by Michelle Sutton-Kerchner
A fitness routine without a proper warm-up and cool-down is like a page-turner without an ending. Your heart races, your muscles flex. Your mind is focused. Don’t leave all that energy hanging. Make the most of it …
A fitness program is not complete without the most basic beginning and end, which includes stretching. Regardless of how many reps you accomplish on the Exercise Floor, laps in the pool, or Group Fitness classes you attend, warm-ups and cool-downs are critical to your health and safety. They also help maximize your fitness efforts.
Although a warm-up may seem like a boring waste of time, the way pre-workout minutes are spent may be the difference between a muscle pull and a comfortable exercise session. With improved circulation and flexibility, you can charge into your workout with less physical stress and earn faster results.
A warm-up is especially important in cold weather. Experts recommend doubling the time spent on this phase of your fitness routine once the temps drop. Going into a workout with muscles and joints stiff from the cold easily leads to pulls and strains. Going into a workout with a body tense from a challenging day can have similar results. (And imagine facing those daily stressors again tomorrow, this time with a pulled neck.)
Get in the Mood
Switch gears from the stresses of your day. Alert your body it is time for a shift in activity. Set the tone with light jogging in place and jumping jacks. Jazz it up with a little crisscross jumping. These moves trigger your nervous system into action, helping your body coordinate all its systems, including increased heart rate and body temperature. This prep work helps improve your workout’s effectiveness.
With the body warm, it is safe to introduce stretches. A stretching routine is an ideal transition into every type of workout, from low impact to high intensity. It’s an easy way to prepare the body, and mind, for time dedicated to bettering yourself. As any yoga practitioner will assure you, stretching provides great relaxation and cleanses the mind. There is no better transition from a stressful commute or crazy carpool to an enjoyable, effective workout.
Do the standards: Neck rotations (not rolls); knee hugs; arm reaches, and lunges. Then, incorporate deeper stretches that focus on glutes, abs, hip flexors, and back muscles. Core muscles help maintain balance and joint control. Try this stretch based on the form of a push-up:
- Start at the top of a pushup.
- Keep your abs braced. Lift your right leg and slowly bring your right foot toward your right shoulder. Hold for two seconds, then return to start.
- Alternate legs and complete 12 to 14 reps.
Prep for the Burn
Your body is almost ready to work out. Muscles have warmed. Heart rate has increased. It’s transition time! Before you begin, focus on moves to increase range-of-motion. This warm-up phase should encompass all the large muscle groups throughout the body.
When mobility is compromised by stiff muscles, the body tries to compensate during your workout. This wastes precious energy that could be spent sculpting muscles and burning calories. Tackle your torso with this full-body stretch:
- Lie on your left side, with your right knee bent 90 degrees.
- Straighten both arms in front of you, palms facing each other.
- Keep your left arm and both legs in position. Rotate your torso to the right, until your right hand and upper back are flat on the floor. Hold for two seconds, then return to start.
- Do 10 reps, and repeat on right side.
The chill-out phase of a workout should be made worth the wait. It is time to stretch all those well-worked muscles, which are now lengthened and flexible. This should feel super good, along with accomplishing another successful workout. Yes, you made it. Leave happy and stay happy by including a quick cool-down, every time.
Many skip this critical step. Fitness experts attest missing a cool-down can have long-term effects. You may not feel stiff or sore immediately. However, give your body a day or two– or even a decade. Quick endings to a workout are jarring to the body. Check in with yourself at age 60. You will wish you spent the extra 10 minutes on a proper cool-down.
Along with providing the brain a chance to reap the rewards of a healthy deed accomplished (bask in those endorphins), a cool-down safely transitions your body. Heart rate and respiration slow down gradually, reducing stress on these critical functions. Circulation adjusts to avoid feeling dizzy or lightheaded. Muscles begin to recover and efficiently eliminate lactic acid.
Begin your cool-down in the final stage of your workout by gradually slowing down. If exercising at maximum intensity, move at a slower pace for about five minutes to make the adjustment. Sip water to begin rehydration while walking or moving slowly. Enjoy a deep stretch with warm muscles and post-workout flexibility.
- Hold each stretch for 20 to 30 seconds. Anything less can be a waste of your valuable time allotted for fitness.
- Focus on breathing during your stretches. Muscles relax through oxygenation. Practice deep inhales through the nose and exhale through the mouth.
- Don’t bounce while stretching. Gradually and smoothly deepen your stretches with slow, even breathing.
- Every stretch session should include neck, upper chest, triceps, obliques, abdominals, lower back, hamstrings, quadriceps, and calves.
- Incorporate a foam roller. This tool helps increase circulation, which delivers more oxygen and water to connective tissue and muscle. Focus on problem areas by using the roller up and down and sideways. It’s a great way to enhance any stretching routine.
For a one-stretch-hits-all approach, experts suggest a full-body lunge. If you do not have time for a complete stretch session in your cool-down, this stretch delivers the minimum in a time crunch. Done correctly, it simultaneously stretches multiple muscle groups.
- Get into a lunge position, right leg forward, left leg back.
- Bend the knees. Squeeze the right glute to push the hip forward. You should experience a nice stretch in the quad and hip flexor areas.
- Press the left heel to the floor and reach the left arm up and back. This stretches the chest.
- Hold for 30 seconds and repeat on the other side.
- Repeat 3 times to be most effective.
Stretch throughout the day. Whether at your desk, running errands, or balancing a baby and her/his cumbersome gear—break for a stretch. It’s silly to strain a muscle at your keyboard or from carrying one too many sippy cups, but it happens! Along with all the stuff you drag around daily, bring along a foam roller. Use it throughout the day to smooth out those kinks.
Take advantage of the Center’s commitment to recognizing your individuality. Consult with a personal trainer about stretches specific to your needs. S/he can instruct you on stretching with proper form, targeting specific muscle groups to make your workout more effective, and reducing injury through overall improved warm-ups and cool-downs.
If your workout consists of a Group Fitness class, which includes its own warm-up and cool-down, additional stretches can enhance your experience. Attending class physically and mentally prepared improves outcome.
We lug around literal and figurative baggage throughout the day. Although anxious to hit the ground running (or cycling, or kickboxing) at the Center, before you dive in, you must transition. The body and mind need to be ready for a switch to healthy physical activity.
Anatomy of a Workout: The Cool Down,” by Paige Waehner at www.about.com.
“The Best Stretches to Start Your Workout,” by Jen Ator at www.womenshealthmag.com.
Stretch (introductory photo): Photo by Rosalie O’Connor. Feldenkrais Guild.
Foam roller: http://www.flickr.com/photos/gauravonomics/10580150833/