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Warm Up And Cool Down | The Benefits & How To

Two exercisers demonstrating a warm up and cool down.

The warm up and cool down are crucial components of all exercise sessions and workouts. In the book Stretching | A Complete Guide, Norris states unequivocally that ‘before starting any exercise session, it is essential to warm up.’ This statement is grounded on a firm foundation of research showing the many benefits of warming up.


Similarly stated in the highly authoritative Physiology of Sport and Exercise, the authors assert that ‘every endurance exercise session should conclude with a cool-down period.’ While arguably not as important as the warm up, cooling down, as we shall see, safeguards against a number of undesirable post-exercise outcomes.


This article aims to outline the recognised health and fitness benefits of warming up and cooling down. After the why? of warm ups and cool downs, we turn our attention to the how?.


In addition to an overview of the best warm up and cool down methods, you will find a plan for each of these important yet often neglected components of the training process. Hopefully, by the end of this article, you will be inspired to make a permanent space in your workout routine for the warm up and cool down.


Why warm up and cool down?

The importance of warming up and cooling down is not a recent revelation. For decades sports and exercise coaches have understood the many ways that these training principles can confer a number of positive outcomes.


Over time scientific studies have underpinned this understanding with robust research. Research showing, for example, the relationship between warming up and improved athletic performance. More on that in a minute.


In lockstep with the advancement of empirical research, the warm up and cool down methodology has steadily grown more technical. Nowadays it is not uncommon for elite-level athletes to conduct a rigorous warm up and cool down lasting upwards of 20-minutes – each!


Before we get stuck in, it’s worth briefly outlining the layout of the article. First, we’ll look at the benefits of the warm up and cool down. Following the benefits, we’ll progress to the process of warming up and cooling down. This section provides an overview of each phase including a plan.


A warm up reduces injury risk

The single strongest reason why we should warm up before exercising is that it can reduce injury risk. A 10-minute progressive intensity warm up provides a measure of protection against soft tissue damage – pulls, strains, and tears – while also reducing ‘the likelihood of joint and muscle injury,’ (Physiology of Sport and Exercise).


This relationship has been identified in numerous studies.


One such study investigated the effects of warming up on reducing injuries in footballers. Researchers recruited football players and then divided them into two groups. One group was required to conduct a sports-specific warm-up prior to all matches and training sessions while the other group was left to train as normal.


At the end of the study, which spanned a full season, those footballers that completed the sports-specific warm-up suffered far fewer injuries (The Complete Guide to Sports Training).


The outcome of the study suggested that ‘The combination of warming up and stretching’ actively reduced ‘the incidence of injury,’ (Stretching | A Complete Guide).


Purpose of warming up

Reducing injury risk is the primary reason why we should warm up prior to exercise. After all, fewer injuries translates to fewer training interruptions. And fewer training interruptions enables us to pursue our passion unimpeded. For those that love exercise few things are as frustrating as being laid up with an injury.


But warming up can confer other important benefits besides minimising injury risk. For example, ‘A warm-up of an appropriate nature enhances physical performance by producing a number of physiological changes in the body,’ (Physical Fitness & Athletic Performance). These changes include:


1 Rise in core and muscle temperatures
2 Enhanced neuromuscular function
3 Improved joint mobility
4 Increased muscle flexibility
5 Gradual rise in heart rate

A warm up can improve motivation

Furthermore, conducting an appropriate warm up not only physically prepares us for exercise but also mentally prepares us as well. ‘Conventional wisdom maintains that preliminary exercise helps the performer prepare either physiologically or psychologically,’ (McArdle, Katch & Katch).


Some days the mere thought of exercise can induce muscle soreness. Before we’ve even stepped foot in the gym or finished fastening up our favourite running trainers, we’re quietly loathing the prospect of struggling through an hour of exercise. Why do I punish myself so? you can’t help complaining.


Take solace, even the most enthusiastic exercisers experience days like this. Muhammed Ali famously said that he hated every minute of training but endured the temporary suffering so that he could live a legend.


