when they hear the term. So let me start by telling you what a good warm up is not:

  • A good warm up is not running 3 miles on the treadmill
  • It is not doing a couple of swinging arm circles with a 5 pound plate
  • It’s not 20 minutes on the bike
  • It’s not a bunch of static stretches

Obviously I could keep going on but I’ll stop there because hopefully you get the idea. The moral of the story is that most of what you’ve been taught to do as a warm up is compromising your performance by putting you in a fatigued state, weakening your muscles or simply failing to get you primed for your workout.

So enough of what you shouldn’t be doing. How about getting down to business and what makes a good warm up effective. For me an effective warm up consists of three parts:

Mobilization – Activation – Potentiation

Basically your goal during the warm up is threefold. You want to mobilize the joints that need to be mobile, activate the muscles that need to fire more effectively and potentiate the nervous system to increase performance. Let’s start with a look at mobilization.


Mobility work, quite simply, is designed to improve the useable range of motion of a joint. A couple of things to keep in mind here: static stretching is not mobility and not all joints need to be mobile. For the most part the major joints in the body follow a simple mobility/stability continuum. It generally looks like this:

Stable                                                                                                 Mobile


Knee   Elbow      Lumbar Spine       Scapula     Thoracic Spine     Hip     Shoulder

(Adapted from Robertson, 2007)

Another way to look at it is to go through the joints as a list. You’ll probably notice an interesting pattern:

  • Foot – Stability
  • Ankle – Mobility
  • Knee – Stability
  • Hip – Mobility
  • Lumbar Spine – Stability
  • Thoracic Spine – Mobility
  • Scapular – Stability
  • Shoulder (Gleno-humeral) – Mobility
  • Elbow – Stability

Really simply that just means that certain joints need to be able to move more than others. Think about it. You want your knee to be able to flex and extend but not move side to side. Your shoulder, on the other hand, should generally be able to go through a full circle range of motion.

So mobility work comes first. These types of drills will naturally raise your body temperature (literally warming you up) while lubricating the joints and connective tissue and helping increase range of motion where it’s needed. Cool, right?

I’d also like to mention here that I include self-myofascial release (foam rolling) in with mobility work. While you could probably argue whether or not it is concerned mobility in a strict sense I don’t see the need to. SMR breaks up scar tissue and lesions in the fascia that can inhibit mobility. Thus, it’s done first.

Like any part of a strength program, mobility work is dictated by the demands of the lifter. Someone who has terrible hip mobility obviously needs to focus more on that area. A general example of some mobility drills as influenced by the list above is shown below. In it I demonstrate a quick sequence of mobility drills that addresses the thoracic spine, shoulder, hips and ankles.

All told your mobility work shouldn’t take more than a few minutes if you play it right. They will warm you up and help you counteract the poor posture that is so common in daily life today.

In the next installment of this series I’ll explain the activation and potentiation elements of an effective warm up.

Check out Part II Here


Robertson, Mike (2007) The Mobility Stability Continuum. http://www.t-nation.com/free_online_article/sports_body_training_performance_repair/the_mobilitystability_continuum


steve August 29, 2012 at 1:28 pm

hey Chris thanks for the info.
I am/was a 8-10lb dumbell swinger with about 30 bodyweight squats warm up guy
Thought I was doing ok
these look like they hit all the spots needed
I do my foam rolling on my off days
another nice article….keep up the good work
thanks again
Steve T

Chris August 30, 2012 at 11:36 am

Thanks Steve. Glad it helped. Keep your eyes open for the next part.

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