A warm-up is recommended to consist of all of the following: 1) cardiovascular (heart and blood vessels; 2) stretching; and 3) sport-specific activities (such as light kicking or punching for martial arts).
Usually, exercises such as jumping jacks, rope skipping, jogging in place, etc. are used for the cardiovascular effects and to raise the body temperature. A passive approach to raising the body temperature would be to apply heat of some type to the body and more specifically to the major muscle groups. This is followed by static stretching (see “Stretching For Action” article for why this is not a good idea). Then some light activity-specific work.
The 13 exercises, plus some palm exercises (Dou Zhang and Dragon Back for example) performed correctly, actually do accomplish what is considered proper warm-up. However, they also do much more in the process.
One key element that makes our warm-up much more effective than the standard western approach is the focus and relaxation applied to moving the body gently through various angles. This results in not just warming the body up but also in effect bringing more joints into play in the process. More joints produces increased circulation in more places. The goal is for your whole body to become loose, not just certain areas or positions.
The 13 Exercises:
The exercises that follow are an excellent way to start each day and/or each practice session. When we rise from bed each day it is normal to feel tight. Our bodies have a tendency to “shrink” while in one position for any length of time. The same goes for sitting for hours per day: our muscles become shortened and our joints become stiff. These exercises will help to promote an overall looser and more flexible body.
Be careful throughout and be sure to start slowly. Listen to your body and learn. As your body becomes more accustomed to what it is you’re asking it to do, it will respond by changing its capabilities. All it takes is a consistent effort over time. Be patient and you will be amazed how much looser and more energetic you will feel.
A note about the “bouncing”:
These exercise are meant to bring your muscle through a normal range of motion. Most people’s range of motion is limited simply due to a general lack of demand on their body. The goal of the stretches here is to teach your muscles to become more “elastic”, resulting in a more naturally flexible body even when in a “cold state” (i.e., not warmed up). By moving through your comfortable range and then pushing only slightly further, that range will increase over time and the new larger range of motion will become the norm. SMOOTHLY, GENTLY, SLOWLY! Be patient. As you become more comfortable with these stretches you will be better able to judge your flexibility and how much you can safely reach.
First, “Loosen Up the Back”
Nearly any movement involves the lower back and abdominal area. If you have ever injured this area in any way, you completely understand this is true. This is the body’s center. This exercise focuses on this principle: to loosen up the center of the body. It is not numbered and not counted as one of the 13 exercises, but it is essential and recommended.
With your feet apart approximately double the width of your shoulders, bend forward while keeping your legs straight (it is not necessary to “lock” your knees, a slight bend is fine). Focus on your lower back and spine as you twist gently and slowly. Your arms will naturally alternate moving closer to the ground due to the movement in your waist area. This position will also begin to loosen up the back of your legs (hamstrings). You may adjust repeatedly how far you bend, from closer to the floor to about halfway up spending a few moments at each level. When you’re ready to finish, slowly work your way up while continuing to move from the lower back until standing straight up.
Exercise #1: “The Neck”
Consider that all signals from the brain must pass through the nerves of the neck. Many circulation problems originate from tightness in this area. Over the years, I have personally witnessed five misdiagnosed Carpal Tunnel Syndrome patients, who’s physician’s recommended surgery, become completely pain free with treatment focusing on the neck and shoulders. In order to properly loosen up the body and prepare it for exercise, the neck should be one of the first areas worked to stimulate the Central Nervous System.
Bring your feet together. Place your hands on your hips. First we move the head 2-3 times in each plane of movement: forward/backward; twisting left/right; and side to side. You will finish on your right side. Then begin to gently circle the head back and to the left for 2-3 rotations, then right for 2-3 rotations. Counting each direction you rotate as one, repeat for the count of 8. Be sure to move smoothly, relaxing the muscles as you go.
There is no need to feel as though you are grinding the vertebra of the neck. You are only trying to loosen up the muscles. If you want more range of motion it is better to work more on the straight planes of movement rather than the circles.
