When it comes to a workout, there is an ongoing debate that elicits strong, varied opinions. If you exercise, should you warm up, cool down, or both? An additional angle on this question also requires you to understand what it means physically to warm up and to cool down. Not everyone’s definition of these terms is the same, and that can impact exercise safety and risk of having a sports injury. Two studies offer insight into this conundrum.
What constitutes a warm up and what is a warm up supposed to do?
If you take exercise classes or if you’ve been exercising for a while, you have likely encountered instructors or coaches who recommend that you warm up before actually starting your fitness activity. Warm ups are supposed to prepare your body for the exercise routine you have planned, especially if it it’s a vigorous workout.
A warmup is not usually a series of static stretches, but rather involves increasing active movement to get your blood flowing and circulating through your body, especially to your arms and limbs. It also involves slowly raising your heart rate in preparation for the heart rate elevations of your actual fitness program. Many experts believe that if you start stretching your body, and you haven’t “warmed up first,” you may put yourself at risk of injury.
An April 2017 study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine examined a well-known warm up program for soccer players, FIFA 11 and FIFA 11+, an updated version of the warm up. The original FIFA 11 program takes about 10 minutes and is “light and quick,” involving moves like jumping, shuffling, and balancing as you progress through a series of moves. The updated FIFA 11+ builds on the original protocol, but is more vigorous, adding squats, leg lifts, and vertical leaps. This study is the first to really examine whether these warm ups help to support an athlete’s health and protect them from injuries.
In the study, athletes were randomly assigned to warm up before exercising with a FIFA program or a different routine that included stretching and jogging. Results showed that the FIFA 11+ warm up before actual training exercises helped to limit knee, ankle, hamstring, groin and hip injuries by about 40 percent, compared to the group that used alternative warm ups. It’s important to note that the less challenging FIFA 11 warm up version yielded results similar to the alternative warm up — meaning, it did not reduce injury risk as well as the FIFA11+.
Researchers theorize that the FIFA11+ actually helped to improve muscle strength, balance, and coordination because of its more challenging nature (while still not moving into frank vigorous exercise). Less challenging warm ups just don’t offer those gains. The researchers also suggested that the FIFA 11+ might benefit basketball players and individuals who engage in sports or exercise regimens that involve “sprinting, cutting, and rapid changes in acceleration.” They also caution that exercisers need to slowly acclimate to FIFA 11+ before going “all out” with the warm up. Otherwise, you may increase rather than decrease injury risk.
A cool down can be interpreted as slowly decelerating your movements in a vigorous exercise program till you are finally able to stop safely, having lowered your heart rate and intensity of movements. In the worlds of serious or amateur sports, a cool down might also mean dunking your body in an ice bath. A study released in the Journal of Physiology in February 2017 suggests that the ice bath may not really help athletes to recover more quickly from exercise-induced (moderate to severe) muscular inflammation.
This second study asked nine healthy young men to perform two rounds of a grueling, lower body workout on one leg. The group was then instructed to immerse their bodies in a 50 degree ice bath for 10 minutes. The researchers examined levels of inflammation, looking at specific cells, to see response to the ice bath. Levels of inflammation remained high in the “used leg” versus the “unused leg” right after the ice bath, and also 48 hours later. The men were not asked (subjectively) how they felt after the ice bath — only cell assessments measuring inflammation were done. No evaluation was done to see if the ice bath enabled a quicker return to strenuous exercise either.
While the study group was small, researchers did conclude that though some athletes “swear by ice baths for recovery,” the scientific data to support this perception was just not evident in this research.
So what should you do if you are a regular exerciser, or even someone beginning to exercise? This research coupled with other studies suggests a prudent warm up that gradually becomes more intense. Spend about 10 minutes slowly working your way up to larger movements that involve upper and lower extremities. You can even begin a slow jog toward the end of the routine, which should include modified squats and jumps. Avoid “cold stretching,” which means stretching before you have started to move your body to raise heart rate and increase circulation. After a 10 minute warm up, you can stop and gently stretch before starting your workout, though it’s not clear that it helps to reduce injuries. Stretching is better served after a cool down.
A safe and effective cool down should mean that you don’t stop exercise abruptly, but rather slow the effort down over a period of about five to 10 minutes, till your heart rate elevation has reduced significantly.