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Warm Ups & Cool Downs: Do They Really Matter?

If you’re a RF member, you know our workouts are bookend by a warm up and a cool down. Foam rolling, stretching, bird dogs, glute bridges, ring rows and push ups are all staples in our warm up movements. But man, do those warm ups cut into the fun part of the workout! Why do we have you start each session with foam rolling? Are you kidding me with these bird dogs again? Who cares if your shoulders are warm? All this warming up and cooling down just seems to take up so much time that could be better spent actually working out, right?

The short answer is we have our athletes warm up to give the body time to gradually prepare for a workout. Generally, this includes doing movements that are similar to the main exercise set of the day at a slower pace and lower intensity. As the body begins moving, the cardiovascular system dilates blood vessels, which increases blood flow to the muscles and increases your internal body temperature. In turn, this raises the muscle tissue temperature to achieve optimum flexibility and efficiency. Warm muscles are more pliable and more pliable muscles are less likely to get injured. Additionally, warming up ensures the muscles are receiving enough oxygen and allows for the heart rate to slowly ramp up, thus minimizing stress on the heart and lungs. The cool down, on the other hand, has the opposite effect on the body. After the workout, the heart is still beating faster than normal, the body temperature is still elevated, and the blood vessels are still dilated. A cool down allows the body to gradually decrease body temperature and heart rate.

Concisely speaking, the warm up and cool down are important to prepare the body to transition from not exercising to exercising and vice versa. Without warming up, the body has little time to adapt to the strain that is suddenly being thrust upon it. The muscles have not been warmed up, so flexibility and mobility can be limited until the body warms up. The cardiovascular system has not had a chance to ramp up, so catching your breath can be harder. The muscles take longer to get oxygenated under the new demand of exercise, so you can feel more fatigued quicker. Limited range of motion, a cardiovascular system that is taking longer to recover, and early muscle fatigue can lead to suboptimal movements, pain, or even injury.

Similarly, without a cool down, the body is left in an elevated state. The heart rate is still high, which can cause dizziness or lightheadedness when the movement stops. Additionally, blood flow is still increased to the body and muscles, so without gradually reducing this, the athlete can feel “jittery” or shaky after movement stops. The cool down is also a good opportunity for the athlete to stretch warm muscles, which are more pliable and can likely achieve greater range of motion. Thus, the cool down is important to let the cardiovascular system and muscles recover.

It happens occasionally that members come late to class and ask to skip the warm up so they can catch up with the rest of the class. We get it: life happens and sometimes being late is inevitable. It’s okay! However, our answer will likely be, “Still do the warm up.” In addition to not wanting to promote injury, we also want to make sure your body is prepared to do the movements being asked of it, especially if those movements include heavy weights.

Okay, so now we know that the warm up and cool down are important. So what should they include? At RF, our warm ups consist of 6 phases that include self myofascial release, flexibility, mobility, stretching, corrective movements, and practice for the main set of the day. However, outside of the gym, a warm up can be any movement or movements that prepare your body for the exercise. They can include:

  • Dynamic stretches (stretches that you move through) for muscles

  • Mobility movements for the joints that will be used

  • Light strength movements replicating the main set/warming up the muscles

  • A cardiovascular component that gradually increases the heart rate

Contrastingly, a cool down can include:

  • Static stretches (stretches you hold for periods of time) for muscles

  • Gentle mobility movements for the joints

  • Breathing exercises to recover heart rate

Warm ups and cool downs can last anywhere from five to fifteen minutes. They can be guided, like we do in class, or independent. If you’re new to warming up and cooling down, start with five minutes and gradually increase. However, both warm ups and cool downs should be considered a priority during workouts so your body can perform to the best of its ability not only for this workout, but for the next workout as well!

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