The Ultimate (Football) Warm-up

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In April, I attended the Isokinetic Medical Group’s International Conference on Football Medicine: Muscle and Tendon Injuries (more about that later) and one of the most important topics, covered in the opening address, was the FIFA 11+ warm-up.

You’ve probably heard quite a few people, myself included, talking about how important a dynamic warm up is, along with essential conditioning, to prevent injuries. What I’ve heard back from a lot of clients is “Okay, but what does that mean?” My answer was always pretty general – warm-up actively in movements that activate the main muscle groups you’ll be using, and make sure your conditioning works your synergist, or supporting, muscles. Now, there’s a formula – for football at least. And, arguably, a framework from which other sports can develop their own effective injury-preventing warm-ups.

The FIFA 11+ programme is a warm-up programme that was developed by FIFA’s Medical Assessment and Research Centre (F-MARC), the Oslo Sports Trauma Research Center and the Santa Monica Orthopaedic and Sports Medicine Research Foundation. When rolled out in Switzerland between 2004-2008 it had a dramatic effect in reduction of injuries, with a 30-50% injury reduction rate compared to those that didn’t do this warm-up. As a result, FIFA is suggesting this becomes a regular part of every team’s training routine.

The Programme

The 11+ Programme is comprised of three parts and should last about 20 minutes. Part 1 covers slow running exercises, active stretching and light partner contact, allowing the body to get warmed up. Part 2 is six sets of exercises, with three levels of difficulty each, whose purpose is to improve core and leg strength while stressing proper alignment for each movement. Part 3 includes higher-speed running exercises with planting and cutting movements. The whole programme should be performed as a warm-up at least twice a week before a training session, with only parts 1 and 3 performed before a match.

The Principles

What is most striking about this programme, specifically for part 2, which includes moves such as the plank, side plank, nordic hamstring exercises, and single-leg balances, is that it doesn’t give you reps to complete, but rather a duration for each exercise. This is a reflection of a common theme that emerged from the conference: a focus on qualitative, not quantitative measurement. It’s better to do any exercise three times slowly but well (that is, with correct form and technique, using the right muscles) as opposed to 10 reps where the second half are done incorrectly.  Throughout the FIFA 11+ manual, the emphasis on form is repeated: All players must start at level 1 for the part 2 exercises, and only when done easily with good form may they progress to the next level. Even the sections on the running exercises have clear illustrations outlining correct and incorrect alignment to ensure that attention is paid to form throughout the warm-up.

Each of the exercises have been chosen as they strengthen essential abdominal/pelvic and leg musculature and/or mimic muscle recruitment patterns used in football. It is becoming increasingly apparent that leg problems, such as in the hamstring, calf and quad can have a relationship with the lumbar spine and poor lumbo-pelvic (read: core) stability, thus the planks and balance exercises. Exercises such as squats and one-leg balances strengthen the supportive musculature down the leg, not just making them stronger but also training the brain to recruit the muscles in a functional way, as opposed to strengthening muscles in isolation.

An important note is the FIFA 11+ warm-up does not include static stretching pre-session. This is in line with recent research that shows static stretching pre-workout can be detrimental to performance and in some cases increase potential for injury. Although it only mentions it briefly, I’d also like to point out here that you should still try to include stretching AFTER training or exercise, to help lengthen muscles following repetitive muscle contraction.

Not Just for Football?

Although these exercises have been developed specifically for footballers, what runner do you know that wouldn’t benefit from a few one-legged squats, or cyclist from increased lumbo-pelvic stability? The Nordic hamstring exercises, when done properly have been shown to be extremely beneficial in reducing hamstring injuries, which isn’t just a football problem. In the FAQ’s, the FIFA 11+ manual states that the programme has been designed to prevent groin and thigh strains, ankle sprains and knee ligament injuries, which often occur in a number of other sports.

If you don’t play football, but participate in any other sport where those injuries are common, or would benefit from some general core and leg stability exercises, I suggest you have a look at the manual, as it may be an excellent starting point for developing your own sports-specific warm-up.

FIFA 11+ homepage:

If you do decide to use the programme, make sure you read the manual thoroughly, and ensure you do each movement slowly and with proper technique. A good programme done incorrectly can be just as damaging as if not doing it at all. Get someone who knows about alignment to watch you do the exercises and correct your alignment when you’re first starting out – it’s easier to learn it the right way the first time than to correct a habit of incorrect technique.

Footballers: do you think you’ll be able to incorporate this programme in your training session?

If you’re another type of athlete, do you think you’ll be drawing on some of these exercises in your own warm-ups?

Are there similar blueprints for other sports out there?  I suspect there might be.  I’ll be keeping my eye out for them, and let me know if you come across any others as well, to share here with others.

Disclaimer: This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. All reasonable care has been taken in compiling the information but no warranty is made as to its accuracy. For diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions it is always advisable to consult a doctor or other health care professional to ensure the specific details of your case are taken into account.  Seek medical advice prior to commencing any new exercise programme.

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