EIS physiotherapist Paul Martin recently introduced us to the importance of warming up before you workout. For this post, he takes us through warming down post-exercise and why that is just as important. If you missed our previous introduction, Paul is a Sports physiotherapist who has worked with Olympic, Paralympic and World Champions in sports from athletics to squash and you can read more about him here.
Why should we warm-down post-exercise?
Recovery is key to returning to exercise comfortably and efficiently.
During exercise, the nervous system, musculotendinous system, skeletal system and connective tissue all undergo significant loading. Above certain levels of intensity this can result in degrees of tissue microtrauma that may be safe in terms of tissue development.
Within this process, toxins and other waste substances that are produced as a by-product of exercise need to be cleared from tissue. This is to avoid prolonged exposure and any resulting discomfort.
Due to the repeated shortening/lengthening cycle of muscle, stretching is a useful means to return worked muscle to its pre-activity length and resting state. Reduced tension in muscles means reduced load on tendons, and therefore, on areas where tendons insert into bone.
How should we warm down?
Just as the warm-up is a bridge between prior activity and exercise, the warm-down should act as a bridge between activity and rest.
Taking the body from the level of exercise intensity back down to resting levels should be gradual and should replicate, to some extent, elements of the exercise. For example, if you have significantly increased your heart rate, you should return it to normal via a graduated process of similar activity, reducing in intensity and time/distance over a number of reps.
This will also help to start removal of the toxins and waste products mentioned above.
In most circumstances, stretching should follow as it helps make sure the body recovers well before the next bout of exercise.
Why is stretching important?
During activity, the muscles may undergo significant loading. This is determined by those nerves connected to the muscles repeatedly signalling for the muscles to contract.
As a result, by the end of a session, certain muscles may be tighter, having worked beyond their capacity.
Stretching helps restore this length, if done the right way. If left un-stretched over time, cumulative loss of tissue length can lead to muscle length imbalance, which could be a precursor to injury or poor performance.
Conversely, too much heavy or excessive stretching can leave muscle tissue with too far to shorten. The tissue will therefore struggle to generate force (which is why it can be a bad idea to stretch too much in warm-up), resulting in more harm than good from your training.
What should I stretch?
You should prioritise those muscle groups you will use most during a session.
As part of the process, activating the opposing muscle groups can be beneficial in stretching out worked muscles without directly loading them. Stretches should be static or passive post-activity, however some dynamic stretching can also be helpful on the way down from activity.
For example, the list below gives immediate key areas to address if your session was based around developing bench press. The opposite muscles, to work through the full range at a low level, are included in brackets. Hold the stretch for 20-30 seconds:
Pec Major and Minor (rhomboids and lower fibres of trapezius)
Anterior shoulder (posterior deltoid and external rotators of the shoulder)
Biceps and triceps (triceps and biceps)
Upper fibres of trapezius (lower fibres of trapezius)
Neck side flexors and sternocleidomastoid (opposite side flexors and deep cervical flexor group)
This is by no means an exhaustive list, but should give you direction as to what to stretch in this instance.