The Importance Of Warming Up And Cooling Down With Exercise

As we start to head slowly towards the dreaded winter months and the will to brave the elements for a spot of exercise starts to fade away, it’s a good time to review the importance of a proper pre workout warm up and post workout cool down. With a little understanding as to what they do, how they can help improve performance and reduce the risk of injury, you can feel more confident that you will get the most out of your training in the colder months.

I don’t know about you, but growing up I was always taught that a warm up before exercise consisted of static stretching cold muscles. Meaning that if I was to get out of bed and decide to go for a run, I would get dressed, lace up my shoes and then spend about 5 or 10 minutes stretching out my calves, hamstrings and quads before getting stuck right in. If it was before a rugby game on a particularly cold winters morning, we might jog for a couple of laps around the pitch passing a ball back and forth, and maybe hit a tackle bag once or twice, but that was pretty much it.

Now, things have very much evolved. People are ditching the static stretches in favour of warm ups and dynamic stretching before and after exercise.

Why Do We Warm Up with Exercise?

Simply put, warming up increases blood flow to the muscles before exercise so that they are better able to perform when called upon. 

Increased blood flow means an increased delivery of nutrients and oxygen to the muscles when they are needed most.

When muscles receive more blood flow, they start to wake up. Think of how hard it is to hold a conversation when you first wake up in the morning. It’s barely possible to mumble “hello”. Now imagine teleporting yourself on to a stage in front of thousands of people and trying to give a talk on a complex subject. Your brain would probably short circuit!

In a similar way (vaguely), asking your muscles to try and perform at their highest level whilst they’ve barely woken up (i.e. you’ve been sitting at a desk all day and now you’re trying to lift your PB) is a pretty tough ask. Exercising cold hinders performance and increases the risk of injury.

On the other hand, warming your muscles to the point that they’re fully alert is the best way to get the most out of them. The more alert and awake your muscles, the higher their capability of producing and absorbing high forces.

When you are able to produce high forces, you are able to run, jump, kick, swim, lift and whatever else you do during exercise at a high level. Crucially, when you are able to absorb high forces, your muscles are adequately prepared for the impacts that these movements create, protecting your ligaments, tendons, bones, and greatly reducing your risk of injury.

When you perform static stretches you create tension on the opposing muscles of a joint. High tension actually constricts the capillaries of the muscles - the small veins which circulate blood through the body. Just as when you stand on a hose the flow of water is reduced, when the capillaries are constricted the amount of blood that is passing through the muscles is decreased.

Decreased blood flow means less oxygen and nutrients being transported to the muscles. Just as when your brain is starved of oxygen and nutrients it begins to shut down, so too your muscles lose their alertness when they are not receiving adequate blood flow.

So you can begin to see why static stretching isn’t an ideal way to prepare for your next workout. Performing these types of stretches as a warm up effectively decreases your muscle’s ability to produce force and it’s ability to absorb force, reducing your performance and increasing the risk of injury.

Exercise Best Ways To Warm Up?

To understand the best method of stretching to help us warm up, we need to understand the point of stretching in the first place.

A joint will only move as far as it is able to do so without breaking. The further a joint can move (i.e the more flexible it is) the more easily it can move in to a position where it is able to perform most effectively. These positions allow for better biomechanics, loading your muscles in a way that maximises their ability to produce and absorb forces.

When your joints are exposed to forces that are too high for them to handle, either through direct impact like twisting your ankle, or through chronic overuse like with tendonitis, you develop an injury.

These forces are deemed too high because either the joint is not strong enough to handle them, or because it is not flexible enough to move in to a position where it can handle them properly.

Increasing your flexibility will help to allow your joints to occupy better, more efficient positions, provided you have adequate strength to handle the forces that you exert upon them.

Back to stretching.

We’re all familiar with what a static stretch is - pulling your body in to a certain position and holding it for 30 or so seconds. Like when you bend down and try to touch your toes, feeling a stretch in your back and hamstrings. If you are especially tight in any areas, static stretching can feel great and can help provide short-term alleviation of tension and pain.

You might even feel more flexible afterwards, however this extended range of motion typically only lasts for around 3-15 minutes.

And as we’ve discovered already, it is not an ideal way to prime your muscles and joints for the forces and motions of physical exercise.

Enter – dynamic stretching.

What Is A Dynamic Stretch?

Simply put, dynamic stretching incorporates more movement. In a dynamic stretch, you move your joint through a larger range of motion as opposed to maintaining a static hold. So instead of standing on one leg, grabbing your ankle and pulling it up to your glutes to stretch out your knee, quads and hip flexors, you swing your entire leg back and forward to incorporate motion in to the stretch. You still allow your joints and muscles to receive the same range of motion as they would through a static stretch, but rather than constrict the amount of blood flow, you increase it.

More blood means more alert muscles, tendons and ligaments. The more alert they are, the better equipped they are to produce and absorb forces during exercise.

That’s It?

There’s more to it than that. Dynamic stretching is a great way to get muscles warm, and by focussing on movements that are specific to the exercise that you wish to perform you help to direct the flow of blood to where it’s needed.

But there’s another aspect to warm-ups which plays a vital role in boosting performance, and that is activating your central nervous system.

My What?

Your central nervous system (CNS) sends signals to your muscles to prepare them for what’s to come. The better that you can communicate to your CNS the movements that you intend to do during your workout, the better prepared it will be and the better you will feel and perform during exercise.

This may all sound quite intense and you’d be forgiven for thinking that this is somehow only relevant to high level athletes. But in reality, activating your CNS is quite straightforward and beneficial to anyone, regardless of the type or level of exercise.

What Is The Central Nervous System?

