No actor is ready without the proper warmup. To deliver a great performance, you must be in full command of your body and voice—and acting exercises are an important first step. Even a brief practice that awakens the body and your connection to it is beneficial. Read on to learn about warmups that beginners and veteran performers alike can use to get in the zone.
An acting warmup is an exercise or group game that readies the tools an actor will be using while performing. Much like an athlete, an actor’s primary tool is their body; as such, it requires attention, care, preparation, and upkeep.
In addition to readying actors for an audition or performance, warmups can encourage creativity and stretch the limits of the imagination. They foster experimentation without judgment, loosening up an actor mentally, emotionally, and physically. That goes both for solo performances and ensemble work.
Reducing anxiety is another key benefit. Nerves might be inevitable, but by preoccupying your mind and devoting your attention to your body, you will ground yourself in the moment rather than worrying about what could go wrong in the future.
Using your body fully is central to any performance. Just as a musician practices, an actor must also get in touch with their instrument. Start your warmup with any or all of these physical exercises to achieve optimal synergy. You can do these by yourself or in a group.
- Stretching the body: Wake up your muscles by isolating different parts of the body and giving them a stretch. Reach your arms overhead as high as you can, roll down to touch your toes, and wind your wrists and ankles in circles. The benefits of stretching include improved range of motion and greater kinetic awareness, which can enhance your performance. Many actors combine stretching and deep breathing in yoga routines.
- Shaking: A great way to eliminate physical tension is to shake it out. Wiggling and vibrating different parts of the body or jumping up and down increases your body’s kinetic energy. This also doubles as an effective warm-down exercise to release the adrenaline you’ve built up after a performance.
- Stretching the face: The “small face, big face” technique and others like it are designed to give your facial muscles a literal workout. Expand your face with your mouth wide open, like a lion yawning. Then scrunch your face into its tightest configuration, like you’ve just tasted the sourest lemon imaginable. Alternating between the two increases the elasticity of your face and the likelihood that you’ll be able to use even your smallest muscles to express yourself in a performance.
- Energy ball: Imagine that you’re holding a sphere containing powerful energy, feeling it pulse under your fingertips. Try throwing the ball with all your might, perhaps against a wall or the ground, and then catch it as it bounces back. This imaginative game is a great technique for getting rid of pre-show or pre-audition jitters, as it incorporates bold physical movements.
An actor’s voice is an equally important tool that requires just as much care and attention. Particularly if you’re performing in a theater space, sustainable voice health is key. These vocal warmup exercises activate your vocal cords and muscles safely so you can project and deliver good diction without damaging your instrument.
- Articulation and resonance warmups: Diction deals with the pronunciation and expression of words. Actors must use every part of their mouths—lips, teeth, tongue, and palate—to deliver dialogue clearly. So practice that diction and exercise those muscles before performing. Saying the phrase “How now, brown cow?” is an example of a vocal warmup that utilizes one particular vowel sound. To better articulate “ow” words, breathe in deeply and repeat the phrase again and again.
- Enunciation warmups and tongue twisters: The delivery of consonants is also important for vocal warmups. For example, rolling your R’s and vocalizing while fluttering your lips (otherwise known as blowing raspberries) will loosen up your mouth muscles. Uttering precise phrases like “Unique New York” or the “Peter Piper” nursery rhyme can encourage actors to spit the kinds of sounds that should be heard all the way in the back of the theater. Play with pitch, volume, and especially speed to really master control of your mouth.
- Diaphragmatic breathing: Vocal cords are necessary for generating sound, but by no means should actors forget the lungs and the diaphragm, the muscle that makes them expand and contract. Your warmup routine should include breathing exercises to increase your lung capacity by stretching the abdomen and stomach muscles. Try lying on your back and breathing deeply, feeling the belly rise and fall. The “Ha!” exercise, in which an actor exhales and lets out short bursts of air like they’re laughing, activates the diaphragm.
