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How to Design Hot Cardio Warm-Ups

If you’re like most group fitness instructors, you’ve probably devoted a good deal of time to planning
innovative cardio workouts for your participants. But how much time have you spent worrying about the warm-ups for your cardio classes? Your cardio warm-ups may last only 5 or 10 minutes, but they deserve your attention, too.

We interviewed several industry experts to determine the essential elements of an effective cardio warm-up and how to go about designing one. Best of all, these experts have graciously shared specific examples of dynamic, multijoint warm-ups from their own high/low, step, indoor cycling and kickboxing classes. Ready to learn more? Let’s get warmed up.

Why Warm Up?

Warm-ups provide numerous physiological benefits. For starters, warming up helps gradually increase heart rate and body temperature and decreases the risk of injury. An effective warm-up also preps the muscles and joints, allowing participants to move through fuller ranges of motion.

In addition to these physical benefits, warm-ups afford fitness instructors the opportunity to review and teach proper technique. Amy Jamieson, a master fitness instructor at the University of California at Santa Barbara, often relies on the warm-ups in her kickboxing classes to preview moves to come. For instance, if she’s planned a workout that concentrates on upper-body training, she’ll use the warm-up to introduce punches that participants will do later in class. Teaching those punches early means Jamieson doesn’t spend so much of the main workout reviewing them.

In her high-low classes, Pam Cosmi, MA, an international fitness presenter based in Detroit, also uses warm-ups to let participants practice moves they’ll do later. She often breaks down complicated choreography, especially moves that involve tricky rhythms. “When you get to that part of the workout, you can progress more quickly,” says Cosmi.

Warm-ups also provide a forum to teach proper equipment setup and body alignment. Tatiana Kolovou is a fitness consultant and presenter based in Bloomington, Indiana, who teaches indoor cycling workshops for fitness professionals. She uses time during the warm-ups to ensure that participants are set up correctly, giving them reminders about how they should look and feel on their bikes.

In a similar vein, Kari Anderson, owner of Pro-Robics Conditioning Clubs and Gold’s Gyms in Seattle, stresses technique and range of motion during her step warm-ups so that participants can put more into their workouts once they’re fully underway. For instance, she’ll teach participants how to bend their knees and flex into their hips to get the most out of a hamstring curl, rather than aimlessly throwing their foot behind them. To help participants improve their posture, she also adds a variety of arm patterns to her warm-ups so that participants work their arms in different planes. “When they move their arms and legs together, they have an awareness of their core, which helps them improve posture,” says Anderson.

Warm-ups also help participants mentally by easing the transition from the hectic pace of society to the fitness class setting. In fact, Michael Betts, director of jumpybumpy.com and Fitness Industry Education Limited in London, says one of his goals in a warm-up is to help participants focus on the class.

“I make a general announcement about the class and then explain a certain aspect of the workout, whether
it’s a new move or an exercise we’ll be doing,” says Betts. He then sets the mood by starting class with a motivating, energizing song. “If I can create a good energy in the warm-up, I know
it will be easy to maintain throughout the entire class.”

What Makes a Good Warm-Up?

To understand what makes a good warm-up, let’s first look at mistakes instructors often make when designing warm-ups. One of the most common errors is building the intensity too rapidly. “I’ve seen many instructors
get excited and push their students too quickly,” Kolovou says. “It’s like a movie that starts with a really intense beginning and doesn’t allow you to ‘breathe’ into it.”

Another common warm-up error is to perform moves that are either inappropriate for the workout or don’t properly warm up participants. Chalene Johnson, national program director for Powder Blue Productions in Aliso Viejo, California, has seen instructors lead a kickboxing warm-up by jogging around the room or doing push-ups or jumping jacks. “Those activities don’t prepare the body for the work ahead,” says Johnson. They not only fail to target the specific muscle groups that will be used in the workout but also pose the danger of making the warm-up too intense.

Jari Rehula, an international fitness presenter who teaches at the Fitness First Health Club in Sydney, Australia, says that many step instructors are also guilty of not including warm-up moves that properly warm the body. Instead, many fill their step class warm-ups with high-low choreography and wait until the workout phase to introduce step moves. In addition to robbing participants of the opportunity to rehearse the later moves, that strategy does not prepare muscles and joints for movements on the step.

