The Importance of Warming Up and Cooling Down
Warming up and cooling down is something everyone says they need to start doing, but rarely do. The excuses are many: I don’t have enough time, too much warm-up will affect my energy levels during my workout, a few air squats and push-ups will do, I’m just not motivated – it’s boring, etc.
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This might work for a while, especially if you are younger, but eventually not warming up and cooling down will catch up to you in the form of nagging injuries and lack of mobility. If you truly want to play the long game and be fit for life, you must learn how to warm up and cool down around your workouts.
What a Warm Up Does
Warming up isn’t simply getting your muscles warm, it is preparing your mind and body to get the proper systems firing, so you can get the most out of your workout.
A warm-up raises your body temperature to get your muscles more pliable. It elevates your heart rate gradually, so there is not a “shock” and initial gas out when you begin your workout. It delivers oxygen and nutrients to the muscles that need it, plus it flushes waste so that your muscles are less sore and don’t fatigue as easily. It prevents injury. A warm-up gets your nervous system ready to do work and it gets you in the mindset to focus on performance.
By the time you start your hard work, your body should be primed and ready to go. You should be in the zone. This will make your time in the gym far more productive than adding endless accessories at the end.
What a Proper Warm-Up Looks Like
A good warm-up usually comes in two parts, a general warm up and a specific warm up.
For a general warm-up, you may do light aerobic activity for about ten minutes. Pick a cardio machine, like an elliptical, a bike, or a treadmill, and go at a mild to moderate pace. Or, feel free to pick up a jump rope or go for an easy jog.
You should be able to hold a light conversation, but not so relaxed that you are barely moving. Oftentimes, a warm-up can be a little shocking at first, especially if you are coming in from cold weather or it’s first thing in the morning.
I like to use my general warm up to get my mind ready. I put my headphones on and start thinking of what I want to accomplish within the next hour or so. I let my music start pumping me up for the work ahead.
After the blood is circulating, a specific warm-up is called for. You do not have to go all out or use weights at all. Depending on what muscle group you are going to use that day, you may want to go two rounds of bodyweight or banded activity for ten to twelve reps.
For instance, if you are preparing for squats, you may want to do some bodyweight squats, Romanian deadlifts with a light kettlebell, or a few other lower-body mobility movements. If you are preparing for a press day, you may want to warm up your shoulders with some light rotation exercises and do some push-ups and light pulldowns with a band.
This part, especially, gets your nervous system on the same page as your workout. It not only tells your big muscle groups to get with the program, but it also alerts your stabilizers to get ready to work.
What a Cool Down Does
Once the workout is finished, a cool down will help flush metabolites out of your muscles. This helps alleviate soreness and stiffness afterward. Cooling down helps your heart rate return to its regular rhythm gradually instead of suddenly.
It can also prevent feelings of light-headedness or blood pressure fluctuations when all of your blood has pooled to your major muscle groups and just stops there, instead of resuming its flow, incrementally.
A cool down can also be used as a time of reflection to think about how your training went. Are you happy with your progress? Do you notice a weakness that needs some extra work? Make some notes and assessments.
What a Proper Cool Down Looks Like
A cool down also comes in two parts. The general portion and the specific portion.
Depending on what you were doing, five to ten minutes of light cardio movement should suffice for your general cool down. If you did lower body, pop on a bike and simply spin the wheels for ten minutes. If you did upper body, perhaps a little rowing or elliptical action would be best. If your workout was cardiovascular in nature, a five-minute cool down by walking a few laps around the gym is fine.
The specific part of your cool down should include some light stretching, or foam rolling. You can take some time on issues like a tight IT band or strained rotator cuff.
I like to spend this calming portion of my workout on thinking about the rest of my day. What do I have planned? How am I going to navigate my schedule in the best way? While warming up prepares me for the gym, cooling down prepares me for after the gym. I can think about things with a positive mindset - thanks, workout-induced endorphins!
Take Care of Your Body
As you can see, warming up and cooling down should enhance your workout, not hinder it. If you feel like you don’t have time, perhaps you should drop some less than necessary accessories off your list, like wrist curls and that tenth set on the adductor machine. Fewer exercises performed well is better than more exercises performed sub-standardly.
If you feel warming up and cooling down is cutting into your gains, either you are going too hard or doing too many warm-ups, or, more likely, you need to build your work capacity because your energy reserve sucks.
It doesn’t have to be boring. Get your mind into it. Your body will thank you, years down the road, when you are still able to hit the gym and remain active, instead of crumpled up in an arthritic ball, half-repping while complaining about your long list of injuries, but pretending you still “got it.”