- Sirening and humming: Many singers and actors exercise their full vocal range before a performance, from their lowest to highest singable notes. Sliding up and down the scale with your mouth open, exaggerating a vowel sound like “oh” or “ee,” is known as sirening. Doing the same trick with your lips closed on a consonant like N or V warms up the face and allows you to feel your voice resonating within your body.
- Tongue stretches and exercises: Try touching your tongue to every nook and cranny of your mouth, sticking it as far out as possible, and making clicking or popping sounds. Even better, do these exercises while breathing from your diaphragm and generating resonant sound. Reciting lines with your tongue extended beyond your lips also helps you master your words.
If you’re working on a stage or film production, or are simply part of an acting class, here are some group games you can use to warm up together.
- The eight-count shake: Shaking different parts of the body is a go-to warmup for a reason, and it’s just as suited for working in a group. Actors standing in a circle can count aloud together from one to eight while wiggling different limbs—first the left hand, then the right, then the left leg, then the right—then count to seven, then to six, and so on until you’re shaking each limb once on the final “one.” This both encourages cohesion in an ensemble and significantly ups a group’s energy levels.
- Mirroring: In this group game, two people stand face-to-face and attempt to make themselves an exact mirror of their partner at all times. One may lead the movement while another follows, encouraging participants to keep their attention entirely on their scene partner’s body rather than on their own.
- The cooperative standup: Partners sit back-to-back on the floor with their legs stretched out in front of them, interlock their arms behind their backs, and attempt to stand up together as one, pushing up against each other. Like many good physical warmups, this is harder than it looks.
- Group counting: Actors must count aloud to as high a number as possible, typically while gathered in a circle. Each actor may voice the next number whenever they feel the impulse, but if multiple people speak at once, the game starts over. This encourages performers to shift their focus from themselves to others, attuning them to subtle forms of communication.
- Pass and receive: Like the energy ball exercise, games involving holding and passing imaginary objects encourage creativity and physicality. Try walking around a space at varying speeds with your fellow actors, tossing and catching imaginary objects, accompanied by words or sounds.
- Group story invention: Piecing together an improvised story is a great way to warm up a group of actors’ minds. This is done by going around a circle and adding one sentence at a time to a story. Start with a simple prompt like: “I went to the grocery store this morning.” Group games like “I’m going on a picnic,” in which each performer adds a new food to a spoken list of items, also require focus and memorization.
- Improvisation games: Practicing improv can benefit troupes of actors looking to get out of their heads and into their bodies. Viola Spolin’s theater games, which are often taught in improv and comedy classes, are designed to attune an actor to their surroundings and the present moment.
Many of the exercises already mentioned can be done without a partner. But if you’re preparing for an audition, which often means you’re warming up in a public place or without much time, try incorporating these exercises.
- Massage your face: Give yourself a thorough facial massage using circular motions to loosen muscles around the forehead, eyes, mouth, and neck.
- Gibberish: There are countless ways to play with the text you’re working with in a show or audition, from singing to pantomiming. The best way, however, is by throwing meaning out the window; delivering dialogue in pure gibberish can be a great exercise to wrap your mind, emotions, and physicality around the material. They say you’re “feeling it in your bones” for a reason. Gibberish loosens up the actor’s relationship with the text and puts them directly in touch with the emotion behind it.
- Speed runs: Practice your monologue or dialogue at a normal speed. Then repeat it at twice the speed, then even faster. How fast can you go? This technique is especially helpful for memorizing lines before an audition.
- Meditation: Try grounding yourself with deep breathing exercises, stilling your mind and body so your attention is solely on the here and now. Many meditation practices involve counting out each inhale and exhale, or even incorporating imaginative exercises to reduce overthinking. Engaging the diaphragm to maximize use of the voice is a great warmup on its own, but combining it with the intense mental focus of meditation is a surefire way to focus yourself.
As you become more experienced and confident as a performer, you’ll discover which of these acting exercises are best suited to you and your body. Experiment to find out which ones work for you.