How To Cool Down & Stretch Properly and Why?
Stretching, cool down and flexibility element is a frequently overlooked and undervalued component of an exercise session.
After a workout, it’s important to gradually return the body to its “pre-exercise” state to ensure:
- Oxygen debt is repaid
- Waste products are removed
- Lactic acid in muscles is dispersed
- Muscle recovery is facilitated
- Muscle tension is reduced
- Blood pooling is avoided
Blood Pooling – occurs when exercise intensity is not reduced gradually. The heart continues to beat quickly and pushes blood to the extremities, especially legs. Further movement, and therefore leg muscles contraction, creates a pumping effect, allowing the deoxygenated blood to return to the heart and lungs. If we suddenly stop, the muscles don’t pump the blood back up, which results in stiffness and cramps. Ever went for a run without a proper cool down? Remember how much your calves hurt after? 🙂
An effective cool down consist of two components, not just stretching.
- Pulse Lowering Activity – the duration of this activity will depend on the initial intensity of the exercise and the person’s fitness level
- Stretching – should be performed at the very end of every exercise and should, ideally, stretch all the muscles that have been worked. This is to help reduce tension, return and maintain normal range of movement and potentially increase the range of movement in tight muscles, therefore improve flexibility.
Cardio Flush – cardio flush is a low intensity cardiovascular exercise between resistance training and stretching to aid with the removal of the waste products and muscle recovery by stimulating blood flow, preventing blood pooling.
Muscles are more “shapable” when warm, which makes the following 15 min after exercise the perfect time to improve flexibility. If you tried to do it while your muscles are stiff because you have just woken up, or you have just been sitting down for hours, you wouldn’t get anywhere. Apart from a lot of pain.
Static Developmental Stretches – used to increase flexibility and increase the range of movement
- Take the stretch to the point of mild tension
- Make sure you maintain correct posture and alignment, don’t try to push further compromising the form because this will lead you nowhere – trust me I learned the hard way. Perfect example of this is people trying to touch their toes. They round their back as much as possible in order to touch the toes, forgetting that this is not the main objective. The main idea is to hinge from the hips while maintaining straight back. When you attempt this, you will realise that you are getting nowhere close to the floor and that’s OK! It will get better because now you are actually working on hamstrings flexibility, rather than rounding your back.
- Hold for 10 – 15s or until the muscle tension has reduced
- Increase the stretch further until you feel tension again
- Again, hold for 10 – 15s or until tension has gone and repeat as long as you are able to
- Flexibility stretches should, ideally, be held for at least 45s. If you can manage a minute, even better!
Flexibility stretches can be performed daily but 2 – 3x a week would be the minimum. Easy Yoga flows are an excellent way to improve flexibility in a fun and interesting way, instead of boring static stretches.
Most stretches come from Yoga anyway, you will see after a few classes that you probably recognise most of the positions, just maybe slightly modified.
There is a lot of Yoga apps, loads of them are free but I recommend Downward Dog app, which is around £50 a year and it generates a random practice for you every time, so you never get bored. You can also pick which muscle group you want to focus on, how long the practice you want to be, the voice, music, difficulty level and the type of flow (from quick and hard-working ones to easy and restorative ones).
Some people, especially the certified ones, are sometimes a little sensitive about yoga being practiced unsupervised because, apparently, there is a big chance of injuring yourself. With that logic, everyone who goes to the gym and wants to approach free weights, should have a Fitness Coach certification or should be supervised by a coach. Weight training can cause a lot more damage if performed incorrectly, yet a lot of people go to the gym and do weights, unfortunately often with incorrect form.
Human body has an amazing ability to protect itself and it’s incredibly difficult to hurt yourself with body weight exercises (unless you fall over very badly and break something but that can happen any time).
The tension in muscles in controlled by incredibly sensitive sensory organs:
- Joint Receptors – they are located in the ligaments and joint itself, informing the brain about the overall position of the joint
- Muscle Spindles – found in the muscle “belly” and inform the brain about the length of the muscle fibre, which helps to prevent overstretching
- Golgi Tendon Organs (GTOs) – probably the most incredible and protective muscle receptors located in the tendons. They tell the brain how much tension muscle is under and, in extreme cases, where the muscle is not able to withstand the tension, GTOs intervene and make the muscle relax to avoid injury
I strongly recommend giving Yoga a go. Obviously, same as everything, don’t push yourself too hard to the point, where you might feel pain. If you know you cannot do certain poses, do modified ones or just use progressions. The beauty of this app is that it slowly takes you through all the basics before it even allows you to get to hard poses and even if you feel like you can’t do a certain pose today, that’s OK. Just skip it, either relax for a little bit or do an easier pose.
Yoga is not dangerous. People just need to think. Obviously I’m not going to do splits if I can barely reach the floor with my fingers.
Obviously the best way to practice is to join a studio but that could be a little difficult while the pandemic is in full blow.
There is another group of people, who think that Yoga is for lazy people and pregnant women. This is so not true and, quite often, gym goers who frequently hit heavy weights, cannot perform yoga poses because they cannot carry their own weight in certain poses. So don’t throw yoga away just yet.