But invariably what we find is that, when training motivation is at a low ebb, a warm-up can quickly change the tides in our favour. After 10-minutes of rowing or skipping, we’re raring to go and wondering what all the fuss was about.


Related: Put your warm up into practice before tackling this Skipping HIIT Workout

Why cool down?

The cool down caps the end of a workout and should be followed by a whole-body stretch. Cooling down confers more physiological benefits than most people realise.


This lack of understanding probably accounts for why it is dismissed and, like the warm up, often neglected. Speaking generally, most exercisers walk into the gym, start their workout and, when finished, walk out again – no warm up, no cool down, and no stretch.


Granted, cooling down is only really necessary if you’ve worked hard and whipped up a sweat. If after a training session your body temperature is the same at the end as it was at the beginning, you won’t need to cool down.


However, ‘stopping abruptly after exercise, especially high-intensity exercise, can cause dizziness or fainting.’ In addition, the cool down – or ‘reduced intensity exercise’ if you prefer – can help ‘prevent blood from pooling in your extremities,’ (Physiology of Sport and Exercise).


It’s for these reasons, and those listed below, that the author of the Royal Marines Physical Training Manual maintains that ‘The cool-down should not be skipped over.’


Purpose of the cool down

We’ve all made the mistake of skipping the cool down. Perhaps we over-budgeted the main session which left little time for the other workout phases. Maybe we were just too eager to hit the shower and get stuck into that post-workout pasta salad.


Correct training protocol necessitates that we spend a minimum of 5-minutes cooling down after exercising. In the book Personal Training, professional fitness coach and author Mark Ansell identifies the cool down as an essential component ‘that should not be moved’ from the workout process.


But if the dictates of ‘correct training’ and the advice of a professional coach do not inspire you to cool down after your workouts, maybe the long list of benefits below will.


A 5- to 10-minute reduced intensity cool down can:


Promote post-exercise recovery
Recirculate metabolic waste products
Prevent blood from pooling
Can reduce the likelihood of dizzy spells or fainting after intense training
Reduce the severity of the DOMS (delayed onset of muscles soreness)
Prepare us for a whole-body stretch
Provide us with time to reflect on the workout – pros/cons, areas for improvement

How to warm up and cool down

Curiously, all the books used in this article to support the argument of why we should warm up and cool down, do not feature examples of how to warm up and cool down correctly.


We’re told (to the point of tedium!) about the importance of warming up and cooling down, how each process can reduce injury, promote performance, and improve exercise experience. But little to nothing about how to warm up and cool down.


To bring balance to this article, what follows is an outline of how to warm up and cool down before and after your workouts. As well as an example of each process, you will find an overview of suitable exercises including recommended durations, training intensities, and links to additional resources.


The warm up

A proper warm up should feature certain characteristics. The optimal duration of a warm up is 10-minutes. However, depending on which book you consult or which personal trainer you speak with, the duration can vary widely.


For example, in the Royal Marines Fitness Manual, we are told that to experience the benefits of warming up, we should take 15-minutes to conduct a full warm-up. In contrast, after asserting that ‘a warm-up is essential to any [exercise] programme’, the author of Personal Training suggests setting aside a mere 5-minutes for warming up.


I think the middle of these two suggestions is about right.


But of course, the duration can be tailored to suit your workout. If, for instance, you planned to complete this low-intensity cardio session, you might only need 5-minutes to raise core temperature and prepare the body systems for exercise. However, if you had a horrible HIIT Running workout scheduled, you might need a good 10- to 15-minutes to prepare both physiologically and psychologically for the demands of the session.


The warm-up intensity should progressively increase

Another key characteristic of the warm up is that it should follow a progressive intensity trajectory. What this means is that the initial intensity of your warm up should be low and, gradually over the duration, increase to that of your main session.


A simple way to conceptualise the increase in the intensity of your warm up is to use the rate of perceived exertion scale (RPE) as a guide. The RPE is a 10-point scale that ranges from 1 (sitting on the couch) to 10 (max intensity sprint). You could begin your warm-up at, say, 3 on the scale, and increase by one point every two minutes. See the example below.

