Warm up and cool down are slower-paced, reduced-intensity movements that precede and follow exercise. A warm up before exercise builds gradually toward the pace and intensity of the exercise. A cool down following activity, also called a warm down, gradually returns the body to its resting state. Both the warm up and cool down place special emphasis on the muscle groups worked during the exercise session.
A warm up helps prepare the body and mind for more intense exercise. Its primary purpose is to gradually raise the heart and breathing rates, increasing the activity of the cardiorespiratory system and delivery of oxygen and nutrients to the muscles that will be worked during exercise. The warm up raises core body temperature and muscle temperature. Raising core temperature increases joint mobility, enabling better movement and range of motion, and may reduce the risk of injury. Warmer muscles are more flexible than cool muscles.
In the past, warm ups generally involved static or stationary stretching to try to elongate muscles. Some experts still suggest stretching before certain activities, such as shoveling snow, that use muscles not often worked and easily strained. These include the muscles between the shoulders and in the upper and lower back, as well as the buttocks and legs. However, it is now generally recognized that stretching should never be performed until muscle temperature has been raised by a warm up.
A cool down following a workout enables the heart and breathing rates and muscle temperature to gradually return to normal. This is particularly important after intensive exercise. Abruptly halting strenuous cardiorespiratory exercise without a cool down can cause blood that is concentrated in working muscles to pool in the veins, possibly resulting in dizziness or lightheadedness. A cool down also can help the body recover more quickly from intense exercise. Cool downs are most important for well-conditioned athletes because the activity helps to regulate blood flow. For casual exercisers, a cool down might simply be an enjoyable way to conclude an exercise routine.
Stretching as part of a cool down can relax the mind and muscles. Stretching can help lengthen muscles that have been shortened during exercise such as running, returning the muscles to their resting length. Stretching during a cool down also might increase flexibility and help prevent stiffness.
Most exercise regimens include a warm up and cool down, with or without stretching. Most athletes believe warm ups and cool downs to be very important and most trainers and coaches insist on them. However, workouts, training, and athletic competitions are not the only activities that may require a warm up and cool down. During any activity, such as yard work or gardening, warming up and cooling down can help, especially in activities that involve cramped positions, such as sledding. Automobile and airplane travel are easier on the body with a warm up before settling in and a cool down, such as a brisk walk to stretch calf and hamstring muscles, after arrival.
There are many different warm up activities, but the most common is simply performing the primary conditioning activity at a slower pace:
Warm ups often focus first on large muscle groups, such as the hamstrings, followed by exercise that is more specific to the activity. Sport-specific warm up drills often involve extending range of motion and establishing correct rhythm and timing. For example, a running warm-up might include a heeltoe drill to warm up the muscles of the feet, ankles, and calves, while slowly moving the arms. This might be followed by double ankle bounces to continuing warming up the lower legs, adding impact and speed, and raising the arms overhead to warm up the body core. Heel flicks for the front and back of the thighs can improve knee and hip range of motion and begin setting timing and rhythm. Finally, high knees improve hip range of motion, increase stride, and begin the use of running arms.
Warm ups commonly last for five to ten minutes; in general, the more intense and demanding the workout, the longer the warm up. Strenuous activities might require warm ups of up to 15–20 minutes. Competitive athletes use warm ups to raise heart rate and body temperature and to condition important nerve and muscle pathways to increase the speed and efficiency of muscular contraction. Athletes might, therefore, warm up for much longer. For example, sprinters sometimes spend an hour or more warming up. People who are just starting an exercise program also require longer warm ups. Heavier breathing and very mild sweating usually indicate a sufficient warm up; however, warm ups should never be tiring.
Warm ups for youth sports generally last 15–30 minutes. They often begin with a brisk walk, running in place, or a slow jog, followed by a sport-specific warm up and possibly gradual stretching of major muscle groups. It is very important that children receive instruction about appropriate exercises for their sport.
A warm up can conclude with gentle dynamic stretching to loosen muscles and joints, increase flexibility and range of motion, and help prevent injury. Proper stretching can also contribute to correct exercise posture and better coordination. The muscle groups to be worked should be gently flexed and extended. Static stretching is not recommended during a warm up; instead, dynamic mobility exercises—hip circles, lunges, knee lifts, and leg swings—might be beneficial if they are performed in a gentle and controlled manner. Gentle stretching can be particularly beneficial for a tight or previously injured muscle. Movements should never be jerky, bouncy, or painful. Standing stretches are preferable to floor stretches at the end of a warm up, to keep the heart rate elevated.