In order to understand the effect that a proper warm up has on the CNS and your performance overall, it is helpful to understand the structure of the nervous system as a whole so you can see which parts are being affected.

The CNS consists of your brain and spinal cord whose function it is to communicate and send information throughout your body, with the help of another part of your nervous system called the peripheral nervous system (PNS).

The PNS is connected to your entire body through a system of nerves that send and receive signals from your CNS to your muscles and organs, and back to your brain.

There are two types of systems within the PNS called the somatic and autonomic. The somatic nervous system is activated through actions that you voluntarily perform, such as deciding to bend down and pick something up. The autonomic system controls actions that are involuntary, like your breath or heart beat.

During a warm up we are aiming to prime the autonomic nervous system. I know this sounds a little odd but if we dig a little deeper things should become clearer.

See, the autonomic nervous system is made up of two parts – the parasympathetic and the sympathetic. You’ve probably heard of the “fight or flight” response we exhibit during certain stressful situations. This is governed by the sympathetic nervous system, while the parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for states of relaxation and de stressing, beneficial for digestion, rest and recovery.

Essentially with a warm up you are trying to let your sympathetic nervous system know ahead of time that you are about to enter a stressful situation (has anyone ever found burpees to be relaxing?). This will help your body and brain prepare for the work that lies ahead, also know as post-activation potentiation, increasing the amount of force that you are able to produce.

It also plays a huge role in establishing what we call “muscle memory”.

Whenever you exercise, your brain is constantly trying to adapt and learn how to operate more efficiently. When you start any new form of exercise it can feel a little awkward at times, especially during the first few sessions. Activities like playing golf, lifting weights or even going for a run can make you feel a little uncoordinated if your brain is not used to those specific movements.

If you stick with it, you’ll likely feel more and more adept with each session, hitting the ball cleaner, lifting heavier and running further and faster. Generally speaking, we would put this down to natural ability, but it actually has a huge amount to do with your neural drive and muscle memory. Activating your CNS can increase your ability to develop a strong mind-muscle connection and muscle memory that will in turn increase your performance both in the short and long term.

How To Warm Up And Activate Your CNS

So now that we’ve touched on the importance of dynamic stretching and activating the CNS, let’s look at how to warm up so that we are ticking all the boxes.

The first step is to perform a general warm up, to get blood flowing and warm your large muscle groups. This is quite simple – all you need do is some form of light aerobic activity, such as walking on the treadmill, using a rowing machine, elliptical trainer or jogging on the spot.

Once you’re feeling warm, now is the time to incorporate those dynamic stretches to increase blood flow to the specific areas you wish to use during exercise. For example, if you are warming up for a long run, you might want to use dynamic stretches that activate your ankles, calves, knees, quads, hamstrings, glutes and hip flexors.

Now that your muscles and joints are full of blood and their range of motion increased, it’s time to start getting your CNS ready to fire. Explosive movements help to prime the CNS and brain for the exercise that you are about to perform, as they use multiple muscle groups and require a lot of neural activity and force production.

The key here is to use maximal effort so that your body becomes prepared for the level of intensity that you will reach during exercise, but using few reps and sets so that the muscles do not become fatigued.

In the case of a run, you might do some vertical jumps, horizontal jumps, squat jumps, jumping lunges, skips, hops – anything performed at high intensity that mimics the movement that you will use during a run.

If you were about to do a bench press, you might instead look to do plyometric push-ups, medicine ball chest presses or slams. These movements will raise your heart rate, increase blood flow and improve flexibility before you lift.

The Purpose Of Cooling Down with Exercise

The cool down is an equally essential yet often overlooked part of your workout. It should last for a minimum of 10 minutes and basically incorporates the movements that you were performing during exercise, albeit at a reduced level of intensity.

The purpose of a post workout cool down is to allow for your heart rate and blood pressure to normalise gradually, regulate blood flow and to help your CNS enter a parasympathetic state.

During exercise, your heart pumps blood to your extremities at increased rates before it circulates back to your heart. If you stop your workout abruptly and chose not to cool down, you run the risk of blood gathering up in your limbs and not returning to your heart and brain as quickly as it should. This can cause you to feel light-headed or dizzy as your brain is in shorter supply of blood.

Also during exercise you accumulate lactic acid, especially if you’re exercising with high intensity. Cooling down allows your heart rate to gradually return to normal, normalising blood flow throughout your body and helping to flush out built up lactic acid.

If you’ve just been for a run, a great way to cool down would be to slow your pace to a jog for a few minutes, followed by a brisk walk and eventually down to a stroll.

If you’ve just been bench-pressing heavy weights, you can start to unload weight and perform fewer reps, working your way right down to minimal weight.

Activating your CNS prior to exercise helps to prepare your sympathetic nervous system for the stresses it is about to endure. Once you’ve finished training it is important to signal to your body to switch over to the parasympathetic mode of operation to assist in relaxation and recovery.

An effective and simple way to do this is through deep breathing exercises. Once you’ve finished warming down, you can lie down on your back with your feet against the wall, hips and knees at 90 degrees. Take in a deep breath, as deep as you can go, and exhale through pursed lips (as if you were trying to blow up a balloon) and push out all the air in your lungs. Repeat for between 5 to 10 breaths.

This exercise helps to switch your body over to a parasympathetic state, which in turn can help reduce oxidative stress in your muscles, decrease levels of cortisol and increase melatonin, which is a strong antioxidant and aids in the quality of sleep.

Your nutrition also plays a huge role in assisting your body’s ability to recover post exercise. Consuming the right foods post workout can ensure that your muscles receive all the nutrients they need to repair and grow stronger, helping you to perform at your peak.

Need help on understanding what to eat post workout? Check out our article on what you should look to include in your post workout meals here.