The Five Best Warm-up Exercises (For Tabata Prep)

by Mael Walkowiak FMSC || @MWMovementSystems

tabata trackRule #18 in Zombieland is “Limber up”. A common boxing saying is “Go into the ring cold, leave the ring cold,” and Grand Heidrich once said, “If you spend too much time warming up, you’ll miss the race. If you don’t warm up at all, you may not finish the race.” So if warming up is a key element and a commonly accepted practice in exercise routines, then why do so many people move through it mindlessly, or, worse yet, not at all?

I’m not sure of the answer, but I do know the five best exercises to perform before a Tabata workout to pattern the body for optimal performance. You can do any of these anywhere, and all you need is a towel.

1. The Toe-Touch Progression

 Many times in my practice I have people come to me with chronic back pain. One of the first things I screen them for is if they can touch their toes. The toe touch is the prerequisite for deep squatting and any hip hinging movement. In other words, it is a requirement to actually be able to use the hips and legs to their fullest capacity.

     Part I
Firstly, place the balls of your feet on a 2”-4” board so your heels are on the ground (if there isn’t one around then get creative. Here we are using a stack of two chairs). Roll up your towel and then place your feet together with the towel held between the knees so that your legs are slightly bowed out (bow-legged). If you cannot get your feet together (This is IMPERATIVE), then unravel a layer of the towel until you can attain the proper foot position. Secondly, stand as tall as you can, squeeze your glutes together like you’re trying to hold the stinkiest fart of your life in while in a crowd of potential business investors, draw your belly in and flex your abdominals (think six pack in the mirror), then reach your arms up in the air. This is the start position.

Toe Touch Progression

Toe-Touch Progression. Part I- Toes Raised.

Toe Touch 1

Part I Position.

Next, reach for your toes as best as you can. If you don’t reach them, no worries, you’re about to become a champion. Squeeze the towel between your knees and reach a little farther (notice, you can reach a little farther when you do this). Return to the start position. Perform ten repetitions like this and then move onto Part II.

     Part II
Place your heels on the board with your toes on the ground. Perform ten repetitions in this position, exactly like Part I. You might feel like you’re going to fall backwards at first, don’t be alarmed. This is your body starting to feel out the hip hinge.

Toe-Touch Progression. Part II- Raised Heels.

Toe-Touch Progression. Part II- Raised Heels.


Part 2 Position

Once you finish the first two versions of the toe touch progression, take the towel out from between your legs, place the balls of your feet on the board again, keep your legs straight and reach for your toes. Better? Do this ten times then put your heels on the board and do ten more repetitions. Now you’re ready to squat.

2. The Assisted Squat

Now that we’ve prepped ourselves for hip-hinging, find a doorjamb or post to hold onto. Set your feet slightly outside your shoulders with your toes pointed out at 15-35 degrees (this is based off of how you are built). Squeeze your glutes and lock your ribcage into position with a drawn in belly and flexed abdominals. Keep your big toe, pinky toe, and heel down on the ground and maintain the arch in your foot (if you don’t have arches in your feet then try your best to screw your feet into the ground [try gripping the ground with your right foot in a clockwise rotation and with your left foot in a counter-clockwise rotation]) proceed to descend to the bottom of a squat by pushing your hips back like you’re sitting on a toilet, and bend your knees until the crease of your hip passes the tops of your knees. Use the doorjamb or post to hold this position for ten seconds. Perform ten repetitions.

assisted squat

Assisted Squat

Some things I want you to keep in mind: Maintain tension in your hamstrings (the backs of your thighs) by pressing your feet into the ground. Keep your knees tracking inline with your feet. If you let your knees travel over your toes then be sure to shove your hips up towards the ceiling in the ascent as to not aggravate the knees. If ten seconds for ten repetitions seems too much then start with less time in the bottom of the squat and work your way up using the post for assistance.

3. Total Spine Rock

With your knees and feet together, assume a quadruped position on the ground. Start this movement by entering a modified child’s pose by pushing your butt back onto your heels and bringing your head to the floor between your straightened arms.

Spine Rock

Total Spine Rock. Full Progression: A B C D C B A.


Then keeping your eyes down on the ground and keeping your hands in place, bring your hips and shoulders forward until your hips are over your knees and your shoulders are over your hands. Push your spine towards the ceiling and your hands into the floor with your arms straight. Tuck your chin to your chest and your pelvis under. Draw your belly in as far as you can. This is cat pose.

To enter the next position (cow pose), arch your spine the opposite direction, stick your butt and belly out as far as you can, pull your shoulders back and down, and look to the ceiling.

The last position is known as cobra or up-dog pose. Continuing to arch your back and looking to the ceiling, push your hips forward while walking your hands out in front of you until your thighs are touching the ground.

Return to cow pose, then cat pose, then modified child’s pose, pausing in each position deliberately. That counts as one repetition. Do ten of these. Your back will thank you later.

