Olympic athletes do it. Professional athletes do it. And you should do it, no matter what your level of fitness. Warm-ups and cool-downs mark the start and the finish of your workout. Your exercise routine begins in your mind. It is the spark that becomes movement—mind over muscle. That includes your heart muscle and the cast of supporting muscles that will take you through your workout.
It was once thought that you should stretch to warm-up. What is now known is that you should warm-up to stretch. Warm-ups are dynamic movements done to increase blood flow to the muscles and to gradually increase your heart rate before you begin more intense exercises. They differ from static or held stretches that are done to lengthen muscles and increase a muscle’s natural range of motion.
It is during cool-downs that flexibility exercises should be done because blood flow to the muscles is at its highest after your workout. Warm-ups and cool-downs are both essential components of any workout and have one thing in common: the prevention of injury. It is safer to begin your workout after you have prepared your mind and your body for what you plan to do. It is also safer to stretch after you have prepared your muscles through exercise and exertion. This becomes even more important as we age since we are more prone to injury without warming up than we were in our younger years. Range of motion throughout all stages of life can be maintained and increased by doing flexibility training at the end of your workout.
Whether you are about to fall back into your fitness program that may have become less than routine during the summer or if you are just beginning to exercise, always start with warm-ups. Think of them as doing a little bit of what you are planning to do—getting ready to get going. For instance, if you plan to take a brisk (3-1/2 miles per hour) walk, do some walking in place or walk at a slower pace for a few minutes, do some backward arm circles, gentle side-to-side knee bends, shoulder rolls and then walk at your workout pace.
Warm-ups should last for about five to ten minutes, followed by aerobic exercises and weight training.
Remember, weight training should be done two to three times a week on non-consecutive days. Finish your workout with flexibility training—stretches that are held for 15-30 seconds or longer. Be sure to stretch out the muscles you used the most since they have been contracting throughout your workout. Stretching is the opposite of contracting. Stretching after your workout not only helps to keep your muscles in balance, it also is the best time to increase your flexibility and maintain and increase your range of motion.
Warm-ups and cool-downs are integral parts of your exercise routine. Don’t skip them. The race doesn’t start at the starting line. It begins well before the starting gun goes off with your mind’s message to your muscles to start gradually. And it doesn’t end at the finish line. Once you are finished with your walk, your run or your bike ride, it ends with your muscles and your heart rate gradually slowing back down and returning to pre-exercise levels. Start slowly, finish slowly and you’ll be in it for the long run.
Yours in fitness,
Olivia C. Rossi, RN, MSN
Certified Clinical Exercise Specialist, ACSM
Certified Personal Trainer, ACSM