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The Importance of Warm-Up, Warm-down, & Stretching in Injury Prevention

Updated on January 21, 2018
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Now you have all started back into your exercise routines, it is important that you do not throw yourself back into it at such a rate that you injure yourselves. Injury is the most common cause of inactivity amongst sports people and, believe or not, it is not always brought about by an accident! Sometimes you can be your own worst enemy. The most common mistake is not preparing yourself adequately for exercise by not warming up or stretching properly. This is an easy mistake to make as sometimes you are so keen to get started, and your training partner is raring to go, and you both hare off at a rate of knots without warming up. The resulting condition can also be exacerbated by not warming down and stretching out properly. Here are a few tips that should help you to avoid the pitfalls of over enthusiasm.

The warm up

The benefits of warming up are multiple. You should never stretch a cold muscle and sudden increases or decreases in body temperature are undesirable. Due to this, warming the body up gradually before you start facilitates stretching and avoids shocking the body's temperature regulation systems. There is also the added benefit of stimulating the heart and lungs gradually too. It also increases the blood flow and rate of metabolism in skeletal muscle which will increase its efficiency during the forthcoming exercise. It gives the body a chance to adjust between rest and activity, avoiding muscle damage which can occur in cold muscles. A warm up should last between 5 and 10 minutes or around 10-20% of the time spent in the primary exercise, this gives the body adequate time to re-familiarise itself with exercise (depending upon how long it has been since your last session!). It should involve rhythmical movements and aim to employ the muscle groups due to be used in the main exercise. Once the body starts to sweat you can be fairly sure that it is ready for a spell of more strenuous exercise.

Stretching

Once you have warmed your body up, increased blood flow into the muscles, and enhanced their flexibility it is time for a stretch. There are two main types of stretch, Passive and Active (or Dynamic) stretching.

Static stretching involves the gradual stretching of a muscle to a point where it is held for between 10 and 30 seconds. This should be performed without bouncing (which used to be popular) as this can cause indirect muscle damage. The stretch should be held at a point which is just inside your discomfort range, if you feel any discomfort you should ease off. These stretches should be performed on each muscle twice before exercise.

Active stretching arose from the concern that some people tend to over stretch in a passive situation. This can cause damage to the muscle fibres or, in the case of recovery from an over use injury, can inhibit recovery. Therefore active stretching involves the rhythmical movement of the muscles which are due to be used in the exercise itself. This form of stretch is best suited for muscle groups which cross major joints (e.g. shoulders, hips, knees and ankles).

Warm-Down & post exercise stretch

Once you have completed your exercise, you must warm-down gradually. The worst thing that you can do is to say 'Well that's me finished' and sit down for the next 30 minutes. In the same way as in warm-up, your body does not like to cool down too quickly. Therefore you need to ease down gradually at the end of your session. This involves a gradual decrease in the intensity of exercise until the body's physiological functions return to their resting levels. A warm down also aids the return of blood from the muscles to the body's vital organs and the transport of any lactic acid build up to the lungs where it is disposed of. If the brain doesn't receive sufficient blood as a result of this, fainting can occur. Failure to warm-down adequately will result in a pooling of blood in the muscles and a reserve of lactic acid in the relevant muscles. Many of you will be familiar with the stiff muscle syndrome experienced later that evening or the next morning. This is the result of your muscles' waste products hanging around. Warm-down acts as an active recovery and all but cures this problem.

The purpose of the post exercise stretch is to help this process but to also avoid excessive shortening of your muscles. Muscles undergoing sustained contractions during exercise can shorten when not properly stretched out afterwards. Also, when the muscles are warmer (following exercise) stretching out can actually improve flexibility for future sessions. These stretches should be held for between 30 and 40 seconds to have maximum effect. So remember, although it may seem a bind at the time and you just want to get going, you must warm-up and stretch before exercise. Then, following exercise, ease down gradually for 5 minutes then stretch again. This will ensure that you'll remain injury free for longer. You'll be glad you did!

Rules for stretching

  • Breathe slowly, deeply and evenly.
  • Concentrate on relaxing the area being stretched.
  • Do not go past the discomfort range.
  • Hold the stretch in a comfortable position (tension should subside as the stretch is held).
  • Only stretch when the muscles are warm.
  • Where appropriate, combine the two different types of stretching.
  • Hold pre-exercise stretches for 15-30 seconds and post-exercise stretches for 30-40 seconds.
  • Stretch before and after exercise.

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