Why should we warm up and cool down?

We have all been told at one point or another to warm up and cool down with exercise. It’s something that we all know we should do but don’t always follow. It is important to understand why we need to prepare our body for exercise and what benefits we see from cooling down afterwards.

The Warm Up

A warm up is intended to prepare our body for the physical activity we are about to complete. This might be a gym session, cardiovascular exercise, a sports training session or a competitive match. Generally, a warm up should always include some low-intensity aerobic exercise, stretching and activity specific drills.

Completing some low-intensity aerobic exercise in the warm up helps to increase the blood flow to the muscles that we need for our exercise. This increases oxygen delivery to the muscles and enhances metabolic activity to improve the muscle’s readiness to start working and contract. An aerobic warm up also helps to elevate the heart rate in preparation for exercise so the cardiovascular system is ready for action.

With an increase in blood flow from the aerobic activity, our body temperature also increases. This improves muscle and tendon flexibility and joint lubrication. As muscle stiffness is thought to be related to muscle injury, enhancing muscle flexibility and reducing viscosity should help to minimise this risk. Adding in some dynamic stretches to your warm up will further aid muscle flexibility. Dynamic stretching has been shown to be superior to static (sustained) stretches in warm up as they also help to reduce muscle stiffness (Haddad et al 2014). A dynamic stretch involves moving with control back and forth through range which in turn helps muscles cope with sudden movement and lengthening when exercising.

Finally, completing exercise-specific warm up drills will activate neural pathways to enhance reaction time and communication between the nerves and muscles. They additionally help to stimulate the motor patterns we need for our exercise.

Generally, a warm up should last anywhere from 10-20 minutes to adequately prepare the body for exercise. Warm ups will always vary between people depending on exercise type, intensity, age and body ailments. Warm ups tend to develop over time based on the individual and what they find best gets their body ready for exercise.

Some warm up examples include:

  1. Low-intensity aerobic activity: Easy jogging building up to ¾ pace over 5-10minutes.
  2. Dynamic stretching: leg swings and side bends ten times each side.
    Leg Swings 10 times each side
    Side Bends 10 times each side

  3. Exercise specific activity: dribbling, shooting hoops and passing a basketball to get ready for the basketball game.

The Cool Down

In contrast to the warm up, the cool down is all about lowering the body temperature and heart rate back to normal. A cool down will normally include very light aerobic activity and static (sustained) stretching.

Performing some light aerobic activity after exercise like walking will help return the body temperature back to baseline and continue to aid oxygen delivery to the muscles for faster recovery. This will help to rid the muscles of lactic acid and other chemicals built up throughout the exercise, reducing the risk of delayed onset muscles soreness.

Adding static stretches to your cool down will help the muscles to further relax and return back to their normal range of movement. This is also a great time for your heart rate to slowly return back to baseline while you’re still active before you completely rest.

A cool down can take 10-20 minutes and static stretches should be held between 10 seconds to 30 seconds to properly lengthen out and relax the muscles.

Examples of cool down exercises can include:

  1. Light aerobic exercise: walking for 5-10minutes.
  2. Static stretches: holding calf and hamstring stretches after a run.

Lean forwards with heel flat on the ground to feel a gentle stretch through your calf.

Hold the back of your thigh and gently pull your leg towards you to feel a stretch through your hamstring.

Your physiotherapist can help you tailor a warm up and cool down based on your exercise and musculoskeletal profile.

Aguilar, A et al (2012). A dynamic warm-up model increases quadriceps strength and hamstring flexibility. J Strength Cond Res Vol 26(4).
Haddad, M et al (2014). Static stretching can impair explosive performance for at least 24 hours. J Strength Cond Res Vol 28(1).
Karvonen, J (1992). Importance of warm up and cool down on exercise performance. Medicine in Sports Training and Coaching; Medicine Sport Science 35: 189-214.