Warming up and cooling down correctly are two of the most important things you can do in a gym. Not only are they essential for their injury preventing qualities, but they also serve to increase flexibility, increase the intensity and volume of weights lifted and speed up recovery time from the workout.
So why is it that countless times in the gym I see people ignoring the warm up and jumping straight into a heavy set?
Others do 5 minutes on a treadmill, one ‘lighter’ set and some static stretches and then lunge into a full weights session. This is both an inefficient way to start your workout and the fast track to injury.
So why should we warm up before training?
An efficient warm up had been proved to facilitate a better workout in numerous ways, such as:
- Shortened response times and increased contractile speed in muscle fibres
- More energy efficient contractions, due to the lower viscosity of warmed muscles that cause resistance to muscular force production
- Reduction of muscle stiffness thus reducing the chance of injury
- Greater oxygen uptake into myoglobin due to haemoglobin releasing oxygen more readily at higher muscle temperatures
How to warm up at the gym
So knowing that a superior warm up will aid us hugely, how should (and shouldn’t) we warm up and cool down to prevent injury and maximise the gains we get from our workout?
The ‘traditional’ approach to warming up that has been used for any and all physical activities, is now highly out dated. Sport specific training has, in recent years, been a major factor in the large improvements in performance that we see compared to days gone by. It seems logical then to take this approach to warming up and cooling down.
The focus of a warm up should be on a more dynamic and focussed routine that will prepare the body parts to be trained for any stress they may be placed under. The assorted movements we utilise need to increase the blood flow (and thus oxygen supply coupled with carbon dioxide removal) to the muscles, tendons, joints and ligaments in the areas that are specifically going to be placed under strain. This will allow more precise neuromuscular control of the muscles and produce a more efficient training session.
The most effective ploy of the older, more general warm ups was a brief period of cardiovascular activity. This is still essential today as part of any warm up routine as it is a very specific way to increase blood flow and raise temperature in the muscles in preparation for maximal force output.
The activity will ideally involve all the gross muscles of the body plus the precise muscles that are going to be trained imminently. If a rowing machine is available to you that is ideal, but jogging is also fine. A good rule of thumb is to do 5-10 minutes at a moderate pace. During this time you should not break sweat, but be very close to sweating and slightly out of breath.
Next, 5-10 minutes of dynamic stretching. Static stretching has been shown to have no positive effect on DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) or recovery time when implemented as part of a warm up?. It is a waste of time and effort for our purposes to use them here.
Dynamic stretches (a controlled movement through a full range of motion) are highly advantageous in a warm up and have been shown to improve muscular output in training sessions³. This is thought to be due to dynamic stretches reducing the stiffness in the muscle fibres which static stretches don’t.
Firstly identify the relevant muscles and joints for the training session and then perform at least one but preferably more (time permitting) of the following at each relevant joint for 10-20 seconds, keeping the joints constantly moving in a slow and controlled manner:
- Flexion/Extension – Flexion is the decreasing of an angle at a joint (e.g. bringing the hand to the shoulder). Extension is the opposite movement to flexion
- Abduction/Adduction – Abduction is the movement of an appendage away from the midline (e.g. from standing with arms at your side raise your arm to form a 90º angle with the orientation of the body). Adduction is the opposite movement to abduction
- Rotation – Turning around the longitudinal axis of a joint (e.g. from standing twist the head through 90º to look over the shoulder)
- Circumduction – Circular movement of a limb that creates a cone shaped airspace (e.g. with arms 90º from the body roll the arms to form an imaginary 3D ‘cone’ shape)
Two joints that should always be stretched thoroughly prior to any workout whether it be cardiovascular, resistance or plyometrics work, are the hips and the neck due to the essential role they play in balancing and coordinating the movements of the body. Another area that is crucial to warm up before any weights session, are the wrists and fingers due to the force they will be under whilst holding the weights.
When performing cardiovascular exercise in the full workout, or when doing resistance work on the legs, the ankle will require stretching thoroughly and leg swings (full hip flexion & extension) are advisable for the mobilisation of the hamstrings and quadriceps muscle groups.
Finally in the warm up, 10-15 minutes of training specific movements. This will involve performing a comprehensive set of exercises precisely related to the workout.
Typically this will be some high repetition, lighter sets that you may (and should) be implementing directly prior to heavier sets. For example if you were warming up for squats you would do 1 set of 8-15 reps at approximately 20% of 1RM, another at 40% and if you are working at high rep working sets then move onto the first work set.
For higher weight, lower rep workouts another set of warm ups at 60% of 1RM would be required before moving onto a work set. Do not warm up to failure (I know this sounds obvious but it is a mistake many people make).
If you were doing cardio in the workout then some short run outs (4-8) at 75% of sprinting speed over 20-40 yards would be a good option here, if possible. It might be a touch more difficult if your cardio is in the gym rather than outdoors; if this is the case then slowly build up to your working pace over 2-5 minutes.
This third stage should be implemented before every exercise you perform in your workout. So even on your 5th exercise of the session warm up sets should be used, as they are muscle specific to the strain of the exercise.
The Cool Down
So now you have warmed up thoroughly and pushed yourself to you’re limit in training, so now all you want to do is hit the showers and get home for a sit down. But if you don’t want to be aching like an old woman for the next two days with DOMS, an efficient cool down (coupled with proper post workout nutrition) is essential.
An appropriately performed cool down has been shown to:
- Reduce the sensation of DOMS. This is thought to be due to a cool down lowering the intracellular pressure in the muscle in the following days. It is the heightened intracellular pressure in the days following forcible eccentric contractions that is thought to irritate Pacinian corpuscles of the nerve endings in the muscles and cause the pain associated with DOMS
- Aid in the dissipation of unwanted chemicals from the muscle tissue – including lactic acid, free radicals and carbon dioxide
- Lower adrenaline levels in the blood
How do I cool down effectively?
Any cool down from any exercise should be pretty similar. An initial 5-10 minutes jogging, starting at 50% of sprinting speed and ending up at walking pace to slowly lower the heart rate back to normal levels.
This should be followed with 5-10 minutes of static stretches. These are more effective in a cool down due to them cooling the body temperature down, mechanically forcing waste products from the sarcomeres of the muscle to the blood due to the high tension they generate and increasing the range of motion at the muscle. Take time to stretch the entire body here but try to focus on stretching the muscles that were just trained, for longer.
Try to combine a cool down with protein shake and suitable post workout carbohydrates to replenish glycogen stores that have been depleted during the workout and to supply the muscles with quality amino acids to speed up the rebuilding of the muscle over the following few days.
This article is merely a guide, you know your own body best and what it responds to most efficiently. If you stick to the basic principles I have outlined and adapt them specifically to each training session you perform, you will be training safely and much more efficiently.
- Shellock FG, Prentice WE. Sports Med. 1985 Jul-Aug; 2(4): 267-78.
- High DM, Howley ET, Franks BD. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport 1989 Dec; 60(4): 357-61.
- Knudson D, Bennett K, Corn, Leick D, & Smith C. The journal of strength and conditioning research 2001: Vol. 15, No.1, p. 98-101.