Hey, what’s up everyone?
Here we are to look at the back end of the workout: warm downs.
I said in a previous article they're the other half of the forgotten workout twins: warm ups and warm downs.
It's super easy to miss warming down. If you exercise in the morning the warm down eats into your packed morning schedule.
And on the weekend it's sooo much nicer to hang out sipping a smoothie or protein shake than stretch.
I know which I prefer!
But hey, do you even need to do it?
If the sports science world has trouble agreeing on appropriate warm ups, you should see the fights about warming down.
Bottom line: you should do it.
So I'm going take a look the most important warm down factors and get a handle on how you should do your warm down.
But What Warm Down Is Right For You?
This is the problem:
If you're a hyper developed athlete your muscles and vascular system are incredibly good at sucking up blood and oxygen. You need to warm down carefully with tapered activity, and maybe stretching.
But, if high performance physical activity isn't your day job, your needs are completely different. You don't need that tapered activity and you should definitely be stretching.
So why are the needs of these two groups so different?
Athletes with blood and oxygen sucking limbs need a taper after a hard effort because those limbs can rob their brains of oxygen.
The reason for this is that athletes' hearts slow down rapidly after exercise. That's fitness. This leaves a lot of blood in the limbs, especially the legs.
This is known as "blood pooling." Sounds nice, right?
So the blood isn't circulating like it was and just sits in the legs. This can cause dizziness or even loss of consciousness.
Doing some gentle activity at the end of a workout will avoid this problem.
This would depend entirely on the athlete's needs.
Athletes often won't need flexibility work because their conditioning will balance opposing muscles and include full 'range of motion' activities.
This means their bodies will have as much flexibility as is required for their sport.
So how should you stretch?
So, if you're like me and you don't make a living occupying the top 0.05% of human performance, what do you need?
We don't need a tapered warm down. Walking to the shower after working out will be enough.
But how about stretching?
Almost all of us need more flexibility, and after a workout is a great time to do it.
Also, increasing flexibility has also been shown to increase performance.
Warm Down Stretching Myths
There's been some 'lore' floating around in the exercise world for quite a while.
This lore says that a proper warm down will reduce muscle soreness after training ("Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness" or "DOMS").
This soreness had been attributed to a buildup of lactic acid in the muscles. The idea was that if we continue moving after hard exercise our muscles will absorb any leftover lactic acid.
This is true, and a tactic for high performance athletes, but again it won't help regular folk, and won make anyone's muscles less sore!
DOMS is the result of muscle damage that we want to occur during exercise. It forces our muscles to adapt by becoming stronger or larger. These adaptations are the reason we train.
So don't think the warm down doesn't work because you're getting sore!
How Long To Hold A Stretch?
As usual, we have some disagreement about how long a stretch is to be held.
A physical therapist of mine used to say 20 seconds was enough. Some coaches say 45 seconds. The research says 30 seconds.
I'd go for 30 seconds. Time yourself with a timer, like on your phone, or a watch.
That seems kind of obvious, but I've seen lots of people count real slow at the start, like "1…..2…..3…..4….."
But by the time they're at the end it's like "25-26-27-28!29!30!….Gasp!"
Anyway, 30 seconds is enough time for muscle lengthening to occur. Less time and the muscle will quickly contract back to its shortened state.
I'm not aware of any research on this, but:
I notice in disciplines that require extreme flexibility like ballet, yoga and martial arts, traditional schools have students hold stretches for up to 5 minutes!
How hard should I stretch?
The usual answer is "until you feel a stretch," which I've never found super-helpful.
You know you're stretching too hard when you feel anything like a sharp, burning or tearing sensation.
If you get that, ease up on the stretch. A muscle tear might put both training and stretching out of the question for a long time.
Fun fact: serious muscle and tendon tears often take longer to heal than a broken bone!
So Let's Stretch
You're nice and warm after your workout, so it's a great opportunity to get some stretching done.
First of all, triage.
Time is short: what parts of your body are crying out for more flexibility?
In an online poll* people identified their hamstrings, hips and backs as the parts of their bodies that are least flexible.
This is in line with the desk (or vehicle) bound life style. I should know, I lived it too for a long time!
So I'm going to take a look at some classic stretches for hammies, hips and backs.
Note that these aren't the ultra-complete guides to every kind of stretch for these body parts.
There are seriously so many stretches you could do for these body parts that I could be writing and you could be reading until next year.
We've both got better things to do!
So these are quick, effective stretches that don't require special equipment like bands.
How To Stretch Your Hamstrings
The stretch I'm demonstrating here is not the most intense, but it is effective.
And you don't need to get down on the ground to do it.
Sitting down in the gym is OK.
But covering your sweaty butt with dirt and leaves after a park run might not be OK.
How To Stretch Your Hips
So the thing about hips, is that there’s a lot of them.
Don’t take that the wrong way 🙂
I’m not saying they’re fat, but:
They’re like central station for muscles and nerves running up into your spine and down into your legs.
Once again, I’ll concentrate on simple stretches you can do anywhere without special equipment.
An comfortable version of the pigeon pose stretch:
Squatting down to stretch your adductors:
I like this psoas stretch video!
How to Stretch Your Back
Lower back, that is. Again, your back is a large piece of territory, but the lower back is where most of the action is.
The great thing is that by doing all that hamstring and hip stretching, we’ve done wonderful things for the lower back. Here’s one more!
Final Thoughts On Warming Down
So I hope you’re sold on the benefit of doing a warm-down after exercise, and have some ideas for stretches.
One last thing that strikes me about warming down: it’s a great opportunity to review your workout.
This means it’s a bit of quiet time to consider what you wanted to achieve from the workout, and if you did that.
It’s these moments of reflection that create opportunities for us to do better next time.
So, are you super-diligent about warming down? Or just never do it at all? Let me know in the comments!
I'd love to find out.
* For various reasons we shouldn’t take the poll results as scientific fact, but I believe it provides a reasonable indication.