Exercise #2: “Side to Side”
Separate your feet by stepping left. Look up and put your hands over head, palms flat and facing up with the fingers pointing inward (the arms form an arc). You will be looking upward with a slight lean back and the chest naturally open from the form. Inhale and start by twisting to the left until your shoulders face completely left, then bend slowly to touch straight down towards the floor on your side. As you bend, exhale, DO NOT FORCE, feel a comfortable stretch, as if to prepare the muscle, then inhale, come up only slightly and down again with another exhale, reaching a little further. (Note: the inhale prior to the second reach may be left out, depending on your pace. It may just become one inhale at the top of the movement followed by two exhales, one for each stretch). As you come up, bend slightly towards the back so that you face up, also opening the chest, and twist until you completely face right, then bend towards the floor on the right, the same as you did on the left. Left and right equals one repetition. Repeat for 8 repetitions.
Exercise #3: “Down and Back”
Bring your left foot back in next to your right foot (feet together). Cross your arms in front of you. Bend straight forward from the hips (so that the stretch is in your legs and NOT your back – keep your weight towards your heels). Reach gently toward the floor while exhaling, come up slightly with an inhale, and then down again a little further than the first with another exhale. (Note: the inhale prior to the second reach may be left out, depending on your pace. It may just become one inhale at the top of the movement followed by two exhales, one for each stretch). Come back up straight, inhale fully and continue until you are looking up while bending back, same exhale, inhale, exhale sequence to gently bounce twice while stretching the front of your body. Inhale again as you come up, then bend forward again for the next repetition. Repeat for 8 repetitions.
Exercise #4: “Elbow to Toe”
Place your left foot forward on the heel, toe pointing up. Keep both legs straight. Make a fist with your left hand, a palm with your right, and place them together (like a “Salute” with the opposite hands). Now bend forward pointing your elbow to your toe. Again, first reach comfortably, as if to prepare the muscle for stretching, while exhaling, come up slightly with an inhale, and down again a little further with another exhale. Then come up straight, inhale fully, and twist left, keeping the elbow straight out at shoulder height (the right hand will push the left into the twist). Eyes follow the elbow (so your head will turn with the twist). Twist two times with the same exhale, inhale, exhale sequence. Go back to straight, fully inhale, and bend forward again. Elbow to toe then twist equals one repetition. (Note once again: the inhale between each double stretch may be left out, depending on your pace. It may just become one inhale at the top of the movement followed by two exhales, one for each stretch).Repeat for 8 repetitions, then change the feet and the hands (now right hand fist and left hand palm, same as the “Salute”) and repeat for the right leg.
Exercise #5: “Hip Rotations”
Bring the feet together. Place the hands on the hips. Now begin to circle towards the left with your focus on the hips. Try to keep the movement in the hips. As your hips move through the left side, your left leg will straighten and your right leg will bend (this naturally raises the left hip and drops the right hip). Circle 2-3 times to the left, then change direction to the right. Counting each direction you rotate as one, repeat for the count of 8.
Exercise #6: “Dan Tian Kick”
The “Dan Tian” is located below the navel in the center of the body. The Dan Tian Kick is a straight forward Heel Kick with the toes pulled back and pointing straight up so that the contact point on the foot is the bottom of the heel. Starting with the left foot back and the right foot forward, bend your knee as you lift your leg and then extend your leg forward a if to push something away with your foot. Exhale with the kick. Bring it back in and step back. Repeat for 8 repetitions. Then change your feet, placing your left foot forward and your right foot back and repeat the 8 repetitions with your right foot.
Exercise #7: “Side Kick”
Starting with your feet together, lift your left leg straight up so that your knee points forward. Then extend your leg directly towards the left, straight out from your hip. At the completion of the kick, your foot should be in a horizontal position, toes pointing forward. Your hips must turn toward the front, as if you were turning your back away from the direction of the kick (Don’t actually turn your back. You should be able to keep your eyes on your foot and in the direction of an imaginary target.). Exhale with the kick. Bring it back in and place your feet back together. Repeat for 8 repetitions. Then change to the right leg and repeat.
