Warm Up, Stretch Out, Ease Off (Your Body Will Thank You)

The before and after are just as important as the middle of your workout

Being determined and motivated to exercise is a great thing—make sure that in doing so you take care of your body accordingly.

As much as I love rambling on about pushing your hardest during a workout, it’s only right to take a few minutes to focus on the importance of warming up and stretching. Just exercising isn’t enough.

The last thing anyone wants to be faced with is an injury, and in order to avoid that risk it is essential to warm up before beginning a workout and to stretch/cool down afterwards. Understanding when to do what is a big factor to take into consideration here. There is, in fact, a correct order in which you should do certain types of stretches.

Let's start with the pre-workout warm-up, which should involve dynamic stretching to get your blood flowing and raise the temperature of your muscles, increasing their elasticity and decreasing viscosity, before you throw them into anything demanding. Squeezing into the spandex gym outfit does not constitute a warm-up although it may seem like it fits the above criteria. Dynamic stretching involves movements that gradually build up in intensity and prepare the body for the type of exercise that will be done. All of this helps to prevent strains and tears.

Now, imagine you're done with the workout and are on to the cool down, which is where static stretching plays in. Static stretching involves stationary holds of about 15-60 seconds in a stretched position, relaxing and lengthening muscles. It is generally advised to avoid doing this type of stretching prior to training, as it leaves muscles in a weakened state at a lower temperature, which can actually cause damage if done before a workout. Always make time for a good post-workout stretch.

The foam roller is another excellent way to relieve muscle tension post-workout; this often overlooked piece of equipment does wonders in breaking up knots and releasing fascia—the tissue that connects muscles which can become tight and lead to discomfort. Click here for a great foam roller tutorial.

Sometimes we think “I don’t really need to take that extra step and put the additional time in” or “I’ve never had any injuries” or even “I know what I’m doing and I’ll never get hurt.” You know who you are. There was once a time I skimped on the stretching and rarely warmed up properly because I just didn't feel like bothering with it. I was confident in my form and did not see any reason to be concerned about the possibility of injury. As the years have gone by I've noticed a difference in the amount of stretching and rest my body needs in order to meet the demands I’m putting on it. Part of this I attribute to age, although I know it is also a natural result of the increased intensity and frequency of my workouts.

When I was in my mid-twenties I could be sore, work out anyway, and feel fine later. Now that I am in my thirties and teaching several classes, I am much more cognizant of my body’s signals to ease up or to allow myself some rest. I absolutely do not want to risk becoming injured and having a major setback. If you are sore to an extent that limits your range of motion and you find yourself compensating for some muscles with others, the workout could be more detrimental than beneficial. Take the time for your muscles to recover – that’s a big part of the whole process. Recovery is just as important as training, regardless of your goals.

My experience last week is what prompted me to write this post. I decided to go back to my good old race-walking days and enjoy the nice weather. I was excited to get out into the sun and even though I knew better and had not race-walked in some time, I pushed myself to move my fastest without taking the time to adequately warm up. I’ve also been trying to increase the intensity of my leg workouts in the gym, and by the time I was done with the race walk, my legs were spent. Any additional lower body training was not a good idea. I could tell the level of soreness was my legs' way of begging for rest, so rest is what I did.

I don’t think I’ve skipped an entire week of my own lower body workouts in ages. I go hard when it comes to legs and enjoy the challenge. But I knew I’d rather be safe than sorry and that my over-tired legs weren’t going to benefit from being forced. Instead, I took a lot of time to stretch and also used the foam roller to alleviate some of the tightness in my calves and hip flexors.

I am a person of habit and regimen. While I always take one or two days off from working out each week, I struggle with the thought of a longer lapse in anything I do consistently.  But taking a break is better than ending up broken. It is necessary to allow ample recovery, and sometimes that recovery will require more than just one day of rest. It may not be what you want to do, but is certainly a lot better than substantial downtime that comes with injury. Working out is about being strong and healthy, not overtraining and running yourself down.

Dynamic warm-up stretches, pre-workout
Upper Body:
• Shoulder rolls
• Arm circles
• Arms cross & pull (cross your arms, wrap them around yourself, then pull them out to the sides)
• Reach up toward the opposite corner, alternating arms
• Reach across the chest toward opposite sides, alternating arms

Lower Body:
• March in place
• Step touch
• Step touch adding side-to-side hop
• Hamstring curls alternating
• Knee raises alternating
(can also just warm up on the elliptical or bike for 5-10 minutes on low resistance as a leg warm-up)

Static cool-down stretches, post-workout
Upper Body:
• Triceps stretch - one hand on back of neck, hold elbow with opposite hand
• Shoulder stretch - take one arm straight across the chest and hold it
• Back/lats stretch - reach both hands up to the ceiling, then bend slighty to right, then left
• Chest stretch - take hands in front, push through the chest, shoulders down
• Biceps stretch - interlock fingers behind the back and stretch arms straight behind you

Lower Body:
• Hip flexor stretch - lying on back, hug knees in towards the chest
• Hamstring & calf stretch - take one leg straight up and hold behind the knee or calf
• Glutes stretch - take one ankle across opposite knee and lift the knee
• Quadriceps stretch - stand on one foot, hold the other foot (not ankle) behind you

This story was originally published on Karina's Fit Zone.