Reducing Injuries Through Exercise Warm-Up and Cool Down

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Joe Klimaski
  • 932nd Airlift Wing Safety Office

How many of you have showed up at your annual PT test and jumped right in without conducting an “adequate” warm-up?  Back in my younger years, I was certainly guilty of this…  I could literally show-up, and knock out the pushups, crunches, and 1.5 mile run without any kind of warm-up.  Fast forward a few years, being a touch more educated, and having a comprehensive understanding of exercise physiology, I wouldn’t dare attempt to do this.  Truth be told, whether it be the AFPT, running a 5K, or hitting the gym, all too many Airmen fail to adequately warm-up prior to exercise and cool down post exercise.  The result?  Avoidable injuries occur.  So that begs the question…  “What should you be doing prior to exercise, and afterwards, to avoid injuries?”  While this question is a bit subjective and experts in the field have some differing opinions based on applied research, it’s unquestionably agreed upon that an effective warmup and cool down are of equal importance in order to avoid injuries. 

Regarding warm-up prior to exercise, the overarching goal is to gradually increase the heart rate, so that the cardiorespiratory and musculoskeletal systems are prepared for the rigors of exercise.  This should come by way of a light aerobic activity, coupled with dynamic stretching.  Taking 5-10 minutes to conduct a low-intensity cardiorespiratory activity, such as a brisk walk/slow jog or use of an ergonomic exercise machine (i.e. rower, air bike, ski erg, etc.), increases blood flow to the musculoskeletal system and gradually prepares the body for higher levels of exercise intensity.  After a low-intensity cardiorespiratory activity is complete, dynamic stretching should then be accomplished to further ready the body for the imposed stressors of exercise.  Dynamic stretches are simply movements that actively increase muscle extensibility by moving joints through full ranges of motion.  Examples of dynamic stretches include arm and shoulder rotations, leg swings (forward/back and lateral), lunges, squats, hip hinges, bear crawls, trunk rotations, lateral bends, walking Samson stretch, glute bridges, etc.  Selecting 5-10 dynamic stretches, completed for 30 seconds each, will allow the musculoskeletal system to move optimally once exercise intensity and volume has been ramped up.  Think of this in terms of ramping up the RPMs in a sports car; you’d first ease the car’s speed gradually, before dropping the hammer into 6th gear, and shooting up the RPMs.  The human body and its physiological systems are the same; they require a period of adaptation before imposing the stressors of exercise.  Therefore, before exercise intensity, load, and volume are increased, an adequate warmup is absolutely essential.

So we understand the need for an adequate warmup prior to exercise, but what about post exercise?  Needless to say, exercise cool down is of equal importance…  Unfortunately however, it’s often neglected.  I get it… Most of us are in a hurry and want to get home after the gym, but neglecting an adequate cool down can create a myriad of physiological repercussions.  A post exercise cool down serves as a way to slowly bring the body back to its normal resting state, and is necessary in preventing injuries and mitigating what is referred to as the “cumulative injury cycle.”  When we exercise, muscular contraction occurs; without a proper cool down after exercise, muscles move to a shortened resting length.  The result is joints do not move optimally, due to tightened (i.e. shortened) muscles.  Movement is then borrowed from other joints, neuromuscular efficiency is diminished, and BOOM just like that, injuries occur because joints are not moving in functionally correct patterns/ranges of motion.  Similar to a pre-exercise warmup, a post exercise cool down should involve a couple of elements: a light aerobic activity, followed by static stretching or self-myofascial release (more commonly known as SMR).  The light aerobic activity should again consist of 5-10 minutes of a low-intensity cardiorespiratory activity, with the intent of gradually lowering the heart and breathing rates, so that the body can return to its normal resting state (i.e. a resting heart rate below 70 beats per minute).  After the low intensity cardiorespiratory activity, static stretching or SMR should then be accomplished.  Static stretching is nothing more than the lengthening of muscles beyond normal limits in an effort to elongate them to proper resting lengths, so that joint ranges of motion can be optimized.  Moreover, static stretches should focus on muscle groups that attach to the hips, knees, shoulders, spine, and consist of holding stretch positions for 30-60 seconds.  SMR on the other hand is a foam rolling technique designed to alleviate muscular tension/tightness and remove “trigger points” (i.e. knots within muscles).  SMR may be accomplished utilizing a foam roller, softball, lacrosse ball, etc., and should be focused on larger muscle groups, with each area/region being rolled for 30-60 seconds.  Ultimately, by reducing muscular tension and removing trigger points, joint range of motion neuromuscular efficiency is optimized, and the risk of injury is greatly reduced because joints will move in correct functional patterns.  So while you may be tired after a hard workout, taking an extra 15 minutes to adequately cool down post exercise is ultra-important for long term physiological wellness.

            There we have it… A quick summary of the importance of exercise warm-up and cool down in less than 3 minutes.  Hopefully the next time you hit the gym (post COVID), smash a home calisthenics workout, or knockout a neighborhood 5K, you take the necessary time to warm-up and cool down to prevent injury.