In previous articles, I have discussed the importance of both strength training and aerobic conditioning when mapping out an effective workout regimen. One fitness component that doesn’t get as much attention, but is at least as important, is flexibility training. Other components of a well planned program include warming up and cooling down. Many of us have a tendency to neglect warming up, stretching, and a proper cool-down. We also often confuse these components of a workout and group them together. I will discuss each to get a better understanding of the benefits, the differences, when to perform and how.
Just as we do with our cars, we should warm up our bodies before we shift into high gear. Warming up provides essential preparation needed for vigorous exercise by increasing blood flow to working muscles and tendons. The warm-up provides an injury prevention component that increases elasticity of the muscles and tendons. Warming up should be at a relative low to moderate intensity and induce some mild sweating without fatigue. Performing a proper warm-up should take no longer than 10 minutes to accomplish, and will definitely be well worth it. Your goals will be more easily reached with less risk of injury.
Many people mistakenly assume warming up and stretching are the same. While it is commonly believed that stretching should be done both before and after the workout, recent research has caused experts to assert that static stretching should only be done after the workout and dynamic stretching before. Stretching is used to relax muscles, thus allowing the joints to move more freely. Even though research shows stretching doesn’t reduce soreness as many think, you should still not skip the stretching portion of the workout. At the end of each workout, spend about five minutes stretching. Stretching is beneficial by enhancing flexibility and improving activity performance. It increases range of motion (ROM) around your joints.
Other benefits of stretching include assisting in more effective performance of daily living activities. It helps improve balance and coordination which can help prevent falls. Probably most important, stretching feels good and leaves you feeling more relaxed. The two most common types of stretching are static stretching and dynamic stretching.
Static stretching is the form of stretching that will typically come to mind when people are asked to stretch. It involves moving the joint into a position where there is tension on the muscle, and holding that position for approximately 15 to 30 seconds. This type stretching should only be performed after a workout or cardio warm-up when muscles are warm. Stretch at least 2-3 times per week, and ideally 5-7 days per week. Stretch to the limit of movement, not the point of pain.
Dynamic stretching involves working the muscles through movement. This type of stretching is used during the warm-up and will typically mimic the movements to be performed in the upcoming activity. It helps prepare the muscles and joints for the added stressors of weight training, cardiovascular training, or sports training. This is not to be confused with ballistic stretching, which involves bouncing and can cause tissue damage.
The cool-down allows your body to enter homeostasis. Homeostasis is a return to balance. Heart rate will approach normal, and most of the blood that was routed to the muscles will return to the abdomen. It also provides you with a chance to relish your accomplishments and prepare to move on with your day. If you neglect this portion of the workout, you may have a more difficult time recovering from the workout physically and mentally.
The cool-down period is probably one of the most overlooked components of the exercise program. You can perform the cool-down in any number of ways. After an intense cardio workout, simply walking around at minimal exertion can be an effective cool-down. Once the heart rate is lowered and while the muscles are still warm, spend some time doing static stretching. Do you want to enhance your workouts and activities of daily living? Then improve your flexibility through stretching but don’t neglect prepping with a proper warm-up and finishing with a cool-down activity.
Perry Buchanan, owner of PT Gym, is certified as Health Fitness Specialist through the American College of Sports Medicine and has been in the fitness industry for over 30 years.