A while back a guy named Ralf asked me how to warm up and cool down properly. This is one of the most important aspects of safe and injury free training, but I haven’t made a lot of videos about it nor did I write an article on this subject. It’s time to change that!
Why is it important?
The importance of doing a proper warm up can be found back in the fact that your muscles need to get prepared for a strenuous workout. If you immediately start to deadlift with 300 kg you’ll injure yourself big time. You probably won’t even be able to get the weight off the floor in the first place, but besides that your body wouldn’t agree with your decision to do this without a warm up. Your muscles will damage (pulling or even tearing your muscles) and your back will give up on you. In other words, it’s a stupid idea. Instead your muscles need to get warmed up, lose their stiffness and get an increased blood flow to them so they can get all the energy that is needed.
Not only that, also the psychological aspect of the warm up is essential. You prepare your mind for the upcoming challenges and you build up your confidence. If you want to do a 150 kg squat then it helps a lot if you first get down the correct form with a lighter weight. An example would be to squat with only 60 kg as a warm up, just to feel in control of the correct technique. This aspect should not be underestimated as it’s crucial in proper and safe training. For athletes like football, tennis or basketball players, gymnasts of martial artists (to name a few out of many) the warm up gives you the extra edge. Not only does it prevent you from getting injured, it also allows your brain to adapt to an upcoming match or an intense training.
The opposite of a warm up is the cool down. If you stop an intense activity all of the sudden your body needs to adjust to the shock. After sprinting all out it’s best to take a short break, but right after that go for a short run on a low phase to let your body slowly adapt to the non-activity again. Again there is a psychological aspect to this too. You gradually quit the sport or activity so it wouldn’t be so much of a shock to your body.
How to warm up and cool down?
Warming up your body is not exactly rocket science. What you need to do is start with an activity of fairly low to moderate intensity. An example would be to go for a run at the speed of 7-8 km/hour (which is slow). The further you get into your warm up the higher your intensity should be. So basically you’re building up to the intensity you’re trying to achieve during the main workout. At the end of your warm up you would run at a speed of 12-14 km/hour for example. That’s just an example that I could give you regarding running. There are more examples following by the way, so if you’re not into running there will still be plenty of examples for you to use.
Once again, the cool down is the opposite of a warm up. That also means the intensity goes down the further you get in the cool down process. So to get back to the example of running you start with 12-14 km/hour and at the end you run for only 7-8 km/hour until you only walk. The duration of a warm up and cool down can vary, but a general rule of thumb is to warm up in about 5-10 minutes and the cool down can take 10-15 minutes or so. Obviously it really depends on your type of sport, goal and personal preference. Personally I only warm up for a maximum of 5 minutes.
Warm up for gymnasts, martial artists and dancers
The main difference between these athletes and the general athlete or fitness enthusiast is that I think flexibility training should be part of the workout. Now I will explain to you later why you should avoid static stretching as part of your warm up, but dynamic stretching is definitely an important part of your warm up. Even static stretching could be part of a warm up for gymnasts, martial artists and dancers, depending on what kind of skills they are going to perform. These athletes can start with a 5 minute general warm up like jogging or rope skipping to get the blood flowing after which they could start with a specific warm up. Doing some handstands, push ups, shadow boxing, spinning and so on can all be considered specific warm up exercises for these sports. You can incorporate dynamic stretches like leg swings, arm rotations and much more to your workout and even do some static stretching like practicing your split before going on to the real work.
Warm up for athletes (team or individual sports)
In this category you’ll find many sports from swimming, to cycling, to football or tennis. All of these athletes should start with a general warm up like running for a while, swimming with low intensity or skipping rope to get your blood flowing, to warm up and increase flexibility of your muscles and to mentally prepare yourself for the upcoming activity. Flexibility training can be skipped or should be limited to dynamic stretching and then sports specific warm ups like shooting and passing a ball, cycling or practicing your service.
Warm up for fitness athletes, bodybuilders and powerlifters
The way I warm up is by doing the exercise I’m going to perform with a lighter intensity than during the actual training. So if I plan to do a 80 kg bench press I start with a set of 50 kg of 15-20 repetitions of the bench press. After a short break (1-2 minutes) I do the actual 80 kg bench press. Sometimes I see people do an entire warm up before their workout. If they have scheduled to do bench presses, squats and military presses they do all those exercises with a lighter intensity during their warm up. However, there is no point in warming up your legs if you first need to finish 4 sets of bench presses, before getting to the squat. That’s why I always prepare the muscle that I am going to train, right before I’m going to train it. That means I warm up for my bench presses after which the actual bench press is performed during the main workout. After that it’s time to do my warm up set of squats and then the actual squats with heavy weights, etc. You can start your warm up with some general exercises to raise your body’s temperature, increase your range of motion and mentally prepare for the workout that’s coming. Since I dislike to do warm ups I often skip the general warm up and get down to the specific warm up exercises immediately. The cool down can be the same as your warm up in this case, although you could also choose to do a general cooling down where you go for a jog for example.
Stretching, warm ups and cool down
A big misconception that many athletes, coaches and even PE teachers have is that you should stretch as part of your warm up. That’s a big no-no! Passive stretching, where you don’t move, but just hold a stretch for a while, relaxes your body, which is something you don’t want while preparing for a match, fight or strenuous workout. Instead focus on general warm up exercises or do dynamic stretches where your muscles are stretched during an active motion. Leg swinging, knee lifting and the like are perfect examples to increase flexibility while actively warming up.
This only covers the basics of warm ups and cool downs. There can be found a lot of information regarding these topics. Your coach may have taught you a lot of basic warm up exercises for your sport or activity specifically. Use them to your advantage, but stick to these general guidelines I’ve set out for you to avoid injuries and to allow you to deliver your maximum performance.