Though we’ve long been told to warm up and cool down before and after we exercise, many gym-goers skip out on both.
The bottom line: Warm-ups and cool-downs are important. Here, I’ll break down why—and how to do them right.
To Stretch Or Not To Stretch?
Before I jump into why warming up is so important, let’s define a few terms I’ll use throughout this guide.
Static stretching: Static stretching involves holding a simple stretch position for an extended period of time. Bending over and touching your toes for 15 to 30 seconds, for example, is a static stretch.
Dynamic stretching: Also referred to as a ‘dynamic’ or ‘active’ stretching, dynamic stretching involves movements like running, plyometrics, and jumping jacks. The goal here is to get muscles moving throughout a range of motion, instead of holding a specific stretch for an extended period of time.
The Ideal Warm-Up
So, should you do static stretching or dynamic stretching before training? Dynamic stretching is probably your best bet.
In fact, research (like this Sports Medicine study) has shown that static stretching can reduce muscle force production and activation, potentially making your muscles unable to fire as effectively.
In addition to not being the most effective warm-up approach, we also don’t have sufficient data to prove that static stretching actually reduces your risk of getting injured during exercise. So, that advice your middle school track coach gave you about static stretching? Not legit.
Why Dynamic Stretching Wins
Besides getting your muscles actively working through a normal range of motion, dynamic warm-ups also increase the temperature of your muscles, which is the most important component of a warm-up.
Increasing muscle tissue temperature makes that muscle less resistant to changing shape, which it does as it stretches and contracts throughout a workout. This is what helps increase your range of motion and prevent injury during your workout.
Not to mention, dynamic warm-ups also induce a phenomenon known as ‘post-activation potentiation.’ This mouthful of a term basically means that your muscles are better primed to produce force. The effect can last up to 45 minutes—just enough time to cover the average workout.
Given all this, exercises like running and plyometrics are probably your best methods for increasing muscle tissue temperature and properly ‘warming up’ before a workout. Whatever your workout for the day looks like, spend at least a few minutes on your warm-up.
If you do any static stretching during the day, schedule it at least 2 hours before your other workout to avoid any negative effects (per research published in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise).
Spare A Few For The Cool-Down, Too
Imagine this scenario: You just crushed a leg workout. After you re-rack your weights and wipe down your equipment (since you’re a polite gym member), you hop in your car and head home. Traffic is rough, so it takes about 30 minutes. Once you arrive, you attempt to step out of your car and practically crumble to the ground, your legs cramping and unwilling to perform simple functions. Suddenly you wish you’d spent just five minutes cooling down.
Here’s the deal: While there’s no physiological phenomenon that links skipping a cool-down with cramping or stiffening up, many people still report they feel better when they cool down.
The Right Way To Cool Down
What should that cool-down look like? First of all, don’t take the term too literally.
Many people—especially athletes—might think they should hop in an ice bath or cold shower following a hard workout. While these strategies can reduce inflammation and muscle soreness, they might not best support your long-term goals.
You see, inflammation is a normal response to exercise—especially exercise that induces some muscle damage (basically any workout in which you push yourself and feel sore the next day). Our inflammatory response is designed to help the muscle heal—and certain components of that response after training actually signal our muscles to grow.
For these reasons, some experts prefer to swap the term ‘cool-down’ for ‘warm-down.’ Here are a few techniques I recommend:
1. Use Your Last Few Moves As A Warm-Down
Any good training program puts your least important exercises towards the end of your workouts. You make the most gains on the exercises you perform at the beginning, since fatigue reduces your results later on. Therefore, you can use the exercises at the end of your workout as a bit of a warm-down. Typically lower in intensity, these moves get blood flowing and ease you out of “the zone.”
2. Do Some Static Stretching
Though not ideal before a workout, you can use static stretching after your workout. This easy warm-down method also helps you calm down before getting back to the real world. (This might be why it’s such a popular option.)
3. Get A Little Light Cardio In
Lastly, you can also hop on just about any cardio machine for five to 10 minutes. I prefer bikes and ellipticals, since they’re less likely to interfere with strength and lean muscle gains, according to Journal of Strength and Conditioning research. (They also make it easier to keep the intensity low, compared to climbing stairs or using the treadmill.) Remember, you’re just trying to stimulate some blood flow here, not win a gold medal.
The Bottom Line
Regardless of your fitness goals (even if you’re not interested in making gains), a good warm-up will increase your muscle temperature and get you sweating. A good cool-down, meanwhile, will help keep blood flowing after your workout ends.
Resources & Further Reading
- Sports Medicine: Warm up I: potential mechanisms and the effects of passive warm up on exercise performance.
- Journal of Cellular Biology: Prostaglandin F2A Stimulates Growth of Skeletal Muscle Cells Via An NFATC2-Dependent Pathway
- Australian Journal of Physiotherapy: Warm-up reduces delayed onset muscle soreness but cool-down does not: a randomised controlled trial.
- Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: Effect of Cold-Water Immersion on Elbow Flexors Muscle Thickness After Resistance Training.
- Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports: Effects of warm-up on hamstring muscles stiffness: Cycling vs foam rolling.
- Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: Resistance training vs. static stretching: effects on flexibility and strength.
- Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise: An acute bout of static stretching: effects on force and jumping performance.
- Research in Sports Medicine: A systematic review into the efficacy of static stretching as part of a warm-up for the prevention of exercise-related injury.
- Journal of Sports Rehabilitation: Acute Effects of Foam Rolling, Static Stretching, and Dynamic Stretching During Warm-ups on Muscular Flexibility and Strength in Young Adults.
- American Journal of Physiology, Endocrinology, and Metabolism: Effect of ibuprofen and acetaminophen on postexercise muscle protein synthesis.
- Sports Medicine: Do We Need a Cool-Down After Exercise? A Narrative Review of the Psychophysiological Effects and the Effects on Performance, Injuries and the Long-Term Adaptive Response.
- Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: Concurrent training: a meta-analysis examining interference of aerobic and resistance exercises.
- European Journal of Applied Physiology: Whole body cryotherapy, cold water immersion, or a placebo following resistance exercise: a case of mind over matter?
Known as ‘The Muscle Ph.D.,’ Dr. Jacob Wilson has a knack for transforming challenging, complex concepts into understandable lessons that can support your body composition and health goals. A skeletal muscle physiologist and sports nutrition expert, Wilson is a leader in muscle sports nutrition. As the CEO of The Applied Science & Performance Institute and researches supplementation, nutrition, and their impact on muscle size, strength, and power.