An example of a progressive intensity warm up. As part of the blog on how to warm up and cool down.

The warm up should be appropriate

Should be appropriate? What on earth does that mean? The word ‘appropriate’ was taken from Watson’s assessment of what constitutes effective warm-up techniques. In his brilliant book Physical Fitness & Athletic Performance, Watson reminds us that a ‘warm-up of an appropriate nature’ is the best way to ‘enhance physical performance.’


Simply stated, a warm-up of an appropriate nature is one that comprises exercises that feature in the main workout.


Few would argue with the logic that if you plan to complete an upper body strength workout it would be a bad idea to spend 10-minutes on a stationary bike beforehand. Such a warm up is not appropriate because it fails to engage those muscles that will be used in the workout.


A warm up should blend cardio and resistance

The final characteristic of a correct warm up is one that blends cardio and resistance exercises. Resistance exercises engage the muscles differently from cardio. It can be quite a shock going into a weightlifting workout after 10-minutes of warming up on a rowing machine. Though you’ve successfully raised both your core temperature and heart rate, your skeletal muscles have not been acclimatised to exerting force against a resistance.


Related: Best Indoor Rowing Machine for the home gym

To avoid this outcome, which can negatively impact on the early stages of your workout, just include a few light resistance sets partway through your warm-up. For a comprehensive outline of how best to do this, use this All-Purpose Gym Warm-Up.


Best warm up and cool down exercises

Rowing
Airdyne cycling
Cross-trainer
Skipping
All the above interspersed with light resistance exercises

The cool down

You’ll be glad to know that the cool down is not nearly as complicated as the warm up. With the warm up we must ensure to prepare the body properly for the workout. Failure to do so could result in at best a reduction in performance and at worst an injury.


In contrast, the primary purpose of the cool down is to normalise the major body systems – such as core temperature and heart rate. Additionally, a cool down can help to recirculate metabolic waste by-products while also preventing blood from pooling.


Because the demands of training at this point are behind us, the risk of injury is much lower. Thus, the focus is on winding down and preparing for the stretch – then the shower and post-workout refuel.


Cool down process

Achieving these outcomes is relatively straightforward. A 5- to 10-minute low-intensity row would more than suffice. Simple though this cool down is, it would suit pretty much any type of workout. Rowing engages all the major muscle groups and the push/pull action, which involves the arms, back, and legs would certainly prevent blood from pooling in the extremities.


The cool down process is exactly inverse to the warm up. Whereas the warm observes a progressive intensity trajectory, the cool down observes a regressive intensity trajectory. You could just take the graph above and flip it.


But the intensity at which you start the cool down does not need to be as high as the end of the warm up. Instead of starting at 9, you could begin at 7 and over a 5- to 10-minute duration gradually lower the intensity 3.


Best warm up and cool down exercises

Rowing
Airdyne cycling
Cross-trainer
Skipping
Light resistance exercises (focus on technique)

Warm up and cool down next steps

If this article has done its job, you should have a clear understanding of the reasons why it is important to warm up and cool down before and after each workout. As we've seen, warming up prior to exercise can reduce injury risk and improve physical performance. In addition, it can enhance motivation while preparing us physiologically and psychologically for the demands of training.


But no workout is complete without a cool down. Cooling down helps to normalise core temperature and resting heart rate. Furthermore, a 5-minute regressive intensity cool down can facilitate the removal of metabolic waste and prevent blood from pooling in the extremities.


It's for these reasons that you should always cap and conclude your workouts with a warm up and cool down.


 

This article on how to warm up and cool down concludes with the author bio. In this text box it says: As we are very interested in user experience here at Hungry4Fitness, we would be very grateful if you could take a few seconds out of your day to leave a comment. Thanks in advance! Blog Author: Adam Priest, former Royal Marines Commando, is a personal trainer, lecturer, boxing and Thai boxing enthusiast.

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