The Best Yoga Warm-Up for Athletes
Learn the most popular yoga warm up sequence and make it your own.
THE Yoga Warm-Up Sequence
The more I learn about yoga, the more I realize that it’s filled with “alternative facts.”
I’ll hear things like “this pose has been around since 5,000 B.C.”, then I’ll look it up and find out it’s actually more like 1904, at the earliest.
The histories of the most popular warm-up used in modern yoga, the sun salutation in its many varieties, falls into the category of alternative fact (at best).
I’ve heard things like “sun salutations were done by ancient yogis living in caves” I’ve also heard they were developed under 100 years ago when some yogis in India saw the British military doing burpees.
Whatever the true history is, sun salutations work. They efficiently warm up the body and prepare the mind for the practice to come. In particular, the primary, “A” variation of the Sun Salutation (known literally as Sun Salutation A), is THE (all caps intended) yoga warm-up because of how common and efficient it is.
Unfortunately, some alternative facts tend to slip into how the sequence is taught, which I can’t ignore. I’m fine with people saying these movements were done by cavemen, because it doesn’t hurt anybody. I’m not okay when yoga teachers aren’t properly educated and get people hurt, especially my athletes out there (who often have looks of deep confusion during their first few salutations).
So, I’m going to help you throw pseudo-facts to the side and learn how to make every sun salutation a productive and worthwhile one, without blowing out your back or hamstrings (yay!).
What is a “Sun Salutation”?
At its most basic level, sun salutations are a yoga warm up sequence used to prepare the body for more physically-demanding poses to come.
You see different variations of them in vinyasa yoga classes, most commonly Sun Salutations A, B, and C. I’m going to focus on “Sun A” in this article, but just know that B and C are also happening out there in yogaland.
No matter what anyone tells you, this is just a warm-up. There is no “ancient alignment” and you don’t even need to use them strictly for yoga. Any sun salutation can be considered a “yoga warm up” for any form of training, workout, or exercise, like weightlifting and conditioning work.
I also highly recommend using Sun A as a little morning yoga flow to wake up the body before (or instead of) your morning coffee. Challenge accepted?
Regardless of how or when you do your sun salutations, just know that they’re like any aspect of a yoga practice: they’re there to use as tools for your goals.
Problems with Sun Salutation A
The main issues with Sun Salutation A are that it tends to overstretch the hamstrings and overexert the low back.
These can snowball into major issues because yoga classes tend to have a lot of sun salutations. So, doing these incorrectly in every class will start to build imbalances, and I’m pretty sure yoga was built for the opposite of that…
Not only do I want to help you avoid issues with Sun A, but I also want you to know your options so you can customize your experience with it and make it your own.
Below is a step-by-step overview of the whole of Sun A sequence. Each step includes one key tip for athletic bodies.
Use these in your next class and you’ll be doing it far better than most of the people around you, maybe even your teacher:
How to do Sun Salutation A
Step 0 — Start in Mountain Pose
Athlete’s tip: Engage quads. Posture strengthens while also prepping the legs for movement.
Step 1 — Arms Overhead (Inhale)
Athlete’s tip: Maybe add a backbend, but only with engaged quads and tailbone down (to protect low back).
Step 2 — Fold Forward (Exhale)
Athlete’s tip: Bend knees deeply, especially to start. This will protect low back and not overstretch hamstrings. Knees can bend less and less as you start to warm up.
Step 3 — Lift Halfway Up (Inhale)
Athlete’s tip: Knees bent, lift chest to hip-height, maybe adding a small backbend for posterior/back strengthening (yoga is often insufficient in developing posterior strength).
Step 4 — Plank Pose (Exhale & Inhale)
Athlete’s tip: Step back lightly/quietly (requires core) on exhale, bring shoulders over fingertips with a deep inhale. Warms wrists and aligns shoulders for next pose.
Step 5 — Lower to Chaturanga (Exhale)
Athlete’s tip: Elbows directly over wrists, shoulders never dip below elbows (protecting shoulders). Knees come to mat if you don’t have the strength to control the movement from plank to chaturanga (protecting low back).
Step 6 — Lift to Upward Facing Dog (Inhale)
Athlete’s tip: Engage quads again! This will keep your low back safe. Chin towards chest to protect your neck.
Step 7 — Press to Downward Facing Dog (Exhale)
Athlete’s tip: Bend knees again! Especially to start. Breathe.
Step 8 — Bend Knees and Look Forward (Inhale)
Athlete’s tip: Look directly at the spot where your feet will be stepping.
Step 9 — Step Forward (Exhale)
Athlete’s tip: Step forward lightly, one foot at a time, keep hips lifting high. If this is not smooth, drop knees to mat first, before stepping forward.
Step 10 — Lift Halfway Up (Inhale)
Athlete’s tip: Same as Step 3, this time bring weight into the balls of the feet, heels still in contact with mat (you’ll feel the hamstrings engage).
Step 11 — Fold Forward (Exhale)
Athlete’s tip: Keep weight in forefoot, knees bent. Let your head and neck release.
Step 12 — Arms Overhead (Inhale)
Athlete’s tip: Reach as high as you can while pressing down evenly into your feet. Maybe add a back bend.
Step 13 — Return to Mountain Pose (Exhale)
Athlete’s tip: Complete exhale. Firm quads. Gaze soft. Repeat.
Warm Up with Sun Salutations Right Now
If you’re impatient, like me, you might want to start ingraining these techniques right now.
Here are three classes from Icewater Yoga that focus specifically on Sun Salutation A:
- Yoga Warm-Up: Sun Salutation A (11 minutes)
- A Vigorous Intro to Yoga: Sun Salutations (26 minutes)
- Yoga Basics: What is a Sun Salutation? (34 minutes)
We also have a specific set of classes designed as yoga-based warm-ups for anything else you might be doing. Check them out using this link.
Sun salutations are the best tool we have as yoga teachers to warm up the body and mind for a yoga class, though I’d also love to see them used to warm up for almost anything else.
If you’re doing them right, they offer a perfect blend of static and dynamic movement and give the body the time it needs to actually warm up.
I hope for your sake that your days of slapping a few stretches together before a workout are behind you, and I encourage you to consider trying a few Sun As before your next non-yoga workout and see how they treats you.
I wouldn’t be surprised if you start Sun A-ing before everything and anything, including breakfast.