Warm up and Cool down- Important considerations for your programme
The importance of The Warm up and The Cool Down
Warming up and cooling down have long been universally accepted methods to both prepare for, and aid recovery from a training session. A well-planned pre-exercise warm up routine will not only prepare you physically and mentally for the activity that is about to commence, but also serve to reduce injury risk, and improve performance during the training session and in the days following. Whether you want to maximise your muscle and strength gain, burn those extra few calories on the treadmill, or stay healthy and pain free (and we should all want this!) a considered warm up/cool down is an essential part of any good training program.
Whilst this is commonly understood amongst many gym-goers, it’s also common to see many people perform inappropriate or insufficient warm up/cool down protocols before and after workouts. Things have come a long way from the days of a couple of toe-touches, a light jog and a pre-match pint before a Sunday league football match, after all! As the scientific literature expands, we are learning more and more about effective/ineffective warm up and cool down strategies. So sit tight, whilst we give you the ‘No B.S’ rundown on warming up and cooling down for exercise.
Breaking a Sweat
One of the main goals of any good warm up is to raise core temperature, and can be achieved through endless different ways. Increasing body temperature has been shown to have some beneficial effects on reducing the risk of injury, therefore it should definitely not be neglected prior to a workout. For those that like numbers, the goal should be to reach around 55-60% of max heart rate gradually. In simpler terms, this is the kind of intensity that has you slightly out of breath, but still able to hold a conversation. 5-10 minutes of this kind of activity should be sufficient for most to increase core temperature. You don’t have to necessarily hop on a treadmill or sit on a rowing machine to achieve this. These methods can be effective, but it’s important to consider the specific demands of the workout when planning a warm up routine.
The specific exercises/movement patterns utilised in a warm up must more often than not be considered based on the content of the session that is about to be performed. For example, performing an extensive upper body warm up before a lower body resistance-training day probably isn’t the best option for most scenarios (there are always exceptions to the rule, as with everything!). Therefore, the warm up must be specific to the demands of the actual session! The key word here is specific; to both the needs of the session and the individual.
Performing stretching exercises, whether they are static or dynamic, can help to improve flexibility, allowing individuals to achieve greater range of motion and therefore improve exercise technique. A ‘static’ stretch is classified as a prolonged hold of a particular position in which a muscle/group of muscles is lengthened, and is usually held between 30 seconds and 2 minutes. Dynamic stretches on the other hand are stretches that involve continuous movement and take a muscle through its full range of motion. An example of a static & dynamic stretch for the hamstrings muscle would be a toe touch vs a leg swing. Both are stretching the hamstrings, but the leg swing is doing so in a dynamic fashion, whilst the toe touch is doing so in a static fashion.
Static stretches can be helpful to improve flexibility, but care must be taken to not hold prolonged static stretching for longer than about 30 seconds before a workout, as there is strong evidence to show that force production and power output is diminished when stretches are held longer than this before training. Resistance training performance (how much weight you lift) is a strong determinant of lean tissue gain, so everyone should want to maximise force production, whether you’re a powerlifter or someone with body composition goals! In movements requiring high levels of mobility (for example, weightlifting movements such as an overhead squat position), static stretching may be used prior to the workout, as for new lifters, this increased mobility may have benefits with regards to reduced injury risk and technical development that outweighs any potential negatives in some situations.
Dynamic Range of movement exercises (DROMs) are a form of dynamic stretching, which can have a benefit to mobility and stability in key positions. These can be used as part of a warm up and can increase body temperature to an adequate level without needing to separate the warm up into sections. Although we still recommend a separate short “pre warm up” to increase focus and body temperature, more advanced lifters can utilise these movements effectively to increase workout efficiency. Generally, DROMs are more appropriate for warming up than static stretches.
If you do require some static stretching, perform some dynamic stretching after the static stretching can help to reduce some of the adverse effects. This should be followed with specific “build up” work prior to the working sets, as discussed in the section on muscle activation. Just bear in mind that immediately jumping into sets of heavy squats after long stretches probably isn’t the best idea, particularly as core temperature may begin to drop if stretches are held for excessive periods of time!
Foam rolling is another effective method of creating some short-term increases in joint flexibility, and can be performed on any muscles that you feel are tight or restricted during your warm up. Performing 5-10 minutes of foam rolling before moving into more dynamic stretches/movements is a great way to gain mobility and immediately use this increased mobility in a functional manner. The jury is still out in regards to which method – stretching vs foam rolling – is more effective for improving joint mobility. Everyone will have their own tight areas, and so blanket advice is difficult to prescribe here. Experiment yourself and find out what works well with your body and gives you the desired outcome. In general, foam rolling and dynamic stretching prior to a workout may be beneficial to achieve positions, with true mobility development being achieved with post workout static stretching if required, as discussed further in the cooldown section of this article.
