Carioca Exercise Guide: How To Do Carioca Drills + 5 Fun Variations

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When runners hear the term “carioca,” they most likely have flashbacks of the last time they were enjoying a pint or cocktail at the local pub and somehow found themselves with the gumption and peer pressure to attempt to belt out a favorite tune with a mic and lyrics in front of the whole bar.

But, while the names are reminiscent of one another, the similarities between the carioca exercise and karaoke singing mostly end there.

The carioca exercise is a popular exercise used in the warm-up routine for runners and other athletes.

Like singing karaoke at your local pub, you might feel a little silly the first time you try it, but unlike the potential embarrassment, you might have after brazenly belting out an off-key rendition of “My Heart Will Go On,” there are no regrets after doing the carioca exercise.

You’ll enjoy quite a few benefits of carioca drills, and it’s pretty easy to master the move, so let’s dive in and learn how to do cariocas and the benefits of carioca drills for runners.

More specifically, we will cover: 

  • What Is the Carioca Exercise?
  • Benefits of Cariocas for Runners
  • What Muscles Does the Carioca Running Drill Activate?
  • How to Carioca
  • Carioca Exercise Variations

Let’s jump in!

Soccer players doing the carioca exercise on an agility ladder.

What Is the Carioca Exercise?

The carioca exercise, also often called cariocas or carioca drills, is a full-body dynamic movement drill that is often incorporated into the warm-up routine for runners and athletes of other sports like soccer, basketball, and tennis.

The carioca running drill involves shuffling sideways or performing a lateral shuffle with a high-knee crossover stepping motion.

Cariocas improve coordination, agility, core strength, and cardiovascular fitness, among other benefits.

Benefits of Cariocas for Runners

There are quite a few benefits of cariocas for runners. 

The benefits of adding the carioca exercise to your workout routine include the following:

  • Increases blood flow
  • Improves coordination and agility
  • Improves speed
  • Increases hip mobility and lateral hip stability
  • Strengthens the calves and small muscles in the lower leg and hips that support lateral movement
  • Engages the core and pelvic floor muscles
  • Gets the neuromuscular system firing
A person on a soccer field lifting one leg.

As can be seen, cariocas are an excellent dynamic warm-up exercise because they get your body firing on all cylinders, your blood pumping, and your muscles moving through their range of motion, preparing your body for your run.

What Muscles Does the Carioca Running Drill Activate?

The carioca running drill isn’t a muscle-strengthening exercise in the way that squats or deadlifts are.

Instead, it is a great dynamic warm-up exercise because it activates the glutes, hamstrings, calves, tibialis anterior, fibularis longus and brevis, obliques, rectus abdominis, spinal extensors, deep core muscles, pelvic floor muscles, and hip flexors, in addition to muscles in the upper body. 

Because the carioca running drill utilizes a crossover step, you must activate the core, adductors (inner thigh muscles), hip abductors, and rotators like gluteus medius, piriformis, and gluteus minimus.

A person doing drills on an agility ladder.

How to Carioca

Learning how to do carioca drills can be a little tricky at first because it’s a lateral shuffle movement pattern, so your body might feel a little uncoordinated at first.

But, hang in there: one of the reasons cariocas are so beneficial for runners is because of the fact that you’re moving in the frontal plane (side to side) rather than forward and back in the sagittal plane that the body is so accustomed to.

Moving sideways strengthens the hips.

Cariocas are also challenging because they require coordination and footwork, but just go slowly at first while you learn the movement pattern.

To do the carioca exercise, you’ll need a large open area with ample room to move sideways to either direction and then back.

A soft, grassy area is ideal while you are learning to carioca in case you trip and fall, but an indoor space, parking lot, or driveway will also work.

A person doing drills on a soccer field.

