THE ART OF AN EFFECTIVE WARM UP AND COOL DOWN
Intro: Is warming up prior to exercising really necessary? What is the purpose of a warm up and cool down? In this blog post below we explore the structure of and science behind effective warm up and cool down for all forms of exercise. These Techniques will improve your range of motion, functional capacity and performance whilst decreasing your risk of injury and prolonged fatigue.
The Structure and Science Behind Proper Warm Up Exercises.
At Functional For Life, we are big advocates of an extensive warm up. A well-structured warm up should be 2 things – fun and functional. NOT fast. There’s no point rushing through your warm up, as it won’t lead to best results. In the following paragraph we focus on the basic structure of and science behind developing an effective warm up. At the end we’ll provide an example. We encourage you to take this, try it and then make up your own mind! Anything is better than nothing, but if you follow the steps below, you’ll be completing athlete-level warm ups in no time.
Note: Please. and we can’t emphasise this enough, don’t static stretch in your warm up, whilst this tends to be common practice it is certainly not the best way to approach your warm up. Static stretching before exercise will weaken your muscles and prime them for relaxation not tension, greatly increasing your chance of injury. Leave the static holds for your cool down and keep the warm up dynamic.
Step One: Get moving
The first step is to simply get your body moving. This will warm you up and promote blood flow throughout the body. An increase in body temperature will improve muscle elasticity, reducing the risk of muscle pulls and strains. Getting active will also dictate hormone production – specifically cortisol and epinephrine – which play a vital role in regulating energy production.
Examples: This can mean anything that’s low impact and gets you moving; it could be walking, running, skipping, the stationary bike, X-Trainer or rower to name a few. For regular gym-goers this can be limited to around 5 minutes, however, if you’re new to exercise or an older adult we are looking at 10-15 minutes to ensure proper blood flow.
Step Two: Foam Roller Release
Foam rolling has become more common place in the exercise world of late and it is a very beneficial component of an effective warm up. Foam roller holds and rolls are used to induce what is known as self-myofascial release. Fascia is a network of connective tissue that operates from head to toe, connecting various body parts. Myofascial simply means fascia in the muscles. Over time, our fascia can become tight, limiting our range of motion and increasing the risk of injury. Foam roller release will decrease tension in the muscles, increasing your functional capacity and facilitate correct lifting postures. For a more in depth look at foam rolling check out our blogs on foam rolling. For additional information, check out part two here.
Examples: A few of our favourite foam roller techniques include the Thoracic, ITB and Latissimus Dorsi release. Don’t be intimidated by the fancy terminology, foam rolling is great for anyone with a desk job, who’s constantly compressing their joints and muscles, even if its day one in the gym.
Step Three: Mobilise and Limber Up
Here’s where we start to get a little bit more specific. If you’re doing exclusively an upper or lower body day, your mobilisers can reflect that. However, for the general person heading to the gym for a mix of weights and cardio, working out the whole body, we want to mobilise head to toe. This is super simple, we’ll be swinging our limbs around getting nice and loose, increasing our range of motion and lubricating our joints ready for movement.
Some things to think about: Start slow and small. Whatever movement you’re doing we don’t want to go straight from 0-100. Begin with slow, controlled movements which don’t force your range of motion – we’ll get to that. Slowly increase the speed and size of your mobilisers. Easing your way into it will decrease the risk of injury and let your joints know you’re going to be exercising progressively. After all, that is the point of warming up isn’t it?
Examples: Leg swings (back to front & side to side), high knees, butt kicks, ankle rotation, open & close the gate, torso twists, pec fly and shoulder swings. Whilst this sounds like a lot, we recommend 20-30 seconds each if done right – will be enough to get you primed for your upcoming workout.
Step Four: Activate the right muscles
Alright! You’re now warm, pumped and limber. We’re almost there. Activation follows the same philosophy as mobilisation – tailor it specifically to your session. This is where we really start to optimise your body for the main workout. The theory behind activation says we are priming our muscles for impact. If you’re squatting, glutes are super important, but if they aren’t activated you won’t be getting the most out of them, making it harder to progress. However, if all the correct muscle groups and turned on and ready, you’ll be completely ready to go.
