Appropriate warm-up and cool-down periods are an important part of any exercise programme.
When commencing a bout of exercise your body needs to make a number of adjustments. These include:
These adjustments do not occur straight away, but require a number of minutes to reach the necessary levels. So the purpose of a warm-up is to encourage these adjustments to occur gradually, by commencing your exercise session at an easy level and increasing the intensity gradually. If you were to start exercising at a strenuous level without a warm-up, your body would be ill-prepared for the higher demands being made of it, which may cause injury and unnecessary fatigue.
A warm-up usually takes the form of some gentle exercise that gradually increases in intensity.
A pre-exercise warm-up:
The warm-up is widely viewed as a simple measure to prepare your body for exercise of a moderate to high intensity, and is believed to help prevent injury during exercise. Although there is a lack of clear scientific evidence that warming up prevents injuries, anecdotal evidence and logic would suggest that a warm-up should reduce the risk and, at worst, not increase it.
To make your warm-up effective, you need to do movements that increase your heart rate and breathing, and slightly increase the temperature of your muscles. A good indication is warming up to the point where you have raised a light sweat.
If you’re exercising for general fitness, allow 5 to 10 minutes for your pre-exercise warm-up (or slightly longer in cold weather).
If you are exercising at a higher level than for general fitness, or have a particular sporting goal in mind, you may need a longer warm-up, and one that is designed specifically for your sport.
Follow these options in the order listed.
To begin your warm-up do 5 minutes of light (low intensity) physical activity such as walking, jogging on the spot or on a trampoline, or cycling. Pump your arms or make large but controlled circular movements with your arms to help warm the muscles of your upper body.
One of the best ways to warm up is to perform the upcoming exercise at a slow pace. This will allow you to simulate at low intensity the movements you are about to perform at higher intensity during your chosen activity. Typical examples include steady jogging, cycling or swimming before progressing to a faster speed. This may then be followed by some sport-specific movements and activities, such as a few minutes of easy catching practice for cricketers or baseball players, going through the motion of bowling a ball for lawn bowlers, shoulder rolls, or side-stepping and slow-paced practice hits for tennis players. Sport-specific warm-ups are often designed by a qualified trainer in that sport.
Any stretching is best performed after your muscles are warm, so only stretch after your general warm-up. Stretching muscles when they are cold may lead to a tear. Stretching during a warm-up can include some slow, controlled circling movements at key joints, such as shoulder rolls, but the stretches should not be forced or done at a speed that may stretch the joint, muscles and tendons beyond their normal length.
Another component of stretching during a warm-up is ‘static stretching’ — where a muscle is gently stretched and held in the stretched position for 10-30 seconds. This is generally considered the safest method of stretching.
Perform a light static stretching routine at the end of your warm-up by stretching each of the muscle groups you will be using in your chosen activity. A static stretch should be held at the point where you can feel the stretch but do not experience any discomfort. If you feel discomfort, ease back on the stretch. Remember not to bounce when holding the stretch. Don’t spend so long doing your stretches that your muscles cool down and your heart rate returns to its resting level. It is better to keep most of your static stretching for after your exercise session, that is, as part of your cool-down.
Studies comparing a warm-up that includes static stretching with a warm-up that does not include static stretching have shown that pre-exercise static stretching improves flexibility, but its effect on injury prevention remains unclear.
Apart from static stretching, other methods of stretching include ballistic, dynamic and PNF (proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation) stretching, each of which is best done under instruction from a qualified fitness instructor or sports coach.
The practice of cooling down after exercise means slowing down your level of activity gradually. Cooling down:
You may see conflicting advice as to whether cooling down prevents post-exercise muscle soreness, also known as delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS), which tends to occur after doing unfamiliar exercise or working at a harder level than usual. However, even if cooling down doesn’t prevent DOMS, the other benefits of cooling down mean that you should always make it a part of your exercise session.
For an effective cool-down:
Gradually slowing down the pace and exertion of your activity over several minutes can seem a natural progression, as well as fulfilling the need to include a cool-down period at the end of your exercise.
Another option is to jog, walk briskly or cycle for a few minutes after your exercise, making sure that this activity is lower in intensity than the exercise you have just performed.
The best time to stretch is during your cool-down, as at this time your muscles are still warm and most likely to respond favourably, and there is a low risk of injury. Stretching helps to relax your muscles and restore them to their resting length, and improve flexibility (the range of movement about your joints).
As a guide, allow 10 minutes of post-exercise stretching for every one hour of exercise. Make these post-exercise stretches more thorough than your pre-exercise stretches. Ensure that you stretch all the major muscle groups that you have used during your exercise. Stretch each muscle group for 20 to 30 seconds, 2 to 3 times.
Last Reviewed: 10 January 2010