Here are the steps to perform the basic carioca exercise:

  1. Stand upright with your core and glutes engaged, chest up, knees bent slightly, and feet slightly wider than hip-width apart.
  2. Press into your left foot to push off, bringing it behind the right foot, crossed behind your body as you transfer your weight onto the left foot.
  3. Step your right foot further to the right (out to the side) so that you’re standing back upright with both feet in a similar stance to the starting posture.
  4. Next, cross your left foot in front of your body in front of your right foot, drive your knee up towards your chest, and step your weight down onto it.
  5. Again, step your right foot out to the right to move sideways.
  6. Continue shuffling to the right with this pattern, alternating moving your left foot first behind then in front of the right foot until you’re at the end of the planned distance to the right (30-80 meters or so).
  7. Reverse directions to come back, starting with bringing the right foot behind the left foot, stepping the left foot to the left, and then bringing the right foot in front of the left foot.

Once you’ve mastered the basic carioca steps, it’s time to add the upper body component to turn it into a total-body dynamic warm-up.

A person on a track swinging their arms.

Lift your arms so that they are up at shoulder height, parallel to the ground, and perpendicular to your body (so they are out to the sides).

Your hips will twist in each direction as you carioca. Feel your core (abs, obliques, and low back) engage to draw your leg across your body and twist your torso side to side.

Sweep your arms across your body in a reciprocal pattern to your hips, as you would with running, but moving more parallel to the ground across and behind your body rather than forward and back next to your body.

As you get better at the carioca drill, press your weight onto the balls of your feet and move with quick, light steps, trying to take as many steps per minute as possible. 

The faster you can go, the more agility work you’ll be getting in. Speed matters.

Now let’s take a look at some variations you can try after you’ve mastered the basic steps.

A soccer team practicing on a field.

Carioca Exercise Variations

#1: Hip Mobility Carioca

This carioca variation can be considered a widened or exaggerated motion. 

Rather than going for speed and agility, the focus should be on getting full mobility in the hips and spine.

Take large, broad steps to the side, stretching through the glutes to gain as much range of motion as possible.

#2: Fast Feet Carioca

This carioca variation is all about speed and staying light and fast on your feet

Imagine the ground is hot lava, so you want to have as little ground contact time as possible.

Stay on your toes or the balls of your feet so that you have the agility and maneuverability to rapidly shuffle through the carioca steps.

Rather than reaching as far as possible to the side with each step, try to take as many steps as possible in 30 seconds.

The typical running cadence is about 170-180 steps per minute, so work toward at least 100 steps in 30 seconds, equating to 200 steps per minute.

A person at the beach stretching their hip flexor.

#3: High Knees Carioca

This carioca variation focuses on the knee drive when you cross the leg in front of the body.

Use your calves and glutes to explode the leg up, and then pull with the core and hip flexors to drive your knee up to your chest.

This turns the carioca drill into even more of a plyometric exercise, helping you develop power and explosive strength, and speed for faster running and sprinting.

#4: Barefoot Cariocas

If you can get on some safe grass or sand, performing cariocas barefoot is a great way to strengthen the small, intrinsic muscles in the feet.

Build up gradually, though, because if you aren’t used to any kind of barefoot running, your feet have to adapt to the workload.

A person doing drills barefoot in the grass.

#5: Carioca Agility Ladder Drills

You can perform carioca running drills on an agility ladder to hone your agility and precision with your footwork.

The agility ladder will force you to be more exact in your foot placement, as you should strive to not touch the ladder with your feet at all as you weave through it. 

The agility ladder carioca forces you to keep your steps small and your movements tight because you should only allow one foot in one box at a time.

Because you need to stay on the balls of your feet, you’ll engage your calves the whole time and develop explosive strength and speed.

Adding just a minute or two of carioca running drills to your warm-up routine can have a valuable impact on priming your body for a good run while simultaneously strengthening and mobilizing the hips to prevent injuries.

For some more agility, balance and coordiantion work, your check out our proprioception exercises for runners guide.

A person on their tip toes in an athletic stance.
Photo of author
Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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