Are you ready to recover? When you finish your workout, do you rush outside into the cold? Are you under time pressure, keen to press on with the rest of the day? Just like the warm up, a cool down allows your body to adjust back to resting physiology. But, importantly, it’s a great time to develop your flexibility. That’s going to help you maintain good posture and lower the risk of injury.
Why do you need a cool down?
Just as the warm up gradually prepares you for the exertions to come, so the cool down gradually settles you back to a resting state. There are a couple of key reasons why a cool down is a good idea. You need to cool down to….
Allow your body to settle back down to resting state.
When you exercise your
- Heart beats faster
- Blood pressure increases
- Blood vessels dilate
- Body diverts blood to the muscles in your limbs (extremities)
- Muscles build up waste products
If you stop exercising suddenly, your blood pressure can drop quickly, your heart slow to resting levels quickly and your blood vessels return to their normal girth. You may find that blood pools (gets stuck!) in your limbs because there is no longer any oomph pumping it around and the return pipeline has constricted. This is more likely in the legs where it has a bigger fight against gravity. Fainting is a possibility because of slow delivery of blood to the brain. Cooling gradually helps blood circulation return to normal gradually and gives the body time to clear waste products from the muscles.
Stretch your muscles and joints
Just after you exercise your muscles and tendons are warm. They are more pliable. You are more flexible. You can take your muscles and joints through a great range of movement than you can when you are cold and stiff. It’s a great time to develop your flexibility.
Stretching is a great idea after a workout. Not only will it develop your flexibility but it can help you avoid developing knots in the muscles. If you lengthen them after exercise then they are more likely to repair in a lengthened state than a shortened knotty state. A healthy muscle without knots and trigger points is less prone to injury. Similarly, a joint that is used to being taken through a large range is less likely to cause joint alignment issues or tendon tears.
Stretching will also improve your posture. In my view, the main postural benefit is that it helps lengthen the spine. The yoga poses are particularly effective for this. A lot of common posture problems can be attributed to a shortened and over-curved spine. Keep it long and you’ll preserve good posture.
Leave almost all of your stretching until the cool down. Unless there is a posture related stretch that will improve your performance for the workout, stretching beforehand should be avoided. As a general rule: mobilisations in the warm up, static stretching in the cool down.
What should a cool down consist of?
It’s pretty simple really.
Reduce your intensity to resting levels
For example, if you were running, slow the run to a jog, then a brisk walk, then an amble. You could adopt that kind of initial cool down for any type of aerobic activity.
For weight training, the approach might be different. I don’t really agree with the approach of gradually reducing the weight and doing lots of reps. You want to finish your weight training with your muscles maximally stimulated and with the right neuromuscular and hormonal signals for repair and growth. You’re going to be pumped up and you may have reduced flexibility. So instead, chug your shake and do some mobilisations to help deliver nutrients to your muscles and clear out waste products. Walk up and down the gym a few times, do some arms swings, some torso twists, some hip swings, that kind of thing. Try and get a bit more loosey-goosey before you do the more static stretching.
Static stretching is great after a workout. In terms of what to stretch, prioritise as follows
- The muscles you just worked.
- Any muscles that cause postural problems.
- Any other tight muscles.
Don’t stretch a muscle if you don’t need to. For example, a lot people will stretch their hamstrings because they’ve heard it’s a good thing to do. If you don’t have tight hamstrings and you haven’t worked them, then don’t stretch them. You could be making a postural issue worse.
In general you should start a stretch feeling tension around ‘6 out of 10’. It certainly shouldn’t hurt and make you shake. Hold it as long as you need to for the tension to drop to around ‘2 out of 10’ or ‘3 out of 10’. This will be longer for some stretches than others. Definitely do not stop the stretch when it is at maximum tension – you’re just teaching the nervous system to tighten you up.
What stretches should you do?
As inferred above, this depends which muscles you have just worked, which cause you postural problems and which are tight.
Here are some of my go-to stretches for myself and my clients. You won’t necessarily need to do all of these, and there are lots more in the stretch repository, but these would cover a lot of your needs. Do all of these that you need to do and it’ll keep your flexibility and movement in good working order. If you haven’t worked a muscle, if it’s not causing you problems and isn’t tight, then don’t stretch it.
The doorway stretch is as good as any. I like this because it allows you to stretch the line that goes diagonally from the shoulder joint to the opposite hip. Do this by putting the near foot forward and the far foot backwards.
