We’re all short on time and even if we manage to squeeze a workout into our overloaded days, warm ups and cool downs tend to get short shrift. After all, they don’t feel like they’re doing much. “Can’t we just get on with it?” And “”I’m done, gotta go!”
Well, you don’t see the foundation of a house, and yet—it’s pretty important. And you’re usually not aware of the roof over your head either–until your bedroom ceiling gets a leak. Think of the warm up as your foundation on which you build your workout. Think of the cool down as the roof that protects all the work that’s gone into your house and seals it from harm.
What’s the right way to warm up? Our thoughts about this have changed recently and we now believe that static stretching is not the way to go during a warm up. Static stretching is where you go into a stretch and hold it for a long period of time. Static stretching has a place in your workout, but not in the warm up. You might actually tear your muscles if you do an extreme static stretch before a proper warm up. A light static stretch won’t cause harm—but it won’t warm you up either.
On the other hand, dynamic stretching and other warm up movements will stretch your muscles somewhat, but not to the point of overstretching and injury. Although movement is involved, we’re not talking about bouncing here—that’s a no-no because it causes the rebound effect which can tear and shorten muscles.
A warm up needs to move your body enough to literally warm it up—to raise your body temperature. It gradually revs up your body to prepare for the more intense exercise to come. It prepares your muscles (including your heart muscle) and circulatory system, your respiratory system—and your joints. This is especially important as you get older, or if you have joint disease or a history of injuries. A thorough warm up moves your joints through all the directions of motion they are designed for. It will also stimulate the synovial fluid that lubricates and keeps joints moving smoothly. If you, like me, have a touch of arthritis (thanks, mom for that bit of DNA), you know how stiff your joints can feel sometimes. Synovial fluid is what keeps stiffness at bay and protects what cartilage you have left.
My standard warm up is a brisk 5-8 minute walk (you could substitute a light jog), followed by about 5-8 minutes of dynamic stretches: overhead reaches, across the body reaches, leg raises with bent knees, toe taps, heel digs, ankle touches to front back and side, forward rolls, shoulder dips, and spinal contractions and releases.
Cool downs are designed to help you change gears and get back to normal activity levels, and to reap the benefits of having nice warm elastic muscles. They are warm ups in reverse: your breathing and heart rate gradually slow down, your muscles cool down, and your blood circulation comes back to normal.
Cool downs consist of a light cardio activity, such as walking, as a transition. Whatever you do, don’t stop suddenly and completely after your cardio. This can allow your blood to pool in your legs and not get to your brain—and who needs the resulting dizziness or lightheadedness?
Once things have calmed down, its time to stretch. Stretch all your major muscle groups for up to one minute, slightly increasing your stretch with each breath. You should feel a little discomfort but not pain. Stretching this way, when you’re warmed up, will help elongate your muscles and increase your flexibility and range of motion. It can also be very calming and relaxing.
Now that you know why they are such key components to your fitness plan, why not incorporate some of the dozens of static and dynamic stretches and exercises I include in my book, “Nancercize: 101 Things to Do on a Park Bench”? Taking the time to warm up and cool down will help you make sure that your workouts are a pleasure, not a pain!