Everyone that exercises probably knows that they should warm up before and cool down after their session. But when you are pushed for time to fit working out into busy lives it’s where we tend to cut corners or skimp. (I know I’m guilty at times!)
But if you are missing out or shortening these important elements it can reduce your performance or the effectiveness of your training,. It can also effect recovery and how stiff or sore you feel after being active. So if you’ve ever done a work out where the first exercises felt harder, but it got easier as you got going that a hint that you weren’t fully warmed up.
Why Warm Up?
Warming up is all about getting your body ready for the exercise that you are about to do. Whether you are training or competing you need to be properly prepared to give it your all. As such it is an essential part of your exercise, allowing you to perform at your optimum and greatly reduce the chance of injury.
Ok here’s the science – warming up will:
- Get your heart going, pumping blood round your body.
- Warm and mobilise your muscles up ready for action – and makes them more efficient.
- Release synovial fluid into your joints to get them moving smoothly – the oil in your finely tuned machine!
- Get you mentally ready for exercise (and to workout hard!)
How long should I Warm Up for?
Firstly, I don’t think anyone has ever warmed up to much! But it does depend on where and what you are going to be doing. A hard session outside on a cold day is going to need a longer warm up than if you are doing a low intensity session in a warm gym. How long you have available is also a factor when you are squeezing training into a busy day. Although it is worth remembering, there is little point compromising your session for the sake of a few extra minutes getting preparation. So a slightly longer warm up and slightly shorter session is likely to be more beneficial.
What do for a Warm Up?
What should I do: You are looking to steadily increase your heart rate from normal up to a level that you are going to exercise at. You can use any of the machines at the gym. Or simply a brisk walk, jog, step ups or anything else that get you moving will do. Generally activities that use the whole body or big muscles in your legs will get your heart rate going more quickly. Don’t forget the aim here is gradually get you ready for your main activity. So you want to increase the pace gradually, say increasing your speed or intensity every minute. If you are planning to do high intensity session (like a HIIT workout) it’s worth throwing a few short (10sec) intense bursts into your warm up to wake your body up to what’s coming.
To stretch or not to stretch: At one time we all stretched before exercise as we were told it increased our range of movement and supposedly reduced the chance of injury. But then the research began to suggest that stretching could weaken muscles and reduce performance. So what is the advice now?
Well yes, stretching can result in a loss of strength that is detrimental to performance. However, it will increase your range of movement around a joint. But it doesn’t greatly reduce the risk of injury. No surprise that many are confused! Current thinking is that for most recreation exercisers its personal preference and depends on what you are going to be doing. So if you’re warming up before some gymnastic activities that require a good range of motion then stretching will help. But if you are preparing for strength training then it can be detrimental (read more). So I tend to just make sure warm ups includes dynamic movements that I’ll be doing in my workout to make sure all those muscles are nice and mobile.
Mobilising your muscles : Once your heart rate is elevated add some movements that mimic the activities you are going to be doing. If you are going to be mostly working your legs, a few body weight squats, lunges or similar will make sure those muscle groups are ready. Think of this as taking your joints and muscles through the various ranges of movements you are going to be doing in the session, but at a lower intensity.
Why Cool Down?
A proper cool down is about getting your body back into its normal state. That means easing back to bring your heart rate down to normal. If you simply stop, your heart rate and breathing will start dropping. However you need to keep moving to stop blood pooling in your muscles. It also helps your body flush out and break down the waste products created in your muscles while you were exercising.
It’s also the time to stretch the muscles you’ve been working. Mostly you’ll have been contracting (shortening) you muscles when they were working. Done repeatedly over time your muscles are going to adapt and shorten, so you need to stretch to maintain (or develop) your range of movement. Your cool down is also a time to mentally relax after you session.
How long should a Cool Down be?
This is going to depend on what you have been doing. If you’ve been working out really intensely it is going to take longer for your body to get back to ‘normal’ after exercise. (How fit you are affects this too!) I’d suggest a minimum of 5 minutes, but it is likely to be longer. Simply including stretches for your major muscle groups is going to add a few minutes on to your cool down.
And what should I do to Cool Down?
Most simply you are reversing your warm up. Keeping moving and steadily reducing the intensity level to bring your heart rate and breathing back to a normal rate. As with warming up you can do this on various machines in the gym, go from jogging to walking, or whatever activity suits you.
While your muscles are still warm from all that activity makes this a great time to stretch. Static stretching means taking the muscle to tension. You should feel it stretching, but it shouldn’t be painful! Aim to hold the stretch for 30secs and you’ll feel the tension ease as the muscle relax’s. You can repeat the stretch taking it a little further this time, but again listen to your body and don’t push it to the point of pain.
Aim to stretch your main muscle groups (quads, hamstring, chest, back, arms). Although if your workout focus more on one area you’ll want to focus your stretches on those muscles. E.g runners will main stretch their leg muscles out. Of course there are other forms of stretching out there but let’s keep it simple for now.
So there we are, you know what to do. You just need to make the time put it into practice for each workout.