9 Movement Must-Haves for your Group Warm-Up

(and why they’re “must haves”)

Start with Why

There are a number of reasons why our general ideas about how to prepare the body for circus deserve some re-thinking:

…because maybe the old 1950s style gym-class warm-up still influences how we are structuring our warm-ups for circus.

…and because maybe the name itself (“warm-up”) tends to have us focusing too much on just “warming up” the muscles.

…and because we know that injuries relate closely to proper joint function—or more accurately, to joint dysfunction.

The movements we do as part of our group warm-ups are an opportunity…

  • To prepare the muscles, etc. for the upcoming training session;
  • To prepare the nervous system and prime the brain-muscle connection for the work to come;
  • To prime the mobility and stability you already have;
  • To address the body’s “weak links” by reducing tension in overactive muscles and activating underactive muscles;
  • To develop/reinforce optimal joint function and functional movement patterns—essentially, to practice moving well (moving the right things while stabilizing the others) so that over time it becomes a habit.

As part of our ongoing mission to change the way circus folks think about strength training for circus, the aim of this workshop is to provide not only a series of exercises that will optimize how the body and the joints within the body move, but also to provide the background understanding of functional movement and joint function that informs the exercise selection.

Most of our students come to us after days spent sitting and/or looking down at their computers or phones.

Each of the “must-haves” to be presented is intended to address the most common muscular imbalances and compensatory movement patterns that develop as a result of our “modern lifestyles”…

…most of those imbalances and compensations are the complete opposite of what our bodies need to be able to do for circus.

A note about compensations

For each of the following exercises, a list of some of the more common compensations that you’re likely to see is provided.

In some cases, you will be able to cue the person into a better position. But just as often, it may be that the person simply does not have the requisite mobility or stability—and they are not going to gain it today.

(That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t still try to cue them into a better position).

While we are not going to be able to completely undo these compensations during the warm-up, these exercises provide us with an opportunity to shift things closer to “neutral”.

A note about breathing

The importance of good breathing patterns is enough to fill an entire presentation on its own.

But for now, a couple of key points:

  • There is a powerful link between a good breathing pattern and core activation
  • Good breathing will also encourage a “parasympathetic shift”—stimulating a decrease in unwanted muscle tension
  • Good breathing: think “below the ribs”; Bad breathing ~ chest breathing (at rest
  • On inhalation, the diaphragm contracts (which is the top of the cylinder)
  • Deep abdominals assist with late exhalation
  • Pelvic floor, which works in conjunction with diaphragm, is also a whole presentation of its own
  • Good breathing makes good core activation happen automatically.
How to breathe for these exercises:
  • Inhale through the nose
  • Big, long exhales through the mouth (5s; “breathe through a straw”)

The “Must-Haves”

Each of the following is intended to become a regular feature in all of your warm-ups. Doing them once will be helpful, but doing them repeatedly, over time, begins to ‘groove’ good motor patterns.

T-spine Rotation


  • Sitting on heels, grab ribs
  • Press elbow into floor
  • Exhale and pull ribs while looking over shoulder towards the ceiling
  • 3-5 breaths/reps

Common compensations

  • Lumbar rotation instead of thoracic rotation


  • Breathing exercise to stimulate a parasympathetic shift
  • Improve thoracic ROM for overhead movements

Adductor Rock-backs


  • Half-straddle, half-froggy
  • Foot of straddle-leg planted flat with toes forward
  • Exhale, engage core and rock back
  • Keep pelvis and low back in neutral

Common Compensations

  • “Butt-winking”; Pelvic tilting/low-back rounding
  • Too much lumbar extension–>aim for neutral
  • Toes rolling up off floor


  • Practice moving at the hip joint without moving the pelvis or low back
  • Practice core engagement with movement (core control)
  • Work hip mobility (get the adductors moving)

World’s Greatest Stretch


  • Emphasize a straight line from knee to hip to shoulder to top of head
  • Active quads, glutes, core
  • Breathe! …especially as you twist (from the sternum)

Common Compensations

  • Overly flexed spine
  • Back glute not engaged


  • Because stretching is actually good: this is a great way to reduce tone
  • Stretching for ~30s is ok but really only if it is followed by dynamic warm-up
  • AND, passive stretching is something the bendy folks should not do
  • Prime hip mobility, upper back mobility…
  • An opportunity to practice “active engagement” in a stretch (because this isn’t entirely passive—and the bendy folks really shouldn’t be doing passive stretching anyway)
    • For the not-so-bendy folks, this helps to facilitate a ‘good’ stretch
    • For the bendy folks, this helps to make sure the right stuff is getting stretched

Floor Slides


  • Press forearms and wrists into the floor
  • Strong exhale as arms slide overhead
  • Focus is on maintaining core engagement/position rather than how far overhead your arms get

