How to Warm Up & Cool Down

How to Warm Up & Cool Down

Do you want to know the first rule of gym club?

Never neglect the warm up and cool down.

The second rule of gym club?

Never neglect the wa… well, you can guess the rest.

It’s something most people know - Warm Ups and Cool Downs are super-important.

But why? And what are the best exercises to do? Should you change warm-up routines according to the exercise you’re about to do?

All great questions. This article will shed some light on some of those unknowns, grey areas and misconceptions surrounding warm ups and cool downs.

Why Warm Up and Cool Down?

There are plenty of reasons to make sure you incorporate a warm-up routine into your workout plan. Let’s take a look at them one-by-one.

Protect your heart

A good warm-up should include enough exertion to get your blood pumping nicely and get your heart rate up slightly. If you go straight into the main exercise without warming up, you’ll increase the pressure on your heart which is not recommended.

Five minutes of gentle or light cardio exercise before any kind of workout will get your body ready for the event ahead, whether that’s running, cycling, weight-lifting, circuits, etc. Your increased heart rate will prepare your body for the extra oxygen it’s going to need throughout the activity too.

Prevent injury

Stretching and light cardio will raise the temperature in your muscles and soft tissue gradually, making you less prone to injury, particularly around your joints.

There is some debate as to how effective warming up and cooling down are in terms of preventing injury, but most scientific studies show that it does have a positive effect. For instance, this article cites numerous studies and journal articles that provide evidence in favour of warming up to prevent injury.

However, it’s important to target the right muscle groups that will be used during the upcoming exercise. We’ll go into this in more detail later.

Increase flexibility

Warming up increases the blood flow to your ligaments and tendons. This has the effect of ‘oiling’ your joints and making them more flexible. Dynamic stretching is the key to getting more blood to your muscles quickly.

Be more mentally alert

The effect on your brain of increased motion and blood flow is increased alertness. Because the exercises you perform during a warm-up are less intense, you’ll also have more time to think and get yourself in the right mindset for your workout. This can help you to push past ‘the wall’ if you’re doing an intense session.

Improved performance

If you’re competing, whether it’s against others or yourself, then warming up has been shown to considerably improve performance. A 2010 study from the Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research revealed that a well-thought-out warm-up could increase athlete’s performance by up to 79%.

Don’t forget the cool down

Just as important as warming up is the cool down. Why? Slowing your heart rate gradually to a resting level will protect your heart from the stress created by sudden big changes in activity levels. It will also help to rid your body of lactic acid which can make your muscles sore the following day if you don’t flush it out.

Stretching the Truth

A quick note about stretching before we dive into some example warm up and cold down exercises. There’s a lot of misinformation out there about stretching. Things like “You only need to stretch a couple of times a week to get the benefits” or “You should always do dynamic stretches, not static, for the most benefit”.

The truth is you should always stretch before any type of moderate to intense exercise and the types of stretches depend on the activity you’re about to do. Stretches are best performed after raising your heart rate and body temperature and immediately before the main exercise.

Static stretches are generally best post-workout as they will help to gradually relax the muscles.

Warm Up and Cool Down Routine

Man and woman performing stretches before workout

The following example warm-up routine will comprise of three main parts: initial warm-up, stretches followed by activity-specific warm up.

It’s generally accepted that dynamic warm-ups are better than purely static ones for all types of exercise.

That being said, some static stretches are ideal for certain types of exercise, which we’ll discuss below. Therefore, this example warm-up routine will be mostly dynamic, with some static options included when appropriate.

Warm Ups

Initial warm up 1

Quick version before a light to moderate workout

The following initial warm-up is designed to raise your heart-rate gradually and begin to get the blood flowing to your muscles. It covers all the major muscle groups, so is ideal for any kind of work out.

It should only take about 3 to 5 minutes to complete before moving on to stretches, which will be explained below.

  1. Run on the spot or use a jump rope at a light to moderate intensity for 60 to 90 seconds
  2. 15-30 Jumping Jacks
  3. 15 Squats
  4. 10 Lunges on each leg
  5. 10 Push ups

Initial warm up 2

Longer version before an intense workout

A more thorough initial warm up to prepare your body for a more intense workout. This will take about 8 to 10 minutes to complete.

