An Ecological Approach to Warmups

Warmups are an important, but often neglected part of a HEMA class. A
good warmup helps prevent injury and prepares you for optimal physical
performance. We know that physical capability influences our
perception of affordances
, so training without warming up could even
affect how we learn.

But I get why warmups are neglected: they can be boring, and they take
up time that could otherwise be devoted to activities with a more
direct training benefit. I do include a thorough warmup in all my
classes, but lately I’ve been wanting to get more out of that time. So
I started experimenting with ways to make my warmups more fun and

Since this is GD4H, it should come as no surprise that this mostly
came down to building a warmup out of games. My hope was that by
choosing the right games, I could create a good warmup that also
develops sports-specific skills. I’ve tried it out for a few months
now and I think it works pretty well.

The Old Way

Our old warmup was roughly similar to what I think most HEMA clubs do:
we ran through a series of exercises with the goal of raising heart
rate and body temperature, and working various movement patterns and
muscle groups relevant to fencing. So stuff like agility ladder
drills, dynamic stretches, planks, medicine ball throws, box jumps,

The program was also designed to contribute to long-term physical
development, building up the necessary strength and range of motion to
fence safely, so it was a bit longer than most warmups. It was created
a while back by an instructor at the club who is also a strength and
conditioning coach, so I think it was pretty well thought out, and it
served us well over the years. But it does take a lot of time, and it
doesn’t do much to get students mentally prepared for class. The
exercises are mostly isolated, repetitive movements which don’t help
students switch their brains into fencing mode or develop fencing

The New Way

Our new warmup is inspired by three EA principles:

  1. Variation is good. We want to perform a wide range of movements
    rather than repeating the same thing over and over. Practice which
    incorporates variability and unplanned movement can reduce repetitive
    strain and help to prevent injury.
  2. Self-organization. Rather than prescribing specific movement
    patterns, we want students to figure out their own movements within
    the constraints of a task. This helps develop adaptability, and
    builds motor skills more effectively than rote repetition.
  3. Representativeness. As much as possible, we want practice
    activities to be similar to the actual performance
    environment. This helps to develop movement skills which are
    effective in that environment.

These principles are usually applied to the skill development parts of
practice, but they can extend to the warmup as well. I’ve been
experimenting with using games, and other activities that allow
students to self-organize to achieve a goal, in place of the usual
isolated exercises. By choosing the games carefully, the hope was that
I could build a functional warmup while also incorporating some skill

Since the warmup activities need to meet the physiological needs of
the warmup, they can end up looking a bit different than the games I
use in the main part of class. For example, I use non-competitive,
follow-the-leader style games near the beginning of the warmup to keep
the intensity down and get people moving continuously. And in some
games I add constraints to encourage movement patterns that otherwise
wouldn’t come up that often, like dropping into a squat. All of this
makes the warmup activities less representative than most of our
training games, which probably reduces their effectiveness for skill
development, but they’re still better on that front than isolated

Over the course of the warmup, students will get closer to an optimal
physiological state, so we can ramp up toward higher intensity and
more representative games. The beginning of the warmup is more about
physical preparation, while the end focuses on mental preparation and
skill development.


I tried this out in my longsword classes, with a warmup based around
wrestling skills (see below for details). We aren’t doing any
wrestling as part of the main longsword curriculum, so I was hoping to
use the warmup to develop some basic skills to help people deal with
the grappling that can happen in longsword matches, and maybe prepare
them for doing some dedicated wrestling training in the future.

It was a lot more fun than our old warmup, and the students learned
some wrestling with almost no direct instruction. Their skill at grip
fighting and entering into clinches improved noticeably, and at least
one student started to use grapples heavily in their fencing. Since we
weren’t doing any other wrestling training I can pretty confidently
attribute those improvements to the warmup.

I also think it scaled better across ability levels. With the old
program, some people would get to a point where it was easy and coast
through, while others were exhausted at the end. With the new program,
everyone seemed to be thoroughly warmed up without being too tired.

Example Warmup

This warmup is designed to build some basic wrestling skills for
students with no prior grappling experience. It’s mostly focused on
standing grapples and grip fighting, since I didn’t want to hassle
with getting mats out or risk injuries due to falls. When I put it
together I was still working out some of these ideas and looking back
there are parts of it I’d change, but I think it’s good enough to work
as an example.

The program follows the RAMP model (from The Warm-Up, by Ian Jeffreys)
which divides the warmup into three phases: Raise, Activate and
Mobilize, Potentiate.


The goal here is to increase heart rate, muscle temperature, and other
key physiological indicators. This is done with continuous movement,
starting at low intensity and gradually ramping up. Traditionally
you’d achieve that with jogging or other light cardio.

  • Follow the leader in grips. Start in a neutral grip, one partner
    moves around, gently pushing and pulling, and the other
    follows. You can also include grip switching (where the leader
    moves their outside arm to the inside, and the student then does
    the same on the opposite side), once students have a handle on the
    basic grip. 3 x 1 minute rounds. Switch leaders halfway through
    each round.
  • Push/pull. Start in a neck/elbow grip. Have your partner lean
    against you to provide resistance, and push them across the
    floor. Then have them lean back, and pull them across the
    floor. Repeat three times, starting with light resistance and
    working up to moderate resistance, then switch roles.

Activate and Mobilize

In this phase we want to exercise the fundamental movement patterns
needed for the practice ahead, with full range of
motion. Traditionally you’d use active, dynamic stretching for this.

  • Follow the leader with level changes. At any time the leader can
    drop into a lower stance, and the follower should also go
    down. Only go as deep as you can comfortably go – you don’t have
    to match your partner’s level. 3 x 40 second rounds. Switch leaders
    halfway through each round.
  • Low walk/bear crawl. Bend your knees and get into as low a stance
    as you can. Walk across the room, trying to stay low rather than
    bobbing up and down. Then go down on hands and feet, with knees
    bent, and crawl back. Repeat 2-3 times. (This one isn’t great from
    an EA perspective – I should probably replace it with something
    that allows more variation)
  • Pick your partner up and gently put them down, in various
    ways. Demo a few options if needed (load them on to the hip as for
    a turn thrown, fireman’s carry, bear hug and lift them straight
    up), then let the students play around with it. (This is not very
    representative due to the compliant nature, but for students with
    varying levels of athleticism and no wrestling background, I think
    it’s a decent way to get comfortable with some aspects of picking
    people up and throwing them)


This phase increases intensity to prepare for explosive movements, as
well as ramping up mental effort. It can incorporate speed or agility
training and development of sport-specific skills.

I use a selection of wrestling games, mixing things up from one class
to the next. A couple that I like are:

  • Palm pushing. Stand in a square stance facing a partner, with your
    hands up, palms facing forward. Try to make your partner take a
    step by pushing on their palms. This can be nice for beginners, or
    if people are a bit tired and need something less physically taxing.
  • Touch the back. Score a point by putting the palm of your hand on
    the opponent’s back, or on the back of their leg. This is good for
    developing grip fighting and entries for clinches or throws.