Exercise #8: “The Pendulum Kick”
Start with your left foot back, right foot forward. For each repetition you will swing your leg forward and back, keeping the knee nearly straight in both directions. Exhale on the swing forward as well as backward. On the back swing, you should lean forward so as to avoid any strain on your back and to further open the space between you grounded leg and the swinging leg. The sole of the foot faces upward with the toes pointing back on the back swing. Work on finding your center and keeping your balance through the movement. Repeat for 8 repetitions, then change legs and repeat with the right leg.
Exercise #9: “The Eyebrow Kick”
Start with your left foot back, right foot forward. Keeping the leg straight and your toes pulled back, swing the leg straight up in front of you, as if trying to touch your toes to your eyebrows. Exhale on the kick. Do this smoothly, getting to know your flexibility and gradually increasing the height of the kick with each repetition. DO NOT FORCE IT. The movement alone through repetition will increase your flexibility. Step back after each kick. Work on finding your center and keeping your balance through the movement by controlling the step (avoid “falling” into it). Repeat for 8 repetitions then switch to the right leg.
Exercise #10: “The Shoulder Kick”
This kick is the same as the Eyebrow Kick except that you swing your leg over your opposite shoulder. Left leg will go over the right shoulder and the right leg will go over the left shoulder. Exhale on the kick. Keep your shoulders facing forward so that the kick will produce a “twisting” feeling. Repeat for 8 repetitions then switch to the right leg.
Exercise #11: “The Crescent Kick”
Again, starting the same way you did in the Eyebrow Kick, this time the kicking leg goes through a circular motion. When kicking with the leg, swing up towards the upper right and continue over to the left, reaching gradually as high as you can. Again, DO NOT FORCE IT. The movement alone through repetition will increase your flexibility. Step back after each kick. Work on finding your center and keeping your balance through the movement by controlling the step (avoid “falling” into it). Repeat for 8 repetitions then switch to the right leg.
Exercise #12: “Squat and Stretch, Side to Side” (Stance #6 Stretch)
Feet apart approximately twice shoulder width. Make a fist with your right hand and a palm with your left, and place them together (like the “Salute” ). Now squat down into your right leg and reach towards your left foot, pointing your elbow there. Exhale on each squat (two times each side). The reach towards the foot is done only once and held as you move up and down into the squat. The movement in this exercise is in the ankles, knees and hips in the squatting motion. You will also be stretching your back from the reach over your extended leg. Do not bounce with the upper body stretching towards the foot. The only movement should be in the squatting motion. After two small squats on the right leg, move straight across to the left, stretch towards the right foot, and repeat the movement on that side (no need to change the hands, just point your right elbow towards your right foot). Left and right equals one repetition. Repeat for 8 repetitions.
Exercise #13: “Open and Close the Chest”
Stand up and bring your feet back together. Arms are held straight out to each side, palms facing up. Relax your chest and shoulders. To begin, inhale and open or expand your chest, then exhale while swinging both hands across chest and try to slap yourself on your upper back, reaching as far onto you upper back as you can (arms are crossing each other). Simultaneously on the arm swing, allow yourself to rise up onto your toes. Then, bring your arms back to the original position, straight out from your shoulders, palms up, and again relax your chest and shoulders for a moment before repeating. Alternate which arm is on top when they cross. Repeat for 8 repetitions.
In conclusion, this article was intended to help explain some more detail in the exercises we use for warming and loosening up the body. If done regularly, and upon rising in the morning in particular, you will attain great flexibility throughout your day even without a warm-up. Make it your new habit. I guarantee results.
Article originally published in the Spring of 2002 under the title “More Than a Warm Up”