An important note: We limber up before we activate for a reason. For example, if you want to turn on the muscles in the back of your leg, but the muscles in the front of your leg are tight, your ability to activate effectively will be impaired. The most common example of this is activation of the rhomboids (upper back muscles) being restricted by a tight pectoralis major (chest). If your chest is tight your shoulders will be pulled forward into a rounded position – making it extremely difficult to retract your scapula (shoulder blades). So, remember, mobilisation before activation.
Examples: Glute bridges, deep squat holds, dead bugs, regressed pushups or TRX
Step Five: Mimic your activity
Step 5! We’re almost ready to get started. This is the easiest one by far. You’re basically going to mimic what your about to do, just toned down a little bit. Here’s a few examples:
Barbell Back Squats —> Bodyweight Squats Bulgarian Split Squats —> Lunges Bench Press —> Push Ups
Although you’ll feel a bit fatigued after this, we assure you it’ll improve your performance once you get stuck into the bulk of your workout. Finally, keep it light, we don’t need to do 100 pushups in the warm up. Even 10 (on your knees) will ensure everything is braced for loading and impact.
Let’s Get to it!
You’re ready! If you follow the steps above, your workouts are going to be transformed. You’ll feel better before, during and after your main workout and we are confident you’ll be surprised at your results. In our experience, the most common response from first timers after a proper 15 minute warm up is “That was the warm up!? I’m already beat!”. But, amazingly, they go onto lift heavier or push themselves harder than they ever have before. That’s the power of a good warm up. Your muscles will be activated, joints limber, heart racing and blood flowing – ready for peak performance.
So, next time you go to the gym, chuck in your headphones, blast some music, have some water and get stuck into an elite warm up!
How and Why Do We Cool Down Effectively?
In many ways cooling down is far simpler than warming up. But it’s a silent killer. You’ll leave the gym feeling great – blood pumping, heart racing and muscles nice and warm. Then, hours (or even days) later, you’re sitting on the couch and enter a state of panic when you can hardly get up to go the bathroom! Queue Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (commonly referred to as DOMS). Anyone who has experienced DOMS knows exactly what we’re talking about. It takes about 48 hours to reach full effect. So, the day after exercise you’re feeling okay – a little tight and a little sore but completely manageable – some would say it’s a ‘good burn’. Then comes day two… Often you’ll wake up and be glued to the mattress. Everything hurts. Not idea! However that’s what we are striving to avoid with an effective cool down.
Step One: Slow Down
There’re two main mistakes with cool downs we regularly see. The first being a complete absence of one, which is most unfortunate. However, a lot of people finish their last set and hop into 2 minutes of stretches and head out. They’re missing one vital step – the cool down itself!
This is very similar to step one of our warm up ‘Get Moving’, except our goals are the opposite. Hop on a machine of your choice and do 3-5 minutes of super low impact exercise. This will allow your heart rate to move towards a resting pace, releasing hormones that tell your body you’re getting ready to relax.
Step Two: Stretching
For some, stretching is an easy, comfortable and often therapeutic process. For others, it’s a real challenge. Usually, the less flexible of us suffer from the latter. Our philosophy is this: What you choose to do today dictates what you are able to do tomorrow. If you’re in anyway serious about getting in shape, then stretching is a non-negotiable.
At Functional For Life, we believe the key is develop your own little routine, which will become automatic with time. Personally, we like to start at the calves and move upwards before going into a yoga-esque sequence. It looks something like this:
- Lower Back
- Bicep Insertion
Some things to consider: Each stretch should be held statically for 30-45 seconds at minimum. Any less and you’re cheating yourself out of peak recovery. Secondly, ballistic stretching is for seasoned professionals and is rarely necessary (or even beneficial) for the average person. Keep your stretches static, long and comfortable.
Finally, people always ask, if they should do hamstring stretch A or hamstring stretch B. It’s simple. Do what feels right! Everyone’s body is different and our muscles all react differently to different positions. If the stretch feels like it’s doing the right thing, it probably is. Obviously, there’s limits to this, some things aren’t safe. But, in a general sense, follow your intuition and results will follow.
Quinn, E. (2020, March 13). Should You Warm up Before Exercise? Retrieved from Very Well Fit: https://www.verywellfit.com/how-to-warm-up-before-exercise-3119266
Sports Medicine Infortmation. (2009). Guide To Sports Medicine – The Warm up. Retrieved from Sports Medicine Information: http://www.nsmi.org.uk/articles/warm-up.html