Two of the most neglected aspects of fitness are warm-ups and cool-downs. Like stretching, properly warming up and cooling down greatly reduce the risk of chronic and acute injuries and improve sports performance itself.
Historically, warming up meant a brief period of stretching before we bolted out the door for a run, and a cool down of lengthy stretching was usually forgotten. However, much has changed in regards to what constitutes a proper warm up and cool-down, so a quick update is necessary. Let’s discuss warming-up first.
Recent large research studies with runners have shown that stretching prior to exercise may not prevent injury or delayed-onset muscle soreness as previously believed. Some research has shown that stretching too deeply prior to exercise may actually decrease sports performance and increase risk of injuries in stop-and-go sports. To best decide how to warm-up, we need to go back to the definition of a warm-up. A warm-up is physical and mental preparation for the exercise that you are about to engage in. Warm-ups increase core temperature as well as the temperature of the muscles, tendons and ligaments, thus improving and facilitating proper range of motion. For new exercisers, a short period of easy movement will also decrease the risk of cardiovascular stress. So, a warm-up should be comprised of light, easy movements that mimic the specific sport you will be engaging in.
Runners may want to walk or jog lightly prior to reaching full pace, athletes like soccer players must include exercises that work the range of motion of the hamstrings, quads, glutes and other leg muscles and should include multi directional movements in their warm-ups.
Knee lifts, butt kicks, lateral shuffles, walking lunges, are all appropriate for stop-and-go sports like soccer or field hockey.
Weight training warm-ups should include movements that use all muscles of the body- so walking on a treadmill may not be the best warm-up as it does not target the upper body. Heavy weight lifting should always include an initial set of light weight mimicking the exercise you wish to perform later with heavy weight.
Three warm-ups I use for my weight training clients are “woodchopper”, “cross body reach” (anterior medial reach) and “standing rotations”. These can also be performed with a light medicine ball. They are:
- Stand with feet hip width apart, toes pointed straight ahead.
- Raise arms up over your head, without hunching up shoulders, and sweep arms down between your legs like you are “chopping wood”.
- As you sweep arms down between your legs, make sure you bend your knees AND bend at the hips to warm up the leg muscles and reduce your risk of back strain.
- At the low position, back is still straight, head is up slightly and knees and toes point straight ahead. Knees should not bow out, nor collapse in.
- As you return to the start position, sweep arms back up and straighten all the way up so as to open the front of the body as well.
Cross Body Reach
- Stand in a staggered stance with your right foot forward, left foot back about 10 – 12 inches, feet hip width apart and toes straight ahead.
- Left arm is raised up over head -left ribcage will feel a nice stretch.
- Bending knees, ankles and hips (i.e.- do not bend with straight legs), reach the left arm down towards the right foot, keeping the left heel DOWN throughout the entire reach.
- If your calf muscle is too tight to keep the foot down, begin by reaching half way down until it loosens up.
- As you reach down and across, the left knee should bend significantly and rotate inward slightly, not bow out to the side.
- Repeat by switching legs.
- Stand with feet hip width apart and arms at side.
- Twist entire body to the right letting the arms swing easily just below shoulder level and allowing the left heel to lift as you pivot on the toe.
- It is essential that the opposite foot lift so that the hips can turn correctly and so that the spine is not twisting by itself.
- Repeat right and left smoothly and fluidly.
It is very important to include rotational warm-ups so that the back and hips can safely perform this movement when necessary.
Cooling down should always include a short period of easy movement such as walking after a run, as well as a significant period of prolonged, deep, stretching. This short period of light movement decreases the risk of cardiovascular stress. Stretches should target all of the muscles used during exercise and should be held for 20 seconds at least. Areas which need extra stretching may include the chest muscles, the low back, hip flexors, hamstrings and calves, as these areas tend to be chronically tight.
Forgetting to stretch post exercise can and WILL lead to injury- so take the time to relax, lengthen the muscles shortened during your exercise session and, most importantly, prolong your athletic and exercise careers!