  1. Run on the spot or use a jump rope at a light to moderate intensity for 2 or 3 minutes
  2. 40 to 50 Jumping Jacks
  3. 20 Squats
  4. 20 Lunges on each leg
  5. 20 Push ups


Stretch Set 1

Before cardio or lower body weight training

A simple set of dynamic stretches to perform after the initial warm up and before cardio or lower body training that can be done in about 3 to 5 minutes.

  1. Standing Touch Your Toes – stretches your hamstrings. Stand upright with legs shoulder-width apart. Bend at the waist, extending your arms downwards. Aim to touch your toes, or at least as far as ankles or shins, depending on flexibility. Hold the stretch for 20 seconds, then repeat 4 times.
  2. Standing Achilles Stretch – stretches the ankle. Put one foot behind the other. With heels planted to the floor, bend both legs at the knee until you feel a stretching sensation in the lower section of your rear leg. Hold for 20 seconds, then swap legs. Repeat 4 times.
  3. Butterfly Stretch – stretches the groin. Sit bolt upright with your soles planted together and knees pointing out to the side. Put your hands on your feet. Tighten your core muscles, then gradually bend forward at the waist. Go as far as possible then hold for 20 seconds. Repeat 4 times.
  4. Lying Knee to Chest – stretches glutes and hamstrings. Lie down on your back in a straight line, legs extended and feet close to one another. Bring your left knee up towards your chest and when you can put both hands on your knee and pull it down further into your chest. Hold the stretch for 20 seconds, then switch legs. Repeat on both legs 4 times.

Stretch Set 2

Before upper body weight training

Perform these upper body stretches after completing the initial warm up.

  1. Arm Circles – stretches the shoulders. Stand upright with both arms extended outwards to the side, level with your shoulders. Begin to slowly move both hands in circles with a diameter of about 1 foot. Keep this going for 10 seconds. Change the direction of the circular motion, and go for another 10 seconds. Repeat 4 times.
  2. Bear Crawls – stretches the shoulders. Get on all fours with shoulders directly over your wrists and a 90-degree bend in your knees. Your back should be flat. Keep your hands flat to the ground and then lift your left foot vertically up with your knee still bent until you feel a stretch in your shoulder. Hold for 10 seconds. Repeat with the right foot. Keep your back straight and arms fully extended. Repeat with each foot 4 times.
  3.  Push-ups into a side plank – stretches the chest. Perform a normal push-up then shift your weight over to your left side, twist your body and raise your right arm up into the air at full extension. Hold this for 10 seconds. Lower yourself back to the raised push-up position. Perform another push-up and this time put your weight on your right side and lift the left arm. Repeat both sides 4 times.
  4. Spiderman Stretch – stretches hips, back and shoulders. Begin in a raised push-up position. Bring your left foot up and place it alongside your left hand, about two feet away from it. Twist your body to the left and raise your left arm upwards, full extended. Hold for 10 seconds. Return to the start position then repeat on your right side. Repeat 4 times on each side.

Stretch - Final Step 

Before weight training

The final stage of a weight training warm up involves building up to the full lifting weight.

In general, the following advice works for most weight lifting exercises:

  • Begin with 25% of the final weight and perform 10 reps
  • Change to 50% of the final weight and perform 8 reps
  • Change to 75% of the final weight and perform 3 reps
  • Start the full workout with 100% weight and required reps and sets.

Cool Downs

Cardio cool down

Round off your workout with a final cool down to reduce your heart rate and bring your body temperature back to normal gradually.

In general, the following cool down can be followed for all cardio workouts.

  • Continue the workout exercise for 5 minutes at an increasingly lower intensity. Breathe deeply to reduce heart rate.
  • Do the 4 cardio stretches listed above, 2 repetitions of each.

Weight training cool down

Relax your muscles gradually to lower the lactic acid and reduce muscle strain.

In general, the following cool down can be performed for any weight training routine:

  • Do the ‘final step before weight training’ sequence above in reverse, i.e. gradually lower the weight you are lifting while increasing the number of reps.
  • Do the 4 stretches listed above for lower body or upper body training, 2 repetitions of each.