Which is more important for injury prevention: the warm-up or cool-down?

Posted by for Strong Women

Don’t have an extra 15 minutes to warm-up or cool-down? Here’s why you might want to shorten your main workout to make time for pre- and post-stretching.

If you think that warming up or cooling down is more important for runners than it is for weight lifters, think again; both forms of movement require appropriate mobility work. Warm-ups prep you for the strength session ahead, giving you “a chance to activate and prime the muscle groups that you’ll be using”, says personal trainer and founder of TSC Method, Tashi Skervin-Clarke. If you’re set on deadlifting as your first lifts, a warm-up might include a set of Good Mornings to get those hip hinges nice and mobile. 

Few things, however, are more tempting in life than skipping the cool down after a workout. Whether you’re in a gym class or sweating in your living room, all you want to do after a session is to get changed and move on. And the same is true of warm-ups – particularly if you’re about to do some cardio. 

Most of us are guilty of having gone out for a run without doing any stretching first. But does it really matter if we skip the warm-up or cool down? And if so, is one more important to do than the other if we want to stay injury-free? The short answer is: whatever you do, do not skip the warm-up. Here’s why:

WHATEVER YOU DO, DON’T SKIP THE WARM-UP

“Both play their part, but I would say that the warm-up is essential to injury prevention,” explains Skervin-Clarke. “When performed correctly, it prepares and primes the body for the movements and exercises that are to come. Warm-ups are also a great time to tune into your body and think about how you’re feeling. You might find that during a warm-up, you’re feeling particularly tight in an area. If you didn’t do a warm-up, you would have missed this and potentially aggravated that area.”

Fundamentally, warm-ups are about increasing muscle temperature and blood flow to reduce the risk of injury to muscles and tendons, as well as preparing us to perform better in the main body of the workout. A warm-up can last anywhere between five and 15 minutes, and consists of light mobility work, low-intensity forms of main exercises and dynamic stretching. You might, for example, start doing a series of bodyweight squats and walking lunges ahead of a workout that includes Bulgarian split squats and plyo lunges.

A 2012 study into the effect of warm-up exercises on lower-body injuries concluded that preliminary stretching, strengthening, balance exercises, sports-specific agility drills and landing techniques were effective at keeping amateur female footballers injury-free if they stuck with them for more than three months. Meanwhile, a review into the effects of upper body warm-ups on performance and injury, published in the British Medical Journal, looked at 31 studies and concluded that there was strong evidence to suggest that high-load dynamic warm-ups enhanced performance. 

Of course, it’s not just about getting physically ready to move; warm-ups also get us mentally prepared for our workouts. Imagine waking up first thing and deciding to do a Strong Women workout. Fresh out of bed, would you have the mental capacity to immediately begin a strength circuit? How about after work, when your mind is still full of Zoom meetings and deadlines?

Don't skip the warm-up but the cool-down is your opportunity to relax and enjoy your hard work

IF YOU HAVE TIME, STAY FOR THE COOL-DOWN

While the warm-up might offer us more practical benefits, cool-downs can be useful. There have been some studies to suggest that while they don’t necessarily enhance performance in our next sessions or offer much protection against injury, they might help to strengthen our immune system and promote faster recovery of cardiovascular and respiratory systems. Post-workout stretching also improves blood circulation and increased muscle coordination. By stretching and loosening muscles after a workout, you’re also reducing potential tightness in the hours after a workout; chronically tense muscles tend to have poor blood circulation, resulting in a lack of oxygen and essential nutrients to areas that need them most post-workout. 

One study conducted at California State University looked at the impact of recovery that low-intensity cycling had on the body after a strength training session. It found that cooling down with calming cardio showed a significant decrease in DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) thanks to increased blood flow to exercised muscles. Of course, you don’t have to hop on a bike to reap the benefits. Instead, take a five-minute walk or slow jog at the end of your run, or walk around your home after a workout before you hop on the mat for a relaxing stretch.

WHAT TO DO IF YOU’RE SHORT ON TIME

Don’t miss the warm-up and treat the cool-down like it’s your time to relax and switch off. If you don’t have time to warm up, think about shortening your main workout.

“In an ideal world, we’d have a spare 10 minutes to warm-up and cool down after each workout,” Skervin-Clarke notes, “but this is not always the case. I recommend listening to your body and acting accordingly. If you’ve woken up feeling a bit stiff but don’t have time to warm up, shave a few minutes off your morning run to add in a warm-up. Or try taking the first few minutes of your run slower to incorporate some moving running drills while you run.

“Your cool down doesn’t have to be too intense either; a brisk walk afterward to flush out the legs or a few minutes of foam rolling can be just as effective.”

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Images: Getty/Unsplash

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Miranda Larbi

Miranda Larbi is a freelance fitness and wellness journalist, and qualified personal trainer. When she’s not finding new vegan places to eat, she can be found training for the next marathon or cycling across London on a Tokyo bike.

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