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Best Practices for Exercise Warm-Ups and Cool-Downs

When it comes to getting into peak physical condition, athletes and amateur fitness enthusiasts understand that how you prepare for and recover from a workout session is just as important as the work you do while actually exercising. Whether athletes are pumping iron in the gym, running several miles through the park or practicing yoga in the studio, warm-up and cool-down sessions are essential for safety and maintaining the health of muscles and joints. Not only do these strategies help the body limber up prior to physical exertion, but it allows the muscles to return to a state of comfortable rest and regeneration afterward.

So how can beginners properly ready themselves for an intense workout session at the gym or health club? No matter the type of exercise or physical activity performed, the following expert tips can benefit individuals by allowing them to get the most out of their workouts - moving toward stronger muscles, more flexible joints and improved cardiovascular health. Here is some information for exercisers of all abilities to keep in mind about fitness preparation and cool-down.

Keep warm-up sessions short and focused on the exercise at hand

One of the great parts about warming up for a workout is that it does not need to be overly complex, rigorous or even time-consuming. However, one of the main mistakes that people make before starting a particular exercise is doing a non-corresponding warm-up that does not adequately prepare the muscles. Additionally, it is important that individuals do not confuse stretching with warming up, as these are two notablebut different parts of fitness.

"It is important to warm up with exercises that are specific to your training session. For example, if it is a squat day you want to warm up with squats, not a run on the treadmill which is what most people do. You would not practice for sprinting by doing a leisurely walk, you have to sprint. Whether it is a cardio session or weight training, keep the warm-ups specific and short no longer than 10 minutes. You are officially warmed up for your training session when you break a sweat. Stretching is useful but should be done after the warm-up and only stretch the tight muscles that may be hindering performance."

Brandan Mentore, certified health practitioner and coach of The Body Logic

Mentore noted that in many cases, beginner exercisers may want to focus their stretching effort on muscles and joints in the legs, as these areas often require greater flexibility and limberness in order to prevent injuries or strains. In particular, stretches should involve the hamstrings and hip flexors.

Stretch in between exercises in certain cases, not others

While many individuals believe that stretching in between exercises is a great way to stay physically fit and keep the muscles flexible, the reality is that frequent stretching is not a good idea in all circumstances. In fact, Mentore stated that some people may actually be doing more harm than good to their muscles and joints with interim workout stretching, as this can undo much of the progress achieved when practicing strength-training workouts. That being said, stretching can also benefit the muscles that feel overly tight or at risk of cramping, so exercisers should try to get a good sense of their bodies to make the right call.

"Stretching a moderately tight muscle can reduce neural drive (kind of putting your muscle to sleep). If you need this muscle to perform it would be wise to not stretch that muscle because you need it to be on and perform. On the flip side stretching a very tight muscle that can perhaps be limiting your performance will open up the tissues and give it space and room to work for you, in this case it can be helpful for performance. Getting to know your body is important. To avoid cramps stay hydrated, keep your electrolytes balanced, and make sure you get good quality sleep."

Joe Vennare, athletic training specialist and co-founder of Hybrid Athlete, added that for those who want to incorporate stretching into their workout routine, using large rubber bands can be a great way to reduce muscle tension, minimize the chance of injury and promote flexibility. Similarly, adding a day of low-intensity workouts in between more involved weight training sessions can help muscles repair and recover while also enhancing blood circulation and cardiovascular health.

Combine massages, stretches and nutrition for an effective cool-down

As a comprehensive warm-up session is essential for preparing the muscles and joints for physical exertion, a cool-down helps the body seamlessly return to a state of rest. With weight training and cardio exercises, a lower-intensity set or fast-paced walk will allow the heart rate to transition back to a normal pace without the sudden drop-off.

Light stretching exercises can reduce muscle tension from pumping iron or doing resistance workouts. Both Mentore and Vennare recommended massage therapy as a way to loosen up the muscles and joints while relaxing the body as a whole. Exercisers can chose to visit with a massage professional or find ways to enjoy a self-massage.

"Foam Roll and Self-Massage: With a foam roller you can enjoy the benefits of a sports massage without the hefty price tag. A type of myofascial release, foam rolling allows you to target specific body parts, knots, and trigger points to break up scar tissue and fascia that has compromised muscular function," concluded Vennare.

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