THE IMPORTANCE OF FLEXIBILITY
Apart from reason mention right at the top, flexibility and stretching is incredibly important for mobility. Resistance training often results in muscle balance issues. People often focus on working one part of the body more than others, which eventually leads to imbalance.
Perfect example are men working out their chest a lot, which may eventually lead to shortening of the chest muscles and lengthening the muscles in your back, especially rhomboids, located between the shoulder blades, resulting in a hunched back appearance.
It’s great to look all chiseled but make sure you concentrate on your back as much as you are focusing on your chest to balance the tension out.
Another great example are runners. Most of them will tell you they have tight hamstrings. But that’s not because of the running, it’s because hamstrings are probably the most overlooked muscle group in the legs. Most people just stretch their thigh and calf quickly and off they go, doing the same stretches at the end of the run.
Hamstrings can be very uncomfortable when tight or short, making it very difficult to perform certain pelvis actions, for example a so called Anterior Pelvic Tilt. This tilt is not very good if maintained throughout the day but it’s essential for performing certain cool poses. For example a pancake stretch is not possible to perform without flexible hamstrings and if you like to work out your legs a lot, you are probably unable to get anywhere near this position, same as me.
It takes forever to loosen up hamstrings and it requires a lot of determination because the results are very slow. I’ve tried many programs that promise you splits in 30 days and similar nonsense. If you are as bad as me, you are getting nowhere in 30 days 🙂
It’s possible, however it requires DAILY dedication and motivation.
I find it incredibly motivating after starting to see some results, they will be very small but they will be there.
HIP AND HAMSTRING TIGHTNESS
Probably the biggest issue of the modern world. We are now sitting for hours a day. We sit in a car, on a train, at work, at home while watching TV.
Hip and hamstring tightness and weakness is becoming quite a serious issue because it can affect our posture.
Make sure you move around at least every hour, even after work, you can always get up from the computer and walk around, stretch your lower back. Now, when more and more people are working from home, there is very little room for excuses. I understand that starting to do stretches or yoga flow in the office might be a little weird, especially when you are wearing a suit or heels. But what stops you from interrupting your work for 30 mins and doing a quick yoga flow?
You will feel a lot more energised and your lower body will thank you.
I have recently starting focusing on my hips a lot and managed to loosen up quite significantly. Now, when I sit for a long period of time, for example, when I write an article, which usually takes an hour or two, I start to feel very stiff and my hips become painful to the point where I actually do have to get up and start stretching.
Also, this is slightly holistic information and I’m not sure it has been proved biologically, but hips carry a lot of emotional tension, just like upper back carry a lot of stress.
I am not exactly sure what the reason is but if you go through a good hip opening sequence, you can become very emotional and old feelings and emotions can start to resurface, even making you cry. I have quite often experienced an abrupt release of deeply buried feelings, emotions and bad memories, making me feel as if the bad stuff happened yesterday. It’s probably not great to be reliving your bad, deeply buried fears and memories, but I guess it’s a lot better than bury more and more down there.
I have to say that, as I have carried on opening my hips more and more over time, I have experience decrease in these emotional “tantrums” and a beautiful feeling of calm and chill fills my body every time I stretch my hips. I’ve become accustomed to performing a few openers just before bedtime, the whole sequence probably takes me about 15 minutes.
It consists of:
- Keep your back straight, even if it means not leaning forward as much, that’s not the point
- You don’t have to lean forward at all, just keep sitting with straight back, that’s great, too!
- You should feel tension on the inside of the thighs
- 45s – 1 min in as many as 4 sets (try at least two – applies to all the stretches mentioned)
- Keep yourself aligned, following the leg
- Open the further shoulder as much as possible
- It should activate hamstring AND muscles running along the spine – they are often overlooked
- I, myself, cannot bend very much but it doesn’t matter. Wherever is your maximum, stay there.
- Try 45s each side in 4 sets
- This is a progression towards a full split, which I cannot possibly do in a million years but I can keep trying 🙂
- The front knee ca have a slight bend to it, as long as you can feel the hamstring working
- The back knee can be right under the hips or as far back as comfortable
- Keep hips squared without twisting them to the side just to get further down
- 45s on each side in 4 sets
- You don’t have to focus on putting the elbows on the floor, make sure you lead the move down with your chest without rounding the back
- Great hip opener
- The knee doesn’t have to touch the floor, it can be floating above
- Great bedtime stretch
- 45s each side in 4 sets
Seated Foot Reach
- This one is a weird one, some days I can go very far and some days are like this picture
- Keep your back straight and lead with the chest
- You should feel tension in your hamstring
- Try 45s on each side in 4 sets
If you are interested in the science of stretching and pictures of how the muscles work during stretching, especially Yoga poses, I recommend THIS BOOK from Amazon. It’s written in a very simple and engaging way with loads of pictures and a little introduction to human body systems. It’s called “Science of Yoga” but it’s not just about yoga, making it great for everyone interested in muscles and movement in general.