Other errors typically seen in fitness warm-ups include making the warm-up choreography too complex; spending excess time on stretching and not enough time on moving; and introducing ranges of motion that are too large for the warm-up phase. To avoid this last mistake in her kickboxing classes, Johnson doesn’t include any kicks during the warm-ups; instead, she focuses on movements that simulate kicks but involve smaller ranges of motion— for example, knee strikes and knee digs. Only later in the workout does she introduce kicks.

Elements of a Good Warm-Up

So what constitutes a good warm-up? According to our experts, here are the essential elements of an effective warm-up:

Appropriate Length. The warm-up should last anywhere from 5 to 10 minutes, according to Rehula. It is generally accepted that inducing the desired physiological changes, such as a rise in body temperature, takes that much time.

Appropriate Intensity. Remember that the goal of the warm-up is to prepare participants for the workout. So avoid starting off too intensely. Jamieson recommends that if you’re teaching a kickboxing class, you should forgo high-impact moves like jumping jacks until later in class. If you’re teaching an indoor cycling class, don’t encourage participants to break into a sprint during the warm-up. With her cycling participants, Kolovou uses the rating of perceived exertion and suggests they reach a level 4 or 5 (out of 10) by the end of the warm-up.

Moves That Mimic the Workout. No matter what type of class you’re teaching, the warm-up should always prepare the body for the work ahead. Evaluate which muscle groups and joint actions the workout will utilize, then use the warm-up to prepare the body for those moves, says Anderson, whose step warm-ups often focus on loosening the hips and calves. She’ll incorporate step-touches, hamstring curls, knee lifts, lunges, squats, rocking horses and rock steps. Also use the warm-up to rehearse actual moves that will occur later in the workout.

Adequate Stretches. Many experts feel that dynamic, multijoint stretches may be more effective than static stretches, so make movement the focus of your warm-up. (For more information on which stretches to choose, see the April-May 2002 issue of IDEA Fitness Edge.)

Simplicity. Keep your warm-up moves relatively simple and easy to follow. “If clients don’t like the warm-up, they’re not likely to enjoy the class,” says Betts.

Mood Management. Set the tone of your class during the warm-up. Use music and your own presence to create energy that will help participants tune out the outside world and focus on their workout.

Goal Setting. During the warm-up, announce your goals for the class. Of course, knowing your goals requires planning the workout before you walk into class. “If you want students to give you their best,” Kolovou says, “you need to divulge the game plan.” For example, if you are going to teach an interval workout, tell participants that, so they can pace themselves.

Creating Your Cardio Warm-Up

Now that you know the elements of an effective warm-up, it’s time to start putting them together. But how? The secret lies in planning the workout first and the warm-up second. This way, you can identify the joint and muscle actions you need to prep for.

Following this logic, Betts usually choreographs the class first and then plugs moves from the workout into the warm-up—especially if certain moves will require more rehearsal. “I use the same patterns [as in the workout phase] but simplify the rhythms and drop any rotations or turns,” he says. “I also increase the number of repetitions of moves, to create a pattern more suitable for the warm-up.” To make sure it all works as planned, Betts physically rehearses the warm-up before introducing it to his class.

Anderson also spends large blocks of time—sometimes up to 3 hours—planning her warm-ups. She writes down all of her choreography and then practices the moves to music. She minimizes the use of tedious holding patterns, like marches, and works on smooth transitions, arm movements through different planes, and lower-body moves that help participants practice certain moves while getting warm.

In her high-low classes, Cosmi plans simple add-on combinations for the warm-up. Then, during the actual workout, she substitutes larger movements in those combinations and builds on them to make them more challenging.

Although Jamieson doesn’t write out warm-ups anymore, she did when she began teaching kickboxing. She notes that transitions between moves are important and stresses that planning warm-ups is essential. “Because I know what’s going to happen in a workout,” she says, “I know how to tailor the warm-up.” If kicks will be the focus of the workout, for example, she’ll spend more time warming up the lower body, incorporating moves like step-touches, squats and knee lifts.

