Most people know that a warm-up is what you do to prepare your body and muscles before you exercise, while a cooldown is necessary after you exercise to relax the muscles and lower body temperature before bathing or doing any other activities.
However, many people mistakenly believe that the only purpose of warming up before exercise is for stretching. In reality, though, a proper warm-up before every exercise routine should focus on increasing the temperature of the joints and soft tissue surrounding the joints which will be used for exercise. This is why the exercises used for this purpose are called “warm-up exercises”. This process should take at least 10 minutes or more before starting any exercise session in order to reduce the risk of injury to muscles and joints.
Unfortunately, if you do not provide enough time for your muscles to increase temperature, the blood flow to your muscles will be insufficient, making it difficult for the muscles to handle the force of the stretching, pulling and contracting required during your exercise. This can result in micro injuries or small, minute tears in the muscles, which may ultimately lead to muscle spasms or cramps while exercising. This can potentially cause severe injury to the muscles, especially while doing exercises involving sudden or intense contractions, or a sudden surge of strength and activity in the muscles, such as in sprinting, jumping or even playing badminton or tennis, etc.
The good news is that these kinds of injuries can be avoided by preparing your muscles properly beforehand. To stretch your muscles correctly, use the method known as dynamic stretching exercises before you work out, and the method known as static stretching exercises after you have cooled down.
Dynamic stretching is stretching the muscles and joints while moving. Medical research has found that too much static stretching before exercise can, in fact, lead to a higher chance of injury. Because of this, athletes at a professional level do not generally do static stretches before they exercise, as static stretching causes muscle lengthening and thus reduced muscle power. If the muscles lack their usual power and strength, their ability to absorb impact or force will also be reduced, which may eventually cause injury to the tendons and ligaments, joints or muscles.
Dynamic stretching for a runner includes such exercises as kicking out while extending and stretching the legs, kicking the legs as far out or as high up as possible, or doing a light warm-up run, but increasing the time to 1-5 minutes or more. With the latter option, it’s important to run at a slow speed — there’s no need to rush or to force things. You can observe how it feels as the temperature in your muscles and throughout your body begins to rise by placing your hand on your muscles to feel the warmth within them. Warming up this way will not over-stretch or over-extend your muscles, and will also help create enough power to support the exercises that will follow.
You will often see these kinds of exercises being done by those doing general fitness exercises, such as in the park or at the gym.
Static stretching exercises should be carried out as the last step after your cool down or exercises are completed. They should be done for as long as your warm-up and until your pulse or heart rate comes down to a normal, relaxed level, or for at least 5-10 minutes or more. Each stretch should be held for at least 10-20 seconds in order to effectively stretch out the muscle cells.
Sufficient cooldown will help reduce the chance of fainting or post-exercise hypotension, which is caused by the fact that during exercise the body’s temperature is increased, and there is substantial increase of blood flow to peripheral arteries and/or to the legs and feet. This, in turn, causes reduced blood flow back to the heart, which can lead to dizziness and fainting. For this reason, you should slowly decrease your exercise levels for 5-10 minutes until the temperature of the muscle cells has gradually been decreased and the body has returned to its normal state.
After cooling down, you should stretch your muscles using static stretching exercises, because while exercising, we use our muscles almost continuously, often resulting in tiny muscle injuries. In response, the muscles try to create more tension and tighten up in order to protect themselves. If there is no stretching after exercises, these muscles will remain tensed and contracted, resulting in muscle tightness and even post-exercise pain and fatigue that can carry on through the next day.
If this condition is allowed to continue, you can end up with so much pain and stiffness that you are unable to exercise at normal levels. Static stretching, therefore, plays an important role in readjusting muscle tension levels back to or similar to pre-workout levels, which should be the same level used in everyday life.
Proper warm-up and cooldown are important components of your exercise routines that should not be overlooked and should always be carried out correctly before and after exercising, in order to help prevent injuries and increase exercise efficiency.
Fit For Life Checkup
M.D., Faculty of Medicine , Ramathibodi Hospital, Mahidol University, 2006.