Warming up and cooling down: what should I be doing?

Warming up before physical activity and cooling down properly afterwards is extremely important.

Here art Santi London our sports massage team and physiotherapists encourage and advise on the numerous benefits to completing warm ups prior to exercising, with the four primary aims being:

Mental readiness

Physical readiness

Injury prevention

Performance enhancement

Benefits of warm ups include reduce the likelihood of sustaining injuries (and hence coming back to see our physios!), allow your muscles to function at their best as they’ll be warm and able to use oxygen more efficiently, increase the blood flow through active tissues and allow your heart rate to gradually increase before beginning exercise. Alongside these factors, proper warm ups allow you to mentally prepare yourself to begin physical activity, hence why top-level athletes and sports teams consider their warm up regimes paramount to their performance.

Whilst many people think that warm ups only need to be completed if you’re going out to play competitive sports, that is simply not the case. Warm ups should be completed before any exercise to get the most out of your work out, whether that be a big lifting session in the gym, a Zumba class, an Olympic final or just a quick run after work.

There are a lot of opinions about what makes up a good warm up and the specific content of a warm up will vary depending on your activity however, warm ups usually last between 10-30minutes.

Typically, warm ups used to be thought of as a run round a football pitch with a couple of stretches added in for good measure. This however is no longer the norm when it comes to an adequate warm up, with focus now on muscle activation and movement preparation to ensure each body part is sufficiently prepared for physical activity.

The structure of a warm up may change slightly but they should generally consist of the following components:

  1. Activation and mobilisation exercises

  • This aim to activate key muscle groups and mobilise the joints to increase range of motion for use in the activity.

  • Activation exercises work to get your stabiliser muscles such as your core, rotator cuff and muscles around the hips firing properly.

  • These exercises will involve small, controlled movements against light resistance or gravity.

  • Mobility exercises are geared to improve range of motion. These include controlled movements working through a functional range of motion with little strength.

  • Examples of activation and mobilisation exercises include band work, balance exercises, bridging with knee hugs and/or marches or thoracic rotations on all 4’s to name a few.

  • In this part of the warm up, it is important to consider the specific demand of your physical activity. If there is a lot of upper body work involved, you may need to focus specifically on your shoulders for longer.

  • Using a variety of exercises in a warm up is essential to prevent monotony and boredom. There are loads of exercises which target the same muscle groups so don’t be afraid to mix it up. Also, some exercises will work better for some people than others so it’s good to have a variety to choose from.

  1. Dynamic movement preparation

  • At this point, it is important to work on functional movement patterns through exercises which combine aspects such as strength, stabilisation and mobility to prepare yourself a bit more thoroughly for exercising.

  • These exercises will aim to start increasing your heart rate and work up a sweat

  • They require a greater level of skill, coordination and muscle contraction.

  • Examples of these will include lunges, single leg RDLs, push ups, mini band walks, and inchworms.

Stretching is an area which has been debated within the warm up topic. Research shows there is little evidence that static works as an injury reduction technique, and that it is possible that pre-exercise static stretching may compromise your performance by reducing factors such as force production, power and speed. Having said that, dynamic stretching has been shown to improve performance as it allows the muscle to activate properly and work through its range of motion, aiding with neural activation. This form of stretching therefore is widely considered the most appropriate form for use during warm ups for physical activity and would be most appropriately paired with the dynamic movement preparation stage of the warm up.

  1. Build-up

  • The build-up phase aims to increase the intensity for activity which involves power, speed and agility. This phase would not be necessary for a weight lifting session for example.

  • This aims to prepare your nervous and muscular systems for higher speed and more complex movements to be prepared to transition straight into exercise.

  • By this stage your body is ready to start moving quickly and begin the build-up exercise such as quick hops, 45degree runs, lateral shuffles, skipping variations and sprint build ups.

  • The warm up exercises will be task-specific and focus to improve your performance, transitioning gradually into the sport or activity itself.

  • Sport specific activities such as team runs and hitting tackle pads could also be included, as well as reactive agility and footwork drills.

These components should gradually prepare you for the increased physicality involved in your exercise or physical activity and achieve the four primary aims of a warm up.

Cool downs

Cool downs differ to warm ups in that they are much shorter, generally lasting between 10-15minutes. Appropriate cool downs aim to remove waste products such as lactic acid from the working muscles, reduce the effect of DOMS (that horrible achy feeling you get the day after exercising!), reduce adrenaline levels in the blood and allows the heart rate to return to its resting rate.

They are normally composed of 5-10 minutes of low intensity work, aimed to start reducing your heart rate and body temperature slowly, whilst also removing waste products, and 5-10 minutes of static stretches are the second component to a cool down. Here, this type of stretching is appropriate as your muscles are already warm. They help the muscles to relax, realign muscle fibres and re-establish a normal range of movement. Aim to hold these stretches for about 10 seconds each.

Your body really will thank you for completing adequate warm ups and cool downs and these really are essential parts of your work out if you want to get the most out of your performance, or want to be able to walk down the stairs without being too sore the next day! Really try to fit at least a short warm up in, each time you do physical activity, and see the results yourself!

If you need further guidance on one-to-one support our specialist team of sports massage therapists and physiotherapists at Santi London are here to guide you.