How to Warm Up And Cool Down

A proper warm-up and cool-down is crucial to an effective workout, and this article will teach you exactly which exercises and stretches to perform.

Ben Greenfield
5-minute read
Episode #17

Say you’re beginning a road-trip and you hop in your car, pull it out of the garage, and immediately floor the gas pedal, turn the air conditioning on high and turn the radio on full volume. You maintain this same intensity all the way to your final destination, where you abruptly stop, exit your car, slam the door and walk away. As your abused car sits there steaming, crackling, and smelling of exhaust, would the thought ever cross your mind that perhaps you should have slowly progressed into top speed, then given your car a bit of easy driving after intense highway speeds?

Do You Need to Warm Up Before Exercise?

Your body is no different than that car. Before you subject it to physical exertion, whether lifting weights, running, bicycling, or playing tennis or golf, you must prepare it for performance. And when you finish your exercise, you must give your body a gradual progression from movement back to sitting in your car, at your desk, or on your couch. In this article, you’ll learn why you should warm up and cool down before a workout, and the exact exercises and stretches—and the right intensity at which to perform them--necessary for a proper warm-up and cool-down.

Why Do You Need to Warm Up Before Exercise?

When you warm up, several positive adaptations take place within your body to prepare you for exercise, including:

Dilation of blood vessels. As your blood vessels dilate, or get bigger, your heart doesn’t have to work so hard to deliver blood, and you have less risk of high blood pressure during exercise.

Increased temperature. When you stretch a cold rubber band, it can snap. The same is true of muscle. By warming your muscle tissue, you increase muscle elasticity and range of motion, and you also allow your muscle to contract more efficiently while reducing risk of strains and pulls. In addition, oxygen in warm blood becomes more readily available to muscle tissue.

Better cooling. In the same way that the air conditioning in your car works more efficiently when your car is warmed up, when you break a sweat during your pre-workout warm-up, you’ve successfully activated your body’s built-in cooling mechanisms.

Hormone production. As you warm-up, your body begins producing hormones like epinephrine, endorphins, growth hormone and testosterone, all of which increase the energy available for your workout.

Mental focus. Clearing your head with a warm-up allows you to focus more on the difficult or technical exercise or movements that will occur in your physical activity, and it also gives you a chance to mentally review your workout, game, or match.

Why Do You Need to Cool Down After Exercise?

You can significantly reduce soreness and stiffness with a good cool-down.

As you progress to your cool-down after the workout, your body is given a chance to slowly allow the heart rate to return to normal. That is important, since one of the times you’re most susceptible to cardiovascular problems after a workout is when you plop onto the couch or into your car as blood pools in your heart and extremities. When you cool down, you give that blood a chance to re-circulate throughout your body, which also reduces your risk of fainting and dizziness. As I talk about in “How to Recover After A Workout”, you also significantly reduce soreness and stiffness with a good cool-down.

How to Warm Up Before A Workout

Here are your quick and dirty tips for warming up before a workout:

Gradually increase intensity. If you’re going to be going for a run, you can begin with a walk, then move to a fast walk, then to a jog, and finally to a run. If you’re going to lift weights, do a warm-up set with a very light weight prior to doing your other sets, and if you have time, perform the dynamic warm-up routine I give you at the end of this article.

Include range-of-motion exercises. Interestingly, simply holding a stretch (static stretching) can actually reduce force-production capabilities and make you weaker. Additionally, research suggests that static stretching won’t really reduce injury risk. Instead, after you’ve warmed the muscles with cardio movements, do dynamic stretching, which should include arm and legs swings, torso twists, jumping jacks, or fast running. Also include dynamic movement preparation, in which you perform cable or elastic band exercises that move your body through a full range-of-motion.

Activate your brain. Especially if you’re playing sports or doing more advanced exercises, your warm-up should include a balance component, such as standing one leg while driving the knee of the opposite leg up to your chest, or closing your eyes and standing on one leg while you do your arm swings.

Unless you’re a professional athlete, there’s no reason a warm-up should be its own separate workout. Five to ten minutes is enough time for a good warm-up, although the more inactive you are before the workout, the longer the warm-up will need to be.

How to Cool-Down After A Workout

Here are your quick and dirty tips for cooling down after a workout:

Gradually decrease intensity. Your run can progress back to a jog, then to a brisk walk, and then to a slow walk, and you can save a few of your easier exercises in the weight room for last.

Static stretching is OK. Holding stretches or doing a few yoga moves after a workout brings your body back into a relaxation phase, and the light movements can help with blood flow.

Maximize your time. If you park your car far away in the gym parking lot, catch up on a couple phone calls with a headset, or save your gym social time for your cool-down activities, you’re more likely to engage in a productive cool-down.

A good cool-down should also take about five to ten minutes, and once again I will refer you to my article “How to Recover After A Workout”, for even more cool-down tips.

Sample Warm-Up and Cool-Down Routine

Here is a sample warm-up and cool-down routine.

Warm-up: Arrive at the gym and do a brisk walk for 2 minutes, then progress to a light jog, and finally do a series of three 30 second sprints followed by 30 jumping jacks. Next, lean against a wall and swing the legs 10 times forward and back, then side to side. Step away from the wall and perform 10 arm circles, then 10 arm swings back and forth. Finish with 10 lateral steps to reverse flies in each direction and 10 single leg row-and-throws in each direction.

Cool-down: Finish your workout by briskly walking for 2 minutes, then performing a lunging hip flexor stretch with arms overhead, a seated hamstring stretch, and a series of shoulder stretches. Finally, if you have time, hit a foam roller for a few minutes.

So if you want your body to act like a used and abused car, then rev it up and floor the gas without preparing it. But if you want your body to last a long time, and be responsive, well-tuned, and always in good working order, use the warm-up and cool-down tips in this article!

Jogging image courtesy of Shutterstock

All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own health provider. Please consult a licensed health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ben Greenfield

Ben Greenfield received bachelor’s and master’s degrees from University of Idaho in sports science and exercise physiology; personal training and strength and conditioning certifications from the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA); a sports nutrition certification from the International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN), an advanced bicycle fitting certification from Serotta. He has over 11 years’ experience in coaching professional, collegiate, and recreational athletes from all sports, and as helped hundreds of clients achieve weight loss and fitness success.