Keep your arm around shoulder height for the pec major and raise it a little for pec minor. The pec minor is the muscle more usually asssociated with rounded shoulders, so it’s a good one to stretch for most people.
That’s the big back muscle that helps you pull your arms down or towards you. I quite like the hang for lats. Not only will it stretch the lats well, it will also lengthen your spine. You’ll feel taller after a decent hang of a minute of so.
There is a variety of stretches for the shoulders. This one stretches the front of the shoulders and the upper chest muscles. If you can’t get all the way to the back then take it as far as you can. Develop the stretch over the course of weeks or months. Upper back spinal flexibility is often the limiting factor for this. You might find this stretch improves after you lie with your upper back on a foam roller and allow your ribs to open up.
Lower back and spine
This stretch targets quite a lot of muscles. It’s a bit more yoga-y. It’ll stretch your quadratus lumborum, erector spinae, adductors, hamstrings and lats. It targets kinetic chains rather than specific isolated muscles.
The glutes are a neglected collection of muscles. Try this. Stand up and stand tall. Now take a look at your feet. Are they pointing outwards? If they are then more than likely so are your knees. If that’s the case then your hips are externally rotated. That’s generally caused by tight muscles deep in your bum. You can lengthen them with this stretch.
I don’t have tight hamstrings so I don’t stretch them. In fact I go out of my way to thrash them and strengthen them because it helps counteract my forward tilted pelvis. If you’ve got tight hips, lower back lordosis and back pain caused by a tilted pelvis then you may well have hamstrings that are already long and don’t need stretching. You may make it worse if you stretch them.
But everyone is different. If you can’t raise your straight leg to 70° or so then they need lengthening.
Make sure you keep the other leg down when you perform this stretch. If you find it lifting then your hips are also tight!
Hips – psoas
Most people have tight hips due to prolonged sitting. This can lead to lower back pain as the lower back will often compensate by flexing to keep you upright. The main muscles to target are the psoas and the rectus femoris. This stretch shown here targets the psoas. Engage your rectus abdominis and tense your glutes to lock the hip in a posteriorly rotated position. Then bend and twist the spine away from the side you are stretching. If you’re able to lean a long way forwards then you’ve just let your pelvis tilt forwards and you won’t feel the stretch like you should. You’ll get some tensor fascia lata with this stretch too.
Thighs and hips – rectus femoris
I’ve got tight hips, especially my rectus femoris. That’s the thigh muscle that crosses both the hip and knee joint. A lot of you will also have a tight rec fem.
If you can’t get your heel to your bum then don’t worry. Get as far as you can and develop the stretch over time. Again, this one needs you to lock the hip. If you find your stomach protruding then you’ve allowed your pelvis to tilt forwards.
This stretch will also hit your tibialis anterior. That’s the muscle to the side of your shin bone.
If you sit a lot or wear heels a lot, then chances are you have tight calves. Calves can have a large effect on posture, ankle mobility and gait. I find this stretch particularly effective as I can keep a straight leg and also bend at the hips if I choose, intensifying the stretch.
Yoga is fantastic for posture and for keeping your body in good alignment. The yoga poses target entire kinetic chains rather than specific muscles. That’s great for overall alignment and movement. It also helps you to breathe well which again is great for posture. But it’s also great for calmness. I hesitate to use the word ‘spiritual’, but there is a bit of that. It’s calming and therapeutic. I thoroughly recommend it.
Here I demonstrate two of my favourite yoga poses. Now, I must caution you at this point. I’m a great big lumpy bodybuilder with tight muscles and knots all over me. I don’t do yoga that often. I am in no way suggesting that these are good examples of how to do these two poses. Yoga teachers and avid practitioners, if you’re reading this, please understand I’m doing my best!
Give these poses a try. If they feel good and you feel straighter afterwards then they’re good to include in your cool down.
Downward facing dog
I find this strangely relaxing. I like it because it targets the posterior chain. Calves, hamstrings, posterior hip, spine, lats. It’ll lengthen you and make you feel taller.
This I find less relaxing, but no less beneficial. I do this one because it targets an anterior chain. Adductors, anterior hip, abdominals, spine and, again, lats. I find this tougher to hold. That in itself tells me something about where my lines of tension are!
The cool down shouldn’t be skipped. Ideally you should gradually decrease intensity down to resting levels, but at the very least you should take the opportunity while you are warm to stretch. Stretching will help you chill out, maintain good posture and reduce the risk of injury. Allow time for it and you’ll carry yourself better, get more out of your subsequent workouts and greatly increase the chances of being active for the rest of your life.