Do I Have To? On Warming Up, Cooling Down and Stretching

There are lots of virtuous angels out there who don't just do some form of cardio and strength training, but are also religious about always warming up, cooling down, and gently stretching their various hard-working body parts.

Others may think all that sounds like a very good idea, and do it sometimes... while frequently blowing it off and just feeling guilty about it instead.

And then there is a third camp--those who just jump in cold, exercise as hard and as long as seems warranted, and then... screeech! ... come to a complete stop when they feel done. They then head straight for the shower, or more stinkily, back into their cars or jobs or lives, without doing any of that sissy in-between stuff that makes exercise take so much longer without really "counting" as exercise.

I've generally been in the second group, the guilty-semi-slackers, though as I've gotten older I've been getting closer to the first angelic-anal-compulsive category. So I was all prepared to jump right in with some tips about how to become better about doing all that stuff.

But, I figured first I better warm up with a little research, just to be able to scare you with a good list of Horrible Consequences that might ensue if you skip these pre and post workout rituals.

And guess what?  Well... crap!  Turns out it's all more complicated than I thought. I had to really stretch to reconcile my discoveries with the "expert" advice I've been reading for decades.  How annoying! But then I cooled down a bit and decided I did not actually need to report every damn conflicting research study or expert opinion on the matter. Reading and then ignoring research is something of a specialty here at Cranky Fitness.

(Especially since for some reason the malevolent blogger platform has recently been refusing to save my drafts, but passively-aggressively failing to tell me that before I innocently shut down the computer to go raid the refrigerator. So I'm now starting this over for the third f--cking time and hunting down the links all over again. Grrr.)

Anyway, here is some of the shocking information I discovered about stretching, warming up, and cooling down, as well as some thoughts on doing or not doing them.

Bottom line: turns out there is little evidence that stretching or cooling down does much for you, although warming up a little may help prevent injuries.

I know, WTF, right?

We've been told for years by fitness experts, our doctors, trainers, mothers and even a bossy bystander or two that this shit is mandatory, and now it turns out it isn't?

Stretching Research:

The New York Times has a round-up of stretching and anti-stretching research, highlighting the fact that static stretching won't actually mess with your performance too badly if you want to do it, and there still may even be a case for it if you perform certain sports requiring a lot of flexibility. But the overall conclusion seems to be that if you're not a hockey goalie or a gymnast, you could skip it and not miss out on any performance benefits.

And as to the supposed injury prevention and therapeutic benefits of stretching?  Apparently that's mostly myth! There's a comprehensive article over at  with a summary of the stretching research, and it had me rethinking a lot of what I thought I knew. 

Warming Up Research:

Even though studies suggest warming up is also over-rated, there is some research that suggests if done properly it might help reduce injuries. For example a recent warm up study concluded that "a structured 15-minute neuromuscular warm-up program can help reduce the number of ACL injuries in adolescent female soccer players." And the article I mentioned above about stretching has some more warm-up research that show injury-prevention benefits.

Cooling Down Research:

So the "cooling down" requirement that we've been harassed about since exercise was invented? Turns out that cool-down studies don't point to much benefit, unless you have heart problems or are prone to post-workout dizziness.  The whole lactic acid/DOMS theory (that cooling down will prevent delayed onset muscle soreness) apparently didn't pan out.  However, the stuffy old American College of Sports Medicine still urges you to cool down after exercising so many trainers will nag you to do it whether you feel like it or not.

But Screw the Research, Here are Some Why's and Hows and Wherefore's:

Warming up
Possible Reasons to Bother:
1. Because you're old or injured, and have discovered that exercise from a cold start has become mighty unpleasant.  (This is my motivation of choice).  I've noticed that as I've hit middle age, if I don't start off slowly, I feel breathless and defeated at the same pace that will seem easey-peasey ten minutes later. Why feel like a pathetic loser instead of a superhero, and turn the workout into drudgery, just to save five or ten minutes of getting my body and head in the right space to kick ass?

2. A warm-up can be a good assessment and planning tool.  If you're less focused on power and pace, you can try to do that whole "mindful" thing and tune into your body.  Notice what's tight and what's not, figure out if you've got some left/right discrepanies or range of motion issues that need attention, see if anything new hurts.  You can also take some mental time to think about your goals for the workout (survive!), remind yourself of any form issues you're coaching yourself on, or gleefully calculate how huge a smoothie you can reward yourself with if you really bust your butt.

3. And there actually is a little research (mentioned above, in case you were skimming) suggesting that warming up may help with injury prevention.

Tips:  Just the obvious... you can walk to the gym instead of driving, you can play with putting together some special music and developing a fun routine just for warming up if you like your life to be all perky and sparkly,  or if you're lazy like me and prefer simplicity, just do whatever you're going to be doing more slowly and easily and with less resistance.

Cooling Down
Possible Reasons to Bother:

1.  A shower taken too soon after vigorous activity is an exercise in futility, as you will drench your clean clothes with post-shower sweat which is a much more annoying kind than the sweat you just washed off.

2.  Cooling down can be a good time to experiment with new moves or cross-training ideas at a slower pace, giving you a chance to practice while all warmed up, but with less worry about power or pace.  You know how if you're trying something new, the experts always say to start easy but you wanna go straight to the most challenging version immediately because you're a bone-headed delusional show-off who has to injure herself every now and then to remind herself to exercise common sense? Oh wait, that's not you, that's me!  Anyway, using a cool down period to experiment with something new can help you get the foundational form stuff practiced a bit before you proceed to get too gung-ho.

Tip:  Keep it fun!  Cool down should be the "dessert" at the end of the workout, a time for experimentation, or gloating, or fantasizing about how awesome you'll be in a few months if you suck it up and keep making your routine progressively more challenging.

Reasons to Bother:

1. You've discovered it keeps you injury free.  Who cares what research says about injury prevention in general, if your personal experience says when you're tight, you end up hurt?

2.  It feels good and you enjoy it.

3. You have an injury and your doctor or physical therapist tells you to.

4. You're part of a class or have a bossy personal trainer, and it's easier to go along than to argue.

1. Customize your stretching.  Focus on the parts that help with your tight areas, injuries, and imbalances, and that are compatible with your comfort level and the degree of dorkitude you're willing to display in public settings.  And let's just pretend that's why there's no detailed instructions or lists of resources in this post, ok, and not just because I was too lazy to put a bunch together? But seriously, if you're a professional ballerina with plantar fasciitis or a triathlete with knee issues or an office worker with tension headaches, your google search results for stretching ideas should vary considerably.

2. Try Yoga! (I do not need to belabor this, as it is hard to go 5 minutes in life without someone urging you to do either yoga or pilates, especially if you are female.)

3. Multitask with meditation or self-massage, making for a very pleasant and virtuous self improvement ritual.

Do you guys warm up, cool down, or stretch?  What does it help you with?

Angel Photo: Anemone Jones

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