The crucial pre and post workout steps you shouldn't ignore
Want more from your training efforts? Don't skip these things, according to experts
Warming up before a workout and cooling down after are like flossing or saving for retirement. They're those things you know you should do, but the consequences of not doing them feel too far away to matter.
Compared with chasing the endorphin release produced by a run, or the accomplished feeling of lifting more weight, "it's a lot harder to actually allow yourself 20 minutes to just stretch and move your body," says personal trainer and wellness coach Jordan Comerford.
When it comes to exercising, most of us are convinced that the actual pay off comes entirely from the 30-45 minutes we spend running, lifting, spinning and sweating. But the 10-minute warm-up and cool down on either side are just, if not more important, says chiropractor David Robertson.
Making these part of your routine, along with rethinking how you manage your stress, sleep, and nutrition can have a huge impact on how you see and feel the benefits of your workouts.
How and why to warm your body up for what's coming
"People think the exercises are where you get the most benefit, but preparing your body for those exercises is key to getting the most out of them," says Robertson. Take the metaphor of an elastic, for example. When it gets cold, it doesn't stretch as well and is more fragile. When you warm it up, elasticity returns. Robertson says the same is true of muscles, and also of tendons, which connect muscles to bones, and ligaments, which connect bone to bone, like in your joints. All three are key to helping you move during your workout.
But what exactly does it mean to "warm-up" a muscle? Aren't we always the same toasty 37 degrees? Not exactly. When you're resting, your circulatory system sends blood to different parts of your body like your organs, muscles, and skin. When you start to exercise, your muscles need more oxygen so your body starts to reroute blood from where it's not needed as much (like your stomach). Muscles use that oxygen to make energy and that creates heat, raising your body temperature.
So those laps your gym teacher made you run at the start of class weren't just to torture you. Gradually increasing your heart rate before your workout helps prepare your cardiovascular system and muscles for the demands you're about to put on them.
But a few minutes on the treadmill is not enough, says Robertson. You should also be spending a bit of time putting your body through the specific movement patterns you'll be doing during your workout.
Simulating these movements with just your body weight is going to open up your range of motion, let you squat deeper, and get more out of your workout, says Comerford.
"If you can move your body through full, proper range of motion, then you are able to increase the weight that you are lifting injury-free," she says.
Warming up is key to avoiding injury, especially as you age into your 30s and beyond, but beyond risking injury, says Robertson, not warming up properly may also be the reason some people mistakenly think that a certain type of exercise isn't for them, that weights hurt them, or that they're more prone to injury than the average person.
Making mobility a priority
Both Robertson and Comerford recommend dynamic stretching or mobility exercises as a key part of any workout, whether it's part of your warm-up or cool-down. Comerford incorporates it into her teaching and also shares her daily mobility practice on Instagram stories.
For the average person, she says 10-15 minutes per workout is enough. For people who do a lot of repetitive motions like distance runners or cyclists, she says incorporating a full 45-minute yoga session or mobility routine into their week can help with muscle imbalances.
"Ultimately we should all be exercising for our health, for longevity, for mobility, so that we can lift ourselves up when we're older, so that we can walk when we need to, so that we can lift things when we need to," says Comerford. "If you can't move your arm well in a circle over your head, then what good is it that you can lift 200 pounds?"
The importance of cooling down
Tightness and imbalances can also come not having a proper post-workout routine. Just like a warm-up eases your body into what it's about to do, a cool down will return it to equilibrium, aiding with circulation, inflammation and flushing lactic acid from your muscles.
"What you're doing when you're exercising is you're building your muscles...you're microscopically tearing those muscles, and then they rebuild back stronger, but they also rebuild back tighter," says Comerford. Over time, without a proper cool down, this tightness will translate into a decreased range of motion, which will inhibit the returns on your workout. It will also increase your risk for injury as your body tries to compensate by moving differently.
So even though you may be short on time and feeling fine, immediately post workout, while your muscles are still warm, is the time for holding long, static stretches. "That's really where more permanent lengthening of the muscle happens," says Comerford. She says to hold stretches for at least 30 seconds to improve flexibility.
