How many people who exercise in any form – whether it be a run outside, a resistance session at the gym or an exercise video in your front room – can say they regularly complete a warm-up, cool down and stretch? Don’t they just get in the way of the main session, and take up valuable minutes that mean we can finish the workout that bit sooner? This article is for anyone who skips anyone of these activities. Read on to see what you’re doing by missing these components of your workout.
I admit it. In the past I haven’t always warmed up. In fact, when I first started working out at the gym, I rarely warmed up. I’d jump straight into that fast paced run on the treadmill and wonder why my legs felt heavy, stiff and generally a bit unpleasant. Yup – it’s because I hadn’t done any form of movement to prepare my body for the hard work that lay ahead.
So what does it actually mean to prepare the body for exercise during a warm-up?
Muscles can’t sustain exercise for long without oxygen, and the need for oxygen increases when you move from a resting to a working state. Hence, the warm-up will prepare the working muscles for work by sending additional oxygen to them before the harder work starts.
What else happens? As with any bodily movement, the rate our heartbeats at will increase, pumping blood around the body quicker which increases our body temperate and improves the circulation of blood.
Increased body temperature will mean in an increase in muscle temperature. This results in the muscles being able to contract and relax at an increased rate – which in turn improves your speed and your strength. The muscles range of motion improves, as does its ability to return to normal size when stretched, which reduces risk of injury.
All sounding good? You can see that the warm-up can not only prevent injury but also help you get a bit more from the workout. The benefits don’t stop there either.
We can also alleviate stress on the heart by warming up. Our blood vessels will become wider when our heart rate increases as more blood is pumped around the body. If this process is gradually started during the warm-up there will be reduced resistant to blood flow in the body, and hence less stress is placed on the heart.
Now the benefits are hopefully a bit clearer, the next thing to think about is how long your warm-up should be. This really depends on the individual. For example, a person relatively new to exercise may not have the ability as yet to complete a prolonged warm-up. Ideally a warm-up is a minimum of 5 minutes at low intensity (when working on a scale of 1-10, bring your level of effort up to a 5) but listen to your body and consider how long your main session is planned for.
The cool down ideally incorporates both the process of bringing the heart rate back down towards a pre-workout level and stretching the muscles that have been battered and beaten during your main session. In all seriousness, a hard workout is a stressful experience for the body, and a cool down can help the body to begin its repair. What do I mean by stressful? A tough workout will result in damage to the muscle fibers, tendons and ligaments. Our heart rate is high, and pumping blood around the body at a rate much higher than normal – to name just a couple of the things we put our body through. We want our body to recover, rebuild and adapt. Think of the cool down is the first step in the recover and repair process.
Firstly, we want to bring the heart rate down to a safe level and avoid something called blood pooling.
Blood pooling – when we are exercising, our heart rate is increased, and hence increased volumes of blood are being pumped around the body and back to the heart. The blood is pumped back to the heart via the movement of the working muscles. If we suddenly stop exercising, the muscles will no longer push the blood back, and it will stay (or pool) within the muscles. This can result in pain and swelling in the extremities, stress on the heart and the risk of dizziness/ fainting. Bringing the heart rate down gradually via a cool down will bring the heart rate gently to pre-workout (or close to) levels, meaning the blood will begin freely circulating back to the heart.
Aim to spend at least 5 minutes on this part of the cool down, moving at an RPE of 3 (at most).
Stretching should be included in every cool down. It promotes recovery, and is also said to counteract muscle soreness (commonly known as delayed onset muscle soreness – DOMS). I have to note though, that I’ve never managed to stop onset of DOMS with stretching!
How does stretching promote recovery? Firstly, there is an increase in blood flow to the muscle post stretch, which promotes healing following tissue damage from the workout. It also helps to prevent the muscle shortening during repair and rebuild.
There are different types of stretch you can do, some will help to maintain the current length of the muscle and others will help to improve flexibility and range of movement (ROM). When ROM is improved, the body uses less energy to do the same movement, whilst improved flexibility is believed to decrease the risk of injury. Stretching out tight muscles can also help to improve posture. Tight and shortened muscles can cause issues with posture, and when this happens, it can impact other areas of the body.
Be careful though, stretching done incorrectly can cause injury. Ensure you are familiar with the proper form before completing a stretch, do not stretch cold muscles and never stretch to the point of pain.
Keep an eye out for my blog on the different types of stretch, when and how to do them.
Many people I’ve come across think they can skip warm ups, cool downs and stretching – I certainly used to think these weren’t needed, and that I was immune to any problem. Believe me though – these things do catch up. Don’t risk injury for the sake of a few minutes.
Until next time!