Athletic Prehab Exercises

by Russ Ebbets, DC

continued from home page

Rehab plays an interesting role for the athlete. Athletic success requires one to challenge the body’s limits on almost a daily basis. These challenges entail the constant attempt to find one’s limitations and “nudge” those limitations a notch or two improving work capacity and ultimately competitive performance

Problems arise when “a notch or two” becomes three or four and the body is unable to adapt quickly enough or recover quickly enough before the next day’s challenge presents. The long-term result of these unchecked challenges is often tissue failure whether it be muscle, tendon, ligament, fascia or even bone. Traditionally these overuse syndromes are treated with a reduced workload, alternate activities or time off. Of critical import here is the loss of productive training time.

Just as the days of one’s life are numbered so are the days of one’s athletic career. High level performance usually lasts 10-12 years. It may be more in some sports and certainly less in others. The point is that there is a start and finish that offer a limited number of opportunities to “get it right” and achieve one’s potential.

The problem with rehab efforts is that in the grand scheme they represent time spent in a holding pattern, a time of repair and not development. Injury may result due to poor training habits, misguided coaching or unrealistic personal aspirations. One month per year spent on rehab efforts over the course of a 12-year career represents one-year of lost time or 8% of one’s career. Compare that 8% with the margin of victory in an Olympic 100m that can be as little as .1% or 1/100th of a second, about the width of one’s thumb. Time is of the essence.

Success leaves clues, but so does failure. Injury is a system failure. Whatever the tissue injured if one were to step back a moment and observe the injury statistics for a sport patterns would emerge. Distance runners tend to suffer injuries from the knee down. Speed/power sports are plagued with hamstring injuries. Baseball pitchers have shoulder and elbow problems. Even the concussion issue can be mitigated with improved neck strength. Suddenly the import of prevention comes clearly into focus.

Preventive efforts are not a new concept. In years past pre-season, off-season or individual efforts at fitness have been used. While the results were no doubt beneficial they lacked the specificity and direction necessary to adequately prepare the “weak links” or problem areas of individual sports.

As the understanding of training methods has evolved there is still the application of this general preparation (summer programs, off-season, etc.) but there has been a rise in special preparation that allows for focus on development of the weak links in an athlete’s kinetic chain that will hopefully this work provide the margin of error to stay healthy in training and competitive efforts.

Most readers would be familiar with the concept of a dynamic warm-up. The dynamic warm-up entails active exercises and movements (as opposed to static stretching) that can gently and progressively warm-up the body for the more aggressive efforts to follow. A well-organized dynamic warm-up can address the five biomotor skills (speed, strength, endurance, flexibility and ABC’s of agility, balance, coordination and skill), the seven primal movements (push, pull, squat, lunge, twist, body hinge and symmetric movement such as gait), core, postural or dynamic stability or any other combination of movement skills desired. Time and special attention can be used to improve “weak links” or problem areas of a particular sport or activity.

The problem one faces in making these recommendations to a motivated athlete is that there is no “glamour” here. In fact, a dynamic warm-up has been referred to as “invisible training.” Invisible training is work that one does but no one else can see the results. Done properly invisible training may result in a more resilient musculo-tendinous junction, a clearer neuromuscular movement pattern or a stronger tendinous bony insertion. All these can contribute to a more powerful stretch reflex, a more biomechanically efficient summation of forces, more perfect technical movements and even longevity in a sport. But to the casual observer the results of invisible training remain invisible. Health and fitness is seen as only skin deep.

The 10-20 minutes daily spent on pre-hab efforts via a dynamic warm-up can be a difficult sell to a fitness athlete who has only a lunch hour to bang out five miles. But I would content that 10 minutes of foot drills, core, posture and dynamic stability work would more than make-up for the “lost mile” of aerobic work. The fitness athlete does what they like to do. The champion athlete does what they need to do.

Where does one go from here? First one needs to make a realistic assessment of the demands of a sport or event. What skill set dictates success? What are the common injury patterns? Why do they happen?

From answers to these questions one can design a 10-minute program with the understanding and expectation that it should change periodically. I strongly recommend taking the time to watch how successful athletes warm-up. Some are great examples of both good and bad habits. Don’t belabor the point – 10 minutes is 10 minutes, challenge the body and back off. The body is very adaptable when given proper direction.

Success leaves clues. I have had the opportunity over the years to observe some of the greats in sport and how they do what they do. From Tom Tellez I learned the importance of common sense. The Kenyans emphasized running form work in their prehab efforts. Successful high school programs seem to warm-up as if on auto pilot but in reality, their warm-ups were carefully choreographed movements that have resulted from countless hours of attentive coaching. Even from the sloppiness of pro footballers’ sprint drills I could see the lack of understanding for the process. The days of success by accident are gone. Plan your work, train with intention and make skillful, technically sound actions part of the plan.

For further ideas on a dynamic warm-up search YouTube for The 6 Foot Drills and under the general topics of “dynamic warm-up” and “warm-up.”

Examples of Prehab Exercises

Foot drills (see The 6 Foot Drills on YouTube)

Running drills (ankle bounce, fast foot, skips, high knees)

Core stability (front/side/back planks)

Jumping rope, squat jumps, line hops, jumping jacks

Push-ups, sit-ups, squat thrusts

Side running, cariocas, wide step running, narrow step running, snake runs

Medicine ball work (overhead throws, from right/left side, between legs, push passes)

P-90X, Zumba, Pilates, T’ai Chi work

Arm circles, neck circles, back circles



0-:10 minutes

Foot drills, core, postural, dynamic stability, 5 biomotor skills, 7 primal movements, attention to “weak links”

Main Part of Workout

:10-:50 minutes


:50-:60 minutes

General conditioning



Russ Ebbets, DC is a USATF Level 3 Coach and lectures nationally on sport and health related topics. He serves as editor of Track Coach, the technical journal for USATF. He is author of the novel Supernova on the famed running program at Villanova University and the High Peaks STR8 Maps trail guide to the Adirondack 46 High Peaks. Copies are available from PO Box 229, Union Springs, NY 13160. He can be contacted at

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