By Brian B. Parr, Ph.D., ACSM Certified Clinical Exercise Physiologist
Even if you don’t always take the time to properly warm up before a workout and cool down after you are finished, you probably know that you should. Here’s why warming up and cooling down are so important and how you can effectively prepare for and recover from your workouts in just a few minutes.
The main purpose of a warm-up is to increase muscle temperature to enhance the activity of enzymes that produce energy during exercise. Pre-exercise activity will increase blood flow to the muscles to deliver oxygen and other nutrients needed to make energy. Together, these effects can improve exercise performance.
It’s not all about performance, though. Warming up also increases blood flow to the heart which can help reduce the chance of developing chest pain or having a heart attack at the onset of strenuous exercise. This is especially important for people who may have heart disease.
The benefits of warming up go beyond the physical. Recreational and competitive athletes get psychological benefits including improved focus, motivation, and confidence. In sports, warming up together can enhance team dynamics. Warming up can put you in the right mindset for your workout, whether that is a challenging session in the gym or a walk around your neighborhood.
Two controversial topics related to warm-up include stretching and injury prevention. First, stretching alone is not a sufficient warm-up. Increasing range of motion through stretching and other exercises can be part of a warm up, but they should not be the only activity.
Furthermore, stretching to improve muscle and joint flexibility should be done after the muscles are warm, either after a good warm-up or at the end of an exercise session.
It is also widely believed that warming up can reduce the risk of injury during exercise. While that makes sense intuitively, there is no consensus in the research. This is likely because many injuries result from extreme muscle and joint overloading or contact with the ground or other athletes that no amount of warming up can prevent. The bottom line is that warming up probably does reduce the risk of injury to some extent, so it is definitely worth doing.
When your workout is finished you shouldn’t just stop! Active cool down can prevent a condition called post-exercise hypotension, a blood pressure drop that can occur after exercise. When you exercise, there is an increase in blood flow to your active muscles. If you suddenly stop exercising and stand still, blood can pool in your legs resulting in lower blood pressure, dizziness and fainting. This is most relevant for upright exercise like walking, running and cycling, but it can also happen following resistance exercise. Continuing to move at a lower intensity after exercise can maintain the blood flow and prevent a sharp blood pressure drop from occurring.
Active recovery is also important for performance, especially for athletes who have back-to-back events. During intense exercise, muscles can accumulate metabolic waste products that can contribute to fatigue. These are removed from the muscle after exercise, but research shows they are removed more quickly during an active cool-down period. This can lead to quicker recovery and better performance in subsequent exercise bouts.
A good warm-up should include the muscle groups that will be used during exercise, so focusing on legs for walking, running, or cycling and arms for rowing or other upper body exercise is wise. For most people, 5-10 minutes of light-to-moderate intensity exercise is a good general warm up for most activities.
For example, if you are preparing for a workout in the gym you could start with 3–5 minutes of walking, running, cycling, or rowing followed by 3–5 minutes of dynamic stretching, emphasizing the muscle groups you will be using. For walking or running, begin with a few minutes at a slower pace before doing some stretching, focusing on the legs.
When your workout is finished, continue moving for several minutes. Then, spend some time stretching and mobilizing. The longer you hold static stretches, the bigger the benefits; a minute or more per stretch is a good goal. You can also use a foam roller to target especially tight areas.
The Wrap Up Warming up and cooling down will lengthen your exercise sessions, but the benefits of a better workout and improved recovery will make that time well spent!
Brian B. Parr, Ph.D., is an ACSM Certified Clinical Exercise Physiologist and Associate Professor in the Department of Exercise and Sports Science at the University of South Carolina Aiken.