One of the most underutilized components of a workout is the cool down. It’s easy to feel like your job is done once you’ve completed your lifting session, run, or sport, but neglecting your cool down is an opportunity wasted.
Cool down exercises boost the recovery process, increase flexibility, contribute to muscle growth and reduce post-workout muscle soreness.
Why is a cool down important?
A proper cool down is your window to improving results and preventing injury. Here’s how cool down exercises contribute to a well-designed exercise routine.
Static stretching, where you push yourself to the end of your range of motion and hold it for several seconds, should only be done when your body is warm—stretching like this before a workout can increase your risk of injury.
Mitigates blood pooling
Exercise causes your heart to pump oxygenated blood through to all of your extremities, delivering nutrients that help you perform. Once an activity has stopped, blood can pool in your extremities and may take a while to return to your heart and brain.
Blood pooling can cause dizziness, lightheadedness, and fainting, among other undesirable effects. A proper cool down can help prevent this from happening, especially among endurance athletes and the elderly, who may be more at risk.
Moves you into the recovery process
When you perform exercise at an intense level or for an extended period, your body releases hormones associated with stress. Although some stress is good for you, combined with our stressful lifestyles, remaining in a state of physical stress is not desirable for long periods.
For your body to recover, it needs to enter into a parasympathetic state, which is the scientific way of saying “relaxed.”
You’ve probably heard of fight or flight, which your body enters when you are performing exercise. The opposing state is rest and recovery. You want to get into this state as quickly as possible to speed up your recovery. Your body will start to release feel-good hormones such as serotonin and dopamine, which are endorphins that allow your body to come back into a restful balanced state. Stretching, foam rolling and deep breathing are all helpful ways of relaxing after a workout.
Increases muscle growth and performance
Cool down exercises help increase muscle growth and performance in a couple of ways. When you perform cool down stretches and foam rolling, you help your blood flow return to normal, delivering nutrients to areas of the body that need repair after a strenuous workout.
Additionally, a proper cool down stretching protocol can increase your range of motion and lead to better form while lifting weights—an increased range of motion results in a better ability to gain muscle and strength.
As well, cool downs place you in a parasympathetic state, reducing levels of cortisol, a stress hormone that can impede muscle growth.
Prevents injury and soreness
When your body is nice and warm after a workout, your muscles are pliable. Stretching your muscles when they are warm can increase your range of motion and lengthen the muscle bed. When you increase your range of motion, you are less likely to become injured when you perform movements that challenge your range of motion.
For example, lower back injuries can be prevented by increasing the flexibility of your hamstrings and hip flexors. Lower back injuries are a widespread complaint and can lead to missed work and lack of productivity, along with missed workouts.
A proper cool down can also protect you from the worst effects of delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) that occurs 24 to 48 hours post-exercise. A post-workout cool down can significantly decrease DOMS and help you get back to working out without muscle soreness.
How to Cool Down: 6 Post-Workout Stretching Exercises
Half Monkey (hamstrings, calves, hip flexors, glutes)
- Start on your knees and then extend your left leg forward and flex your foot.
- Using your fingertips to support your weight, flex your left heel towards you.
- Bend forward while exhaling, maintaining a straight line with your neck and spine.
- To increase the stretch, inch your foot forward while breathing into the pose.
- After a few deep breaths, drag your left leg towards you while inhaling and switch sides to repeat.
Thread the Needle (glutes, hip flexors, lower back)
- Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor, then cross your left ankle over your right thigh while inhaling.
- Thread your left arm through your legs, interlacing your hands behind your right thigh. Gently pull your right thigh towards you while exhaling.
- With your feet flexed, hold this pose and take a few slow, deep breaths. Lower both feet to the floor while exhaling and switch sides to repeat.
Frog (quadriceps, glutes, hip flexors)
- Begin on your knees and slightly spread your legs apart. Lean forward and come onto your hands, or elbows, if you can, interlacing your fingers.
- Raise your hips and widen your knees. Your ankles should be in line with your knees, and your toes should be pointing outward.
- Hold this pose while taking some slow, deep breaths.
Note: if you have a hip, ankle, or knee injury or soreness, avoid this pose.
Half Spinal Twist (shoulders, spine, glutes, hip flexors)
- Sit on the floor with your legs out in front of you. Bend your left leg placing your left foot on the floor on the outside of your right knee.
- Place your left fingertips on the floor a few inches behind you and gently push your sit bones into the floor to lengthen your spine.
- Inhale while reaching your right arm up, then bend your right arm while exhaling, pressing your elbow against your left knee, and twisting to the left. Your gaze should be over your left shoulder.
- Hold the pose for a few slow, deep breaths before untwisting with an inhale and switching sides to repeat.
Cat Stretch (upper, lower and mid, back, traps, lats, neck, shoulders, wrists)
- Begin on hands and knees with your wrists directly under your shoulders and your knees under your hips. Your head should be in a neutral position with your gaze a few inches ahead of you on the floor.
- Inhale and arch your spine while reaching the top of your head and tailbone toward the ceiling, letting your belly drop down towards the floor.
- Exhale and round your spine, drawing the top of your head and your tailbone toward the floor. Repeat.
Note: if this position bothers your knees, place a blanket or mat underneath them for support.
Reverse Butterfly Stretch (chest, shoulders)
- Standing tall, place your hands together, extending your arms straight out in front of you.
- Maintain straight arms while moving them apart from each other as far back as you can, with your palms facing frontwards. You will feel a stretch along the front of your chest and shoulders.
- Return your arms in front of you and repeat.
Tips for Safe Cool Down Stretching
- Resist the urge to bounce. Bouncing can cause injury and tightness.
- Breathe through your stretch and hold for about 30 to 60 seconds.
- Be consistent. You will reap the benefits if you keep at it as the results are cumulative.
- Stop when you feel pain. You should feel tension but never pain.