We tend to think of the warm-up as something to get out of the way, a necessary but lackluster prelude to your real workout. It’s the brisk walk to the gym or the 10 halfhearted jumping jacks before boot camp. It’s the quad stretch at the barre as you wait for class to start, or the drills you blow off because you’re in a rush. But if you approach your warm-up with the same intensity that you bring to the rest of your workout, those throwaway few minutes before the main event can actually become the most valuable part of your routine. In fact, research shows that a smart warm-up not only decreases your risk for injury, it also improves your speed, agility, strength, endurance and flexibility. It’s your secret weapon for getting more out of every second you sweat.

Skylar Diggins, the WNBA’s buzziest player, swears by hers. The 5-foot-9 point guard was a top recruit in 2013, so fierce on the college court that she earned the attention of Jay-Z, who made her the first (and only) female athlete on his Roc Nation roster. Yet, despite the great expectations, Diggins put in a disappointing first season. “I thought I’d been working hard, but when I got into the league and saw how hard [Indiana Fire forward] Tamika Catchings and [Phoenix Mercury guard] Diana Taurasi were working, I realized I wasn’t working that hard,” she says. So she made tweaks that boosted her strength and confidence by giving her practice sessions new energy and focus—including kicking off each workout with an intense eight-minute warm-up.

Those minutes became an important part of her off-season, when Diggins stayed in South Bend, Indiana, to condition with her trainer, Rick Freeman, instead of playing overseas. To prep her body for their sessions—which focused on drills with kettlebells, battle ropes and medicine balls to get her ready for the hits and bumps she takes in games—Freeman created a routine that’s so challenging it could be a workout in its own right. “My warm-up is like other people’s workouts,” Diggins half-jokes.

It also informs every minute that follows. “It sets the tone,” Diggins says. “I tell myself, ‘This will be tough, but I’m going to get it done.’ That mind-set gives my entire workout greater impact.” By starting strong, she’s able to work more efficiently, too. “If I push myself from the beginning, I can get done what I need to in less time.” Another benefit: Short, high-intensity warm-ups trigger the brain to activate more muscle fibers, priming you to execute challenging physical activities, according to a study in the International Journal of Sports Medicine.

Diggins begins with cardio to elevate her heart rate and activate her muscles. “You don’t want to jump in with cold muscles, or you could get injured,” she says. Then she does an agility drill to improve her speed. Next she works on increasing her upper-body range of motion. “If I couldn’t reach,” Diggins says, “I wouldn’t make it in basketball.” She finishes with a stretch to improve her flexibility before beginning her main workout. Throughout all eight minutes, she doesn’t hold back. “You need to put in real effort—break a sweat,” Freeman says.

When Diggins returned for her second season last May, after months of focused training, she was stronger, faster and more confident than ever. And despite the fact that she’s up to 8 inches shorter than some of her fiercest competitors, she owned the court, scoring an average of 20.1 points a game, up from 8.5 the year before, making her the second-highest scorer in the entire league. “If I want to be great, I have to make sure I’m working hard at all times,” says Diggins. Warm-up most definitely included.