Common Compensations

  • Rib flare
  • Wrists not touching the floor


  • Lower trap (plus a bit of serratus) activation
  • Active stretch for pec and internal rotators
  • Core control
  • Activation of external rotators

Leg Lowers


  • Low back must remain neutral
  • Arms down, palms up
  • Legs must be straight and active …the whole time.
  • 5s exhale as you lower your leg…only lower leg as far as you can without arching your back

Common Compensations

  • Static leg: knee bend
  • Lowering leg: knee bend
  • Loss of core position


  • Active hamstring and calf flexibility
  • Core control
  • Glute activation
  • Contralateral lumbopelvic dissociation

Cook Hip Lift, aka “Lumbar-locked” Single-leg Hip Lift


  • Hug your knee into your chest
  • Dig your heel into the floor
  • Exhale and push hips to the ceiling and hold (5s exhale)

Common Compensations

  • Knee pulling away from chest
  • Pushing through flat foot
  • Hamstring spasm


  • Because for many people, their glutes are “sleepy” or underactive, this will help them to get their glutes working better
  • Hip extension without lumbar extension (i.e., good core position)

Dead Bugs 


  • “Dead Bug” position with neutral spine/pelvis
  • 5s exhale
  • Active arms and legs (because this is circus, after all)

Common Compensations

  • Shaking
  • Bent arm/too much hip flexion
  • Poor core positioning


  • Core control with overhead ROM and hip extension plus cross-body patterning

Bear Crawl—forward/backward


  • Small steps
  • Balance a wine glass on your pelvis
  • Press into the floor with opposite food and hand
  • Go slow

Common Compensations

  • Steps too big
  • Too much pelvic/spinal rotation
  • Too much butt in the air


  • Core control
  • Dynamic scapular stability
  • Serratus activation
  • Dynamic hip stability

CNS primer: Wacky Jacks / Cross Jacks


  • Cross-body movement stimulates the CNS and primes the mind-muscle connection
  • They’re fun
  • Beginning of dynamic warm-up section (to continue raising body temperature)
  • *Note: straight elbows to focus on good shoulder mechanics

In closing…

The benefit for these exercises comes largely from their repeated use. Because each of these exercises deserves and perhaps needs thorough coaching, if you include these in every single warm-up, you and your students will learn good form and good movement over time.

Bonus: If you have the resources…

All-Fours Belly Breathing


  • Serratus activation;
  • Thoracic flexion;
  • Core activation
  • Parasympathetic shift


  • Hands ahead of shoulders
  • Press the floor away and “dome” upper back
  • Tuck your pelvis under
  • Inhale through the nose for 4 seconds
  • Exhale through pursed lips for 8 seconds—pushing the floor away more and ‘lock in’ core tension

Foam Rolling—Upper back, lats, glutes, adductors, quads


  • Reduce neurological tone
  • Hydration of tissues
  • Improve tissue quality
  • Opportunity to ‘check-in’ with your body


  • Roll slowly.
  • Breathe. The whole time.
  • No more than 20-30s per muscle/area

Banded Walks


  • Glute medius activation for hip stability and knee happiness


  • Feet must stay parallel—no toes out
  • Maintain your crouch—no ‘up and down’; no leaning/shifting
  • For side-to-side steps: maintain tension in the band; step to the side and then a slow step with trail leg

Band-resisted Hip Flexion


  • To train dissociation of the hip joint from the lumbopelvic complex: basically, hip flexion without lumbar flexion or pelvic tilting


  • Typically, this is hard for folks so choose an appropriate band
  • Hold knees to chest and inhale through the nose
  • Exhale and extend one leg while actively maintaining hip flexion of the other leg
  • Only extend and lower the leg as far as you can without changing your core/spinal positioning

Wrist CARs


  • Articular (joint) health
  • Maintain/Improve ROM
  • Develop proprioception


  • Movement is intended to come solely from the wrist joint without accessory movement from the forearm (i.e., rotation)
  • Move slowly and deliberately
  • Work towards moving through biggest possible ROM (again, without moving anything else)
  • Lead the movement with your palm—avoid ‘cupping’ your hand/moving your fingers

Quadruped Hip Extension from elbows


  • Hip extension without lumbar flexion
  • Bonus contralateral hip stability/spinal rotary stabilization work


  • Shift weight slightly onto one knee
  • Exhale and drive bottom of foot towards the ceiling
  • Maintain active core

Taking it further…

Do compensations ever go away? Can you ‘correct’ muscle imbalances? Are the weak links ever going to stop being ‘weak’?

The exercises presented here ‘open a window’, so to speak. The next step is functional strength and conditioning.

And we are here to help you with that.

Theresa and I are available to work with you either in person or online. We can come to your studio to work with staff and students individually or for a workshops. Or we can develop a strength and conditioning plan and work with online.