You might know that a good warm-up and cool-down regimen is essential to getting a good workout. You might also know that warming up your muscles and stretching them out after exercise can help prevent injury and keep you at the top of your game. Warm-ups and cool downs are the two bookends that help maximize a workout. But unfortunately, a lot of exercise enthusiasts don’t know how to correctly warm up and cool down.
A warm-up is exactly what it sounds like: The goal is to warm up your muscles and prepare your body for whatever you’re asking it to do. Warming up increases your body temperature and helps blood flow to the muscles you’re using.
So if you’re going to play soccer, your warm-up should touch all of the muscles in your legs and core. Shooting hoops? You’ll need to add shoulders and arms to your routine. Circuit training at the gym? Choose a warm-up that flexes all of the muscles you’re about to use.
The thing that all warm-ups have in common is they require dynamic (or constantly moving) motion, not static stretching (holding poses for a certain amount of time). In fact, static stretching prior to a workout can inhibit power and strength, especially if you’re doing something like weightlifting.
Here's the anatomy of a solid warm-up:
- First do about 10 minutes of light cardiovascular activity, whether walking, biking or jogging.
- Then engage in dynamic stretches. After you get your muscles moving, do a series of lunges, jumping jacks or toe touches to stretch a bit.
- Finally, dive in. When you start your workout, begin slowly and gradually increase power and speed.
After you’ve put your body through a challenge, a good cool-down is essential. It helps slow down your heart rate gradually, relax your muscles and stretch.
Cool-down routines should always include some type of motion before you get to static stretching, especially if you’ve just finished a high-intensity workout. Static stretching improves flexibility and performance and can also help stave off future injury.
As with warm-ups, the right cool-down exercises depend on the activity you engaged in. If you biked for 20 miles, you might coast on your cycle for a while before coming to a stop. If you ran, you might jog or walk before you begin stretching. As with your warm-up, the key is addressing every muscle group you worked during your workout.
The anatomy of a solid cool-down:
- At the end of your workout, slow the pace and intensity of whatever activity you’re doing. So, if you’re running, slow to a jog and then a walk for 5 to 10 minutes before stopping.
- Stretch out the muscles you work, but don’t push past the point where you feel tight. Then, hold the position for at least 30 seconds. That’s how long it takes for the body to overcome its stretch reflex.
- Breathe through your stretches and make sure to finish your cool down with deep, belly breaths.
Running short on time? Target muscle groups you may have injured in the past or that tend to get sore after activity. Cooling down will preserve your athleticism — and your ability to participate in daily activities — over the long term.
Be Good To Your Body
While there’s some controversy about whether warming up and cooling down can help prevent injury, there’s little dispute that they can help you ease in and out of activity.
The key is to find something that works for you. Your warm-up could be as simple as walking to the gym and doing a set of jumping jacks when you arrive. Your cool-down might just involve ending your workout 10 minutes early so you can slow down.
It doesn’t have to be complicated. It just has to give your heart and blood vessels a chance to breathe before and after activity.
Nick Parkinson, M.Ed., AT, ATC, TSAC-F, is the supervisor of athletic training and sports performance at Henry Ford Health. Learn more about Nick.