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Australian National Champion Powerlifter
Think of warm-ups as foreplay and cooldowns as post-coital cuddles. Skip the warm-up and the main act can be less than satisfying. Miss the cooldown and you might find your next session lacks a bit of spark (at best). Consistently avoid or do both ineffectively and you’ll find it’s hard to have a good long-term relationship with your training and your muscles.
I used to have chronic pain in one shoulder, which made me part of that surprisingly large group of athletes who could only sleep on one shoulder. You could always pick us – the head is always tipped slightly to one side.
Nearly two years ago, the problem completely disappeared. There was no operation, no big break from training, not even physio. The only thing that changed was how I warmed up and cooled down.
Other recurring problems faded away too – the golf ball-sized lump that sometimes blew up in my shoulder blade for instance, and the hip pain that would quickly and loudly travel north like an American landing in Rome for an eight-day European tour. Now, as I reach an age where such niggles are often part of everyday life for many, I’m training pain-free and more often than I have in many years. So it’s never too late to kick those old warm-up and cooldown habits (or lack of them) and reap the benefits.
Flex, extend, and rotate your joints from feet to head, no matter what your sport. Your whole body functions as a unit – a ‘chain’ of interrelated parts. So even if you’re running, it’s not just about what’s going on below the waist – if your shoulders are stiff, you won’t have a quick, fluid arm swing. Then if you don’t have proper arm swing, your legs will slow down.
Do a short bout of continuous, moving activity to raise your body temperature, increase blood flow to your muscles, activate your nervous system, and prepare you fully for your dynamic mobility exercises next. Pick something that uses as many muscle groups as possible and requires you to support and balance yourself, e.g. running, shadow boxing, standing squats, as opposed to using a stationary bike.
No long static stretches! A lot of us were brought up with pre-workout static stretching – well, it was wrong. We now know that static stretching can reduce your agility, speed, power and coordination for up to 30 minutes after you do it (but it has benefits in the long term, so we save it for cooldown). Another reason – it stretches the length of the muscles, but it doesn’t increase blood flow to them – dynamic stretching does.
Work in dynamic mobility exercises – jumps, arm swings, leg swings, jump push-ups, medicine ball throws, standing squats, step-ups, etc. As your mobility increases, gradually increase the speed and range of motion to make them more dynamic. This helps prepare you mentally for the upcoming training and primes your nerve-to-muscle pathways to be ready for exercise. Just remember to keep the movement within your own normal range of motion.
When you’re ready for your main movements – whether that’s bench pressing, sprinting or throwing – build up in small increments. This gradual progressive loading of the muscles and joints is more important than a total time or volume of warm-ups, and it also activates the mind better for coordination and control of the movement.
If you can get away with it without indecent exposure, slip into some compression gear. As far as recovery goes, it does its best work in the first hour after intense training and it will help regulate your body temperature as your muscles and core temperature cool down.
Work the opposing muscles/opposite action. If your training has been dominated by a particular action or you’ve slammed a particular muscle group, do some light exercise that’s the reverse of that action and uses the opposing muscle group. For example, after doing freestyle or butterfly, swimmers will do a little backstroke. After doing bench press or some kind of throwing action, you could benefit from doing some kind of rowing action; if your lower back has been in flexion, do some light abdominal exercise.
Do gentle mobility exercises. After running, this could be as simple as slowing down then walking for three to five minutes, sometimes lengthening your stride or lifting your knees very high. For other activities it could mean doing dynamic stretches such as walking lunges or active yoga exercises.
Static stretching helps bring your body back toward a state of rest and recovery and allow you to focus on relaxing (and that means not holding your breath!) and lengthening the muscles that you have put under stress during your workout. Static stretching is really effective for developing overall flexibility and muscle endurance when the stretches are held for 20-30 seconds (no longer – the benefits decrease).
Myofascial release helps ease muscle tenderness and tension that could become a trigger point if left untreated. It’s generally used on areas that are not easy to get at with stretching, usually because of the depth of the muscle or muscles passing over one another. The main areas it is used on are the neck, lower and upper back, iliotibial area, hips, rhomboids and middle back. Some people mistake myofascial release for a public show of masochism, but it shouldn’t be this way. Pressure should be applied gently and gradually (then maintained) with an item that has a little give, e.g. a tennis ball, a foam roller, an insulated PVC pipe (as opposed to a baseball or a rigid, bare pipe). Avoid bony areas, as well as the head of the hip and the side of the knee.