An important thing to remember is that if an individual already possesses the requisite mobility to achieve all the necessary techniques and positions required in the session, stretching and foam rolling is probably unnecessary, and more time can be placed on simply increasing core temperature and specific activation/ potentiation work.
Muscle activation exercises are simply as the name suggests – movements that activate a particular muscle group. This happens through developing neural connections between the brain and our muscles, and can be a great way to help prepare specific muscles that are about to be used within the session. The great thing about muscle activation exercises is that if performed in a sequential manner with little rest, they can be very effective at increasing the body’s core temperature. For example, an individual may be better spent performing 5-10 minutes of bodyweight squats, lunges, glute bridges and side clams as a means of preparing their lower body for a strength training session, particularly if they already have enough flexibility to perform these movements without needing any stretches pre-hand.
Warm up exercises that incorporate these movements can remove the monotony of a stationary cardio machine, and can serve to increase the specificity of the warm up routine, priming you for the activity that is about to follow. Additionally, it is common for many to have weak or lazy muscles from everyday life – habitual sitting and working at a computer being amongst the main offenders. As such, getting these muscles firing prior to training is a great way to help improve postural health, and reduce the risk of injury due to certain muscles unable to activate during resistance training movements or high impact cardio.
“Warm up sets”
Finally, it’s important to mention that prior to any heavy lifting, most people will find it appropriate to do specific sets of the exercise with a lighter load prior to the working sets. For less advanced lifters, this can help them to feel comfortable with the movement prior to the set, even at lighter loads. For more advanced lifters, this may be necessary to continue to prepare the body to cope with the demands of the working weight. It is important that these sets are at an appropriate weight- it should be light enough to avoid creating unnecessary fatigue, but heavy enough to serve as a bridge between the warm up and the working sets.
In general, foam rolling, dynamic stretching and muscle activation work prior to a workout may be beneficial to achieve positions, followed by the warm up sets. True mobility development may be best achieved with post workout static stretching if required, as discussed further in the cooldown section of this article.
So now you’ve mastered your warm up routine and completed your workout, now what? Do you simply leave the gym immediately, or are there some strategies that we can implement to start to aid in the recovery process after training?
Training is a stress on the body, and the larger the stress you placed on your body during a workout, the more of a requirement there is to perform some form of cool down routine to begin the process of recovery and help you to relax and restore balance to the body post-exercise.
Static stretching is a commonly utilised cool down method that may have some merit in promoting recovery. Plus, there’s no need to worry about stretching static impacting performance post-training, so spending a bit more time on it here is advised. The important thing to keep in mind is to keep this kind of stretching low intensity in nature, as more aggressive, more prolonged stretching has been shown to add additional muscular stress to an individual – the opposite of what we want from a cool down to promote recovery! If mobility development is a specific target, more aggressive stretching may be necessary at the end of the workout, but this should be viewed more as the end of the main training session, not the cool down.
Holding a few stretches after a workout may also have some benefit in relaxing the nervous system and removing muscular tension post training, helping people to relax after a tough workout. This is particularly important after a tough cardio workout, as relaxation and returning the heart rate closer to normal levels is a crucial part of the cooldown to promote recovery and allow normal function following the workout. This can also be achieved through some low intensity cardio activity on a piece of cardiovascular equipment, but if we can achieve this with some mobility/ flexibility development, the additional benefits may make stretching a more suitable option.
Overall, the goal of the cool down is to help an individual ‘unwind’ after tough exercise. Whether that is in the form of stretching or light cardio, the goal is to leave the gym with your resting heart rate restored (or close to), and your spirits high! It’s important to note that nothing that is performed in the cool down is going to make or break your long term progress, and there are many other much more important variables (sleep and nutrition being the main factors) that will aid in recovery and adaptation from exercise. The cool down is just a nice way to kick-start the recovery progress, relax the body and mind post training, and allow you to leave the gym feeling great (albeit possibly very knackered!).
If you would like more information on recovery, take a look at the blog post on recovering from exercise here.
So there it is. A quick, no nonsense guide to warming up. Implement all of the strategies discussed above, and see which work best for you!
Matt Brown BSc.
Josh Kennedy, MSc