Maybe you’re heading out for a morning run, but you’re short on time (hello, 8 a.m. conference call). Maybe you found a new strength workout on Aaptiv and you’re antsy to get started. Either way, it’s easy to find reasons to skip your warmup and cool-down. After all, they can’t be that important, right? Wrong. We asked two experts how important they truly are—and how to do them correctly.
The Low-Down on the Warmup
A warmup up is an essential component of any workout, whether you’re lifting weights, running, or cycling. “In as little as 5 to 15 minutes, you can increase blood flow, send oxygen to the working muscles, prepare your muscles and nerves for an upcoming effort, improve range of motion, and most importantly, prepare your mind for the workout ahead,” says Marni Sumbal, an exercise physiologist and founder of TriMarni Coaching and Nutrition.
Research has also shown that a proper warm-up can help prevent injury and even improve your performance at the gym. In other words, warming up will help you lift more, run faster, and feel better doing it, explains Jonathan Ross, an ACE-certified personal trainer and author of Abs Revealed.
Cardio workout ahead? If you don’t have any major issues, injuries, or joint pain, warming up for 3 to 5 minutes with low-intensity cardio should suffice, Ross says. For example, if you’re going for a run, do a light jog; if you’re cycling, go at an easy pace.
The Right Way to Warm Up
If (like most adults!) you have tight muscles or other issues, you’ll also want to add some mobility work, Ross says. In this case, he recommends 3 to 5 minutes of light cardio, then doing some self-massage on any tight areas with a tool like a foam roller, tennis ball, or stick roller. Aim for 3 to 5 minutes per body part. New to self-massage? Imagine “squeezing out” those areas as if you were wringing out water from a sponge, Ross explains. This helps to break up “sticky” parts of your muscle tissue. It also decreases muscle tension so you can work out with a full range of motion.
Next, follow up with 5 minutes of active, or dynamic stretches, which should be sport-specific, Sumbal says. For example, if you’re running, try some walking lunges, skipping, and bounding. If you’re swimming, do arm circles and ankle mobility work. For cycling, try some activation exercises for the hips, such as fire hydrants and clamshells. Before strength training, Ross recommends doing one set of exercises with very light weights to loosen up the joints before picking up a heavier set.
The Truth About Cooling Down
A cool down helps lower your heart rate and prevent stiffness. Sumbal suggests any light exercise that helps the body relax. “After a hard run, jump on a spin bike to spin easy for 5 to 10 minutes,” she says. “After a hard strength session, walk on the treadmill for 5 to 10 minutes.” Any stretches should be fluid, and easy on your muscles and joints. There’s not a one-size-fits-all approach. Most people can benefit from doing more self-massage, especially in areas where you’re feeling stiff or tight, Ross says.
Here’s the caveat: If you must skip either the warm-up or cool-down for the sake of time, choose the cool down. “It depends on the individual, but in general, it’s better to skip the cool down,” Ross says. “It’s less risky in terms of injury to stop exercising than it is to abruptly start exercising,” he explains.
But, if you’ve done a really high intensity workout, it may not be a good idea to jump straight into your car or sit right down at your desk, Ross says. This can cause blood to pool in the extremities, leading to soreness or possibly lightheadedness. If you really went all out, bring your body’s core temperature down quicker by putting a cold rag around your neck. Or, take a cold (not ice) bath, Sumbal suggests. Then, about an hour after a cold shower, take an Epsom salt bath. Simply add about 2 cups Epsom salts to a lukewarm bath and soak for 20 to 40 minutes to let your muscles absorb the magnesium, she says. This helps repair muscle damage and offset delayed inflammation.