For Johnson, familiarity is important in warm-ups. “The warm-up is a time when students in my kickboxing classes can feel confident because they know the moves,” she says, adding that she always plans her warm-ups and commits them to paper. Johnson also likes to keep the warm-ups quite similar from class to class. “They’re not [so much] the same that they get stale, but there’s enough similarity between warm-ups that students can slowly get into the groove.” In fact, when Johnson tried to revamp her warm-ups altogether, her participants protested!

Indoor cycling can present its own warm-up challenges for instructors. Movement is obviously more limited
in cycling classes than in choreography-based classes. That doesn’t mean, though, that you can skip the warm-up planning for indoor cycling. To help her plan warm-ups for her cycling classes, Kolovou likes to listen to and mull over the music she’ll use in class. Then, in each warm-up, she introduces real road situations, leading participants through moves that simulate rides on flat roads, in small head winds and on rolling hills—all moves that gradually increase intensity. Her cycling warm-ups also involve lots of cuing and communicating with participants to set the tone, Kolovou says.

Moving Forward

Give your warm-ups the attention they deserve. Throwing together a few moves and hoping for the best will taint your professionalism and may turn off participants. Instead, spend time designing warm-ups that are functional and appropriate for the classes you’re teaching. As Betts says, “If done well, the warm-up offers us a chance to catch our clients’ attention and keep it for the duration of the class.”

Toward that end, you’ll find some sample cardio warm-ups for different types of classes below.

Pam Cosmi’s Sample High-Low Warm-Up
  • March out 4 counts & march in 4 counts (2x).
  • March out 2 counts & march in 2 counts (2x).
  • March out & in singles (2x).
  • 3 step-touches & 1 mambo (to corner).
  • Side mambo R & L (6 counts total) + double clap.
  • Double step-touch R + squat R (repeat L).
  • 4 alternate lunges back.
  • 3 lunges side + knee crossover.
  • 4 alternate knee lifts.

Return to step-touches and move into hamstring, hip flexor, gastrocnemius & low-back stretches.

Jari Rehula’s Sample Step Warm-Up

Start with various moves (e.g., knee lifts, hamstring curls, basic step, hip extension/abduction) on the floor before introducing the choreography below:

Counts — Move

  • 1-4 — March on the step x 4.
  • 5-8 — March on the floor x 4.
  • 9-16 — March around the step x 8.
  • 17-22 — Alternate mambo x 2 up on the step.
  • 23-28 — Double stomp x 1.
  • 29-32 — Hamstring curl on the step.
  • 33-64 — Repeat on the other leg.

Finish with stretches to increase range of motion.

Michael Betts’s Sample Cycling Warm-Up

This warm-up is intended to take 7 to 9 minutes:

1. Start with single-cadence pedal strokes (1 full revolution for every 2 beats of music) using light resistance.

2. Introduce various hand positions while continuing single-cadence pedal strokes.

3. Continue performing single-cadence pedal strokes while increasing the resistance and introducing various body positions (e.g., seated climb, standing climb, run).

4. While seated, introduce a double-time pedal stroke (1 full revolution for every 1 beat of music) for short periods of time, alternating with single-cadence pedal strokes.

5. Increasing the resistance, drop the cadence to half-time pedal stroke (half of 1 full revolution for every 1 beat of music).

6. Return to single-cadence pedal strokes, reduce the resistance and perform upper-body full-range stretches.

Amy Jamieson’s Sample Kickboxing Warm-Up

This warm-up is intended to take 7 to 9 minutes:

1. Step-touch for 8 counts while performing shoulder circles and arm circles.

2. Introduce hand position (proper fist) and ready position (arms up, elbows in, hands in, fist up protecting the face).

3. Bob and weave into right lead fighting stance for 8 counts.

4. Jab right for 8 counts.

5. Cross left for 8 counts.

6. Bob and weave into left lead fighting stance for 8 counts.

7. Combination jab R cross L 8x for 32 counts.

8. Perform squats for 8 counts.

9. Perform knee blocks for 16 counts (each block is 2 counts).

10. Squat center for 8 counts.

11.Repeat steps 1 to 10 with left lead.


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