Resting between workouts and after injuries
Rest is another important component to getting the most out of your work out. If you're a beginner, you may need more time in between workouts for your muscles to build back and for connective tissue to recover. Robertson says anyone starting boot camp or any new class shouldn't be going hard four to five days per week right off the bat.
"People think that, oh, I have to work out this many days a week or else I'll lose out," says Robertson. "You really won't."
Research indicates that beginners experience greater muscle breakdown the first few weeks of a new exercise. They're also likely to experience delayed onset muscle soreness, or 'DOMS' for longer. And though there may not be any real danger to working out sore muscles, your technique can suffer, thus reducing the benefits of your hard work and risking injury.
Meanwhile, if you're injured, "pushing through" could cause bigger problems, says Comerford. Adjusting the way you move to compensate for pain in your hip might lead to pain in your lower back, which could then cause a knee problem, and so on.
Though Roberston doesn't recommend going to see someone for every little ache and pain, he says you should take it as a sign that there is a problem and keep an eye on it. Ultimately you may need to see a professional who has a better understanding of biomechanics and movement patterns like a physiotherapist, registered massage therapist or chiropractor. They can help you figure out what is causing the pain and give you adjustments to fix it and prevent further problems.
This doesn't mean that you have to completely back off on your recovery days. Taking the stairs, parking farther away from the store, or taking a long walk are good ways to keep your body moving.
Robertson recommends building up to working out more frequently and says that as your fitness increases you'll notice you recover more quickly. He also warns that you'll probably need more sleep.
Honouring sleep and stress
"Sleep is where our body repairs and builds everything back," says Comerford. If you're not getting enough sleep, your muscles aren't getting a chance to rebuild, which will prolong soreness.
On the other hand, says Robertson, "If you're sleeping in because you're so tired, if you're grumpy, if you're overly exhausted, if you're eating excessively, that's pretty much your first indication that you're overworking."
Putting your muscles and cardiovascular system under stress during exercise causes an increase in the stress hormone cortisol. High-intensity interval training with too short rest periods can cause a rise in cortisol levels, and may be better left to later in the day when your cortisol levels are naturally lower. Working out for longer than 60 minutes also raises cortisol; endurance athletes have been shown to have elevated levels of it.
So, while your instinct might be to increase the intensity of your workouts to counteract anxiety or inconsistent energy levels, Comerford says "If you are really stressed out, then a really high-intensity workout, while it might feel good at the actual time, probably isn't the best thing to support reducing and managing your stress." She encourages being mindful of how your body feels and not overtaxing it.
Training and nourishing for better performance
Like sleep, nutrition is key to helping your body refuel and recover properly from exercise, says registered nutritionist Maya Eid. She says when people start a new exercise routine they may see results regardless of what they're eating because exercise can create a calorie deficit, but then they usually hit a wall.
"If you are looking for performance results, if you're looking for aesthetic results, you're not going to get that with a bad diet," says Eid.
She says the biggest mistake she sees people make is not consuming enough protein for muscle repair, or drinking enough water to stay hydrated. For example, a 150-pound person should drink half their weight in ounces of water per day, or 75 ounces (approximately 2.2 litres). For protein, The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends 1.2 to 2.0 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight daily.
Eid says you should make sure you get your protein from whole food sources and then if you need to supplement, use powders. Otherwise, she doesn't think nutritional supplements are necessary.
"The average person does not need to buy the L-glutamine, the collagen," she said. "They focus too much on supplements and then they ignore the very foundation of food and nutrition."
She also sees a lot of clients that undereat during the week and then binge on the weekends, which can hinder their post-workout recovery. "What people do is they are fixated on weight loss too much... they're ignoring recovery and nourishment for performance because they're chasing an aesthetic goal." Instead, she says, "listen to your body's hunger cues. If you find yourself wanting a snack at night, it's your body telling you, I actually didn't get enough calories."
Eid thinks recreational athletes could benefit from taking a page out of the books of professional athletes, who aren't looking for aesthetic results, but performance.
"What people do is they diet and they exercise instead of train and nourish," she says.
"I think changing that that kind of language around fitness and nutrition can help people better honour their body and accept it instead of abuse it."
Eva Voinigescu is a freelance journalist and producer. She writes about health and science, careers, and culture.