The cool down from cardiorespiratory exercise is similar to the warm up. Although it can include a variety of activities, the cool down most often involves continuing the exercise activity while gradually slowing the pace and reducing the intensity:
As with the warm up, the duration of a cool down depends on the intensity and duration of the exercise. Strenuous workouts require longer cool downs than more leisurely activity. In general, cool downs should return the body to its resting state over five–ten minutes, with heart and breathing rate gradually returning to normal.
Stretching the worked muscles for a few minutes at the end of a cool down, while they are still warm, can be beneficial. In addition to repeating stretches performed with the warm up, floor stretches can focus on the muscles that were worked during exercise and those that feel especially tight. Just as there are sport-specific warm ups, there are sport-specific stretches that focus on the particular muscles used in that sport, for example, the shoulder for throwing a baseball or the forearm for batting. Stretches should be performed slowly and gently, just to the point of a slight pull. They should never cause pain. Stretching may include the:
A warm up prepares the body and mind for exercise. Although various sports and other physical activities have specially designed warm ups, many people find that they can warm up and cool down adequately with simple activities, such as walking to and from the gym or other exercise facility.
A warm up should precede any strenuous activity, not just exercise or sports. Manual labor or lifting significant weight without first warming up can lead to injury. Although there is conflicting evidence about the benefits of warm ups and cool downs, when correctly performed they pose little risk and may help prevent muscle strain or injury. Yet, some fitness programs neglect to include a warm up and cool down before and after strenuous exercise.
Warm ups that are too taxing can interfere with performance. Research on highly trained track cyclists has found that shorter, lower-intensity warm ups produced less muscle fatigue, better response to muscle contraction, and improved performance compared with traditional longer warm ups. However, these results were for competitive athletes and could be specific to their sport. Nevertheless, the suggestion is that warm ups should include just enough activity to promote PAP without causing fatigue.
Stretching as part of a warm up or cool down entails some risks. Stretching cold muscles can contribute to pulled or torn muscles. Sudden or aggressive stretching can cause injury or worsen an injury. Lengthening tissues by stretching can cause lax muscles, joints, and ligaments that are more susceptible to injury. Although static stretching, if performed correctly, may be beneficial during a cool down, during a warmup, static stretching relaxes, rather than warms, the central nervous system and does not significantly raise core body temperature, both of which are required for coordinated muscular contraction. Muscles should be stretched gradually during the cool down. Stretching should never involve force, bobbing, or bouncing that can damage muscles and even lead to scar tissue formation that reduces flexibility. Static stretches should be held for 10–30 seconds to sufficiently lengthen muscle. Both sides of the body should be stretched equally. Stretches should never be taken to the point of pain. Breathing is as important during stretching as during all other phases of a workout.
When performed correctly, a warm up and cool down can help reduce the risk of injury, especially strains, sprains, and overuse injuries, and may improve athletic performance. A warm up also activates the nervous system, possibly improving neuromuscular responses and coordination. A cool down relaxes and loosens muscles that have been tightened during exercise and may help prevent cramping, muscle spasms, or stiff or sore muscles.
The effects of a warm up and cool down on exercise and athletic performance are active areas of research. The results, however, often appear to depend on individual fitness and the particular exercise or sport. Research tends to support the premise that athletes can reach metabolic steady state faster and perform better after an active warm up, as compared with a passive warm up. One study found greater differences in energy supply, muscle strength, and performance after an active versus a passive warm up than between either type of warm up or no warm up at all. A British study found that youth football players who were in high compliance with a comprehensive injury-preventing warm-up program had a significantly lower risk of injury than players who were in intermediate compliance with the program. Thus, most experts continue to recommend a warm up and cool down before and after exercise.
Benefits are not limited to athletes. A 2016 study on women experiencing symptoms of menopause used an 8-week Pilates program that included up to 10 minutes of warm-up, 40 minutes of exercise, and 5–7 minutes of cool down. The program helped improve back flexibility and strength, and eased some menopausal symptoms.
See also Exercise ; Fatigue ; Muscle starin ; Running ; Stretching .
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American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, 9400 West Higgins Road, Rosemont, IL, 60018, (847) 823-7186, Fax: (847)823-8125, firstname.lastname@example.org, http://www.aaos.org .
American Chiropractic Association, 1701 Clarendon Boulevard, Suite 200, Arlington, VA, 22209, (703) 276-8800, Fax: (703) 243-2593, memberinfo@aca today.org, http://www.acatoday.org .
Margaret Alic, PhD
Revised by Teresa Odle, BA, ELS