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More Training Info > The Effective Core Warm-up, Part 3

The Effective Core Warm-up, Part 3
By C. W. Schurman, CSCS

Do you include any sort of warm-up before beginning your core strength training? What’s the best way to avoid injury as we get older, or work through injury or strain that may already be plaguing you?

In Part I of this series Proper Upper Body Warm-up we featured an effective warm-up protocol for the upper body. Part II focused on warm-ups for lower body conditioning Proper Lower Body Warm-up, and herein we include ideas on how to prepare the core muscles in the abdominals, the obliques, and the lower back for optimal function and performance.

Dynamic Stretching

If you recall from our previous two articles in this series, we suggest that warming up before any workout should incorporate dynamic stretches geared toward simultaneously increasing core temperature, preparing the targeted muscle groups, and gradually increasing range of motion. Statically held stretches are best done at the end of your workouts, as part of a cool-down, to help restore flexibility to tightened, shortened muscles.

Yoga positions fall between the two categories of “dynamic” warm-up type movements and “static” held postures. Those postures that allow you to ease into greater range of motion as your core temperature increases (sun salutations, downward dog, or planks are all core examples) are appropriate to place at the beginning of your workout while those that encourage stillness or relaxation (i.e. corpse pose) should be reserved for the end.

Dynamic stretches begin with small movements and, as the muscles loosen and heat up, include ever-increasing range of motion about a joint. If you are dealing with lower back strain in particular, please consider a) what movements or events initially caused the strain; b) targeted muscle groups you will be working during the session; and c) how you feel on any given day. In the middle of winter, you may want to add several extra warm-up sets or exercises, or even add an extra sweatshirt or layer of clothing to help trap some of the heat generated in your warm-ups.

Sample Core Body Warm-up Exercises

Start with 3-5 minutes of general cardiovascular calisthenics exercises such as brisk walking, marching in place with arm swings, jumping jacks, and leg swings side to side. Once you have elevated your core temperature somewhat, you can safely shift into core body movements to increase range of motion, drawing from exercises such as halos, good mornings, step-pivots, planks, and woodchoppers with light to no resistance. Such movements can also be more heavily weighted as a core strengthening workout once you are well warmed up. Each of these dynamic warm-ups is described in more detail below.


Hold a very light dumbbell or kettlebell in both hands, or clasp your hands over your head without any weight at all. Stand with feet about shoulder distance apart and draw a circle right around your head (think "baseball cap position" or angel's halo sitting just above your head) 6-8 times in each direction to stretch out the shoulders and torso, including the upper back and abdominals. Allow the hips to swing mildly in conjunction with the hands to loosen up the lower back as well. Shoot for 30 seconds or 6-8 circles in each direction.


With hands at the waist and feet planted squarely about shoulder distance apart, keep a slight bend in your knees as you bend forward, hinging at the hips, keeping your back nice and flat (i.e. neutral spine) and your weight back in the heels. This forward bend allows you to stretch and lengthen the spine and hamstrings simultaneously. Hold a light dumbbell at the chest if you wish, or reach both hands up overhead as you come up onto tiptoes for increased core recruitment and muscle activation. Aim for 30-45 seconds or 12-15 forward bends.


This movement is great for warming up the rotational muscles in the whole trunk, from the abductors and glute medius muscles in the hips, to the lower back and obliques. Take a wider-than-hip-width stance and start with hips facing forward, then push off your right foot to turn to face left, putting the emphasis on the right glute and leg as the body pivots toward the left side. Hands can be clasped in front of you as though you are swinging a baseball or golf club, or you can simply leave them on the hips for shorter lever action. Start with a smaller range of motion until you feel warmth rushing into the muscles and then increase the length of your arc as you get loose. Pivot swing side-to-side and shoot for 30-45 seconds.


Once you feel heat in the abdominal and lower back muscles and have loosened up in rotational and forward bending patterns, you are ready to combine flexion / extension and rotation in an unweighted wood chopping pattern. Stand with feet hip-distance apart and reach down with both hands to the outside of your left knee as though you are holding a light dumbbell, bending your knees in a semi-squat, then stand and reach both hands up toward the right as though to touch the ceiling. Return to the squatting position and repeat 6-8 times before switching to the opposite side. After an unweighted set you can move to a very light weight to increase blood flow to the working muscles.

Please note: if you have ANY sort of lower back discomfort on any of the previous 3 exercises DO NOT include loaded rotational bending and extending movements in your training until you strengthen the abs, obliques, and lower back to support lightly loaded twisting (WITHOUT bending/extending) and forward flexion/extension movement (WITHOUT rotation) separately. If doing this movement without weight is totally comfortable for you, in your strength routine start with light weight and overload progressively and gradually. Err on the side of caution with combination moves, making sure your form is perfect to help prevent injury.


Finally, a great way to send blood flowing to the abdominals and lower back in preparation for your core workout is the plank. We offer a wide variety of options to choose from at http://www.bodyresults.com/e2planks.asp. As a warm-up set, shoot for a fairly easy position (elbows and knees is a good place to start at the top of that page) and hold for 20-30 seconds. As part of a core workout you can then progress to any of the other variations that challenges you and do multiple sets for longer duration.

Proper Gradual Overload

Following your general warm-up and several minutes of dynamic stretching, you are ready to start your workout. With any high intensity exercises, include a few lighter resistance warm-ups to test out the core muscles and see how you are feeling on any given day. Choose a weight for at least the first 1 or 2 exercises in your program that is roughly 50% of your target work load and do a set with that weight for anywhere from 3-5 repetitions. Rest briefly and then do another warm-up set for 2-3 repetitions with 75% of your targeted first work set. Finally, you’re ready for your first heavy work set. Such a gradual overload will do wonders for getting every contributing muscle group ready, as well as help you feel whether something is “temporarily off” and you should back off the intensity, choose another exercise for the day, or wait to lift a day or two later.

Sample Warm-up Protocol

If your first exercise in a core strengthening program will be good mornings for 3 sets of 6-8 repetitions, and you plan to do 100 pounds as your first work set for lower back, then your warm-up might resemble the following:

  • 3 minutes treadmill jog or Jacob’s Ladder
  • Halos (30 sec.)
  • Good Mornings (45 sec.)
  • Step-Pivots (45 sec.)
  • Wood Choppers (no weight 8 reps each; 30% weight 8 reps each for 90 sec.)
  • Planks (30 sec. hold)
  • Good morning warm-up sets: Bar (45#) 6 reps; 75# 4 reps; 85# 3 reps; 100# for your first set of 6-8 repetitions.

Total Targeted Warm-up Time – approximately 9-10 minutes

FIRST TARGET SET per workout – start timing your actual core strength workout from your first heavy set (after all warm-ups above are completed) to the last. Such a warm-up protocol will have your joints, your muscles, and your mind far better prepared for your workout, at roughly the same time commitment, than the standard 10-15 minute cardio only warm-up ever did. Happy training!


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