4. Scorpion Stretch with Twist

Lying on your belly face down, place both hands on the ground out and away from your body as if you were making a T with your arms.

scorpion 1

Scorpion Stretch w/ Twist.


Keeping your arms in place, reach your right foot to your left hand as best you can. Once you cannot move your foot up any higher, twist your spine by pushing your left hip into the ground and looking toward your right hand. Pause for a moment and then switch sides.

That is one repetition. Do ten.

You can change the shoulder stretch by making your arm into half a field goal post (90-degree angle with hand pointing up or pointing your hand down).

Scorpion 2 options

Shoulder stretch options.


5. The Deadbug Progression

The last movement in the warm-up is a trunk mobility and stability exercise. To perform the Deadbug, lie on your back with your head, shoulders, mid-back, low-back, and pelvis all flush with the ground. Bring your knees up so your thighs make a ninety-degree angle with the floor. Flex your toes towards your nose and place your hands on each hip. This is the start position.


deadbug 1 copy

Deadbug Progression.


Keep your head and whole back flush to the ground, there shouldn’t be any space to even slide a piece of paper under there. Keeping this alignment, extend your right leg until you touch your heel to the ground. Careful not to change your breathing or to arch your spine or lift your head in anyway. Return to the start position. Do the same thing to your left leg. You just completed one repetition. Perform Ten.

If you would like to progress the Deadbug then try it with your arms up in the air and move them contralaterally (opposite as) the extending leg. If this is too simple then try it with your legs straight the entire time (holy hammies, Batman!)

Advanced Options:

deadbug 2 copy

Option #2.

deadbug 3 copy

Option #3.

But wait, I thought you were…

Supposed to get hot and sweaty in a warm-up? This is the deal with increase in core temperature and blood flow: You don’t have to use a bike, treadmill, elliptical, battle rope, wiji board, or whatever else you can strap yourself into and mindlessly move around on for ten minutes and call it a warm-up. You can do it with your body.

You’d be apt to notice this warm-up takes you from a standing position all the way to your back. This is the reverse of how we learned to stand up and walk. That’s right, this warm-up is designed to take you to square one, and then build from there. Deadbugs are a staple in any prehabituation or rehabilitation program and are a basic way of learning how to organize our trunks (note: I’m using the word Trunk and not core. Champions have trunks. Apples have cores. Don’t be an apple. Be a champion). The Scorpion Stretch with Twist is a primal pattern for lower-body rolling (that’s right, in order to overcome gravity we had to get from our backs to our stomachs somehow). The Total Spine Rock is another oldie-but-goodie used for spinal mobility. Assisted Squatting is how we finally stood up as children. Amongst other things, squatting is the true expression of our ability to flex the hip, knee, and ankle while keeping an organized spine. If you can’t squat, you likely have a tough time standing up and sitting down on your own.

Okay, but I’m still not “warm”

If you’re saying this then you must be on your back after your Deadbugs.


Now I want you to reverse the warm-up, go from your back all the way onto your feet. Increase the tempo. Move deliberately and with enthusiasm. Increase the repetitions if you like and remove the pauses in the squats – hell, take the assist out too while you’re at it and skip the last set of toe-touches. It’s time to kick some ass.

This is called Flow. This is how champions warm-up. Don’t worry about the people looking at you weird, they most likely have never seen what it takes to become a champion.

But my friend said animals don’t warm-up, and we are animals, so why should we warm-up?

Your friend obviously is in need of some attention, and unlike the other movement professionals out there who would insult them, I advise you give the attention to them. Lord knows they are going to need it when they rupture a disc or tear something.


“Really, bro?”

No, seriously, a thorough warm-up is important for injury prevention, but it also has many performance enhancing attributes such as:

  • Faster muscle contraction and relaxation
  • Improvements in rate of force development, reaction time, muscle strength, muscle power, oxygen delivery, blood flow, and metabolic reactions
  • Lowered viscous resistance in muscles
  • Rehearsal of functional patterns required for basic fitness skills


And this hasn’t even started to scratch the surface of the direct-relationship between intensity levels like High Intensity Interval Training (i.e. Tabata) and warm-up duration (Thanks in part to the National Strength and Conditioning Association Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning, Third Edition, p. 296-97 for the assist on the above list.)


Wait, now I’m anxious and I don’t want to warm-up at all…

Snap out of it. It’s simple. If you perform the aforementioned movements from start to finish (Toe-Touch Progression, Assisted Squat, Total Spine Rock, Scorpion Stretch with Twist, Deadbug), then from finish to start (Deadbug, Scorpion Stretch with Twist, Total Spine Rock, Assisted Squat) you’ll be plenty prepared to perform a Tabata.


Awesome, now what are some good exercises for Tabata?

Tune in next time for more Zombieland references, sass, and, most important of all, Tabata Songs’s Top 5 Best Exercises!


Mael Walkowiak FMSC || @MWMovementSystems Mael Walkowiak Tabata Songs
Founder of MW Movement Systems

Functional Movement Screen Certified
Instructor and Personal Trainer
Pioneer Valley CrossFit