The Risks Of Exercising Without Warming Up (Or Cooling Down)

Image by Studio Firma / Stocksy

I want to address the elephant in the room (or the gym, if you will)—warmups and cool-downs. If we're honest with ourselves, the majority of us don't take the time to warm up before we work out and cool down afterward. And though it may seem like a hassle (who wants to add even more time to their workout, right?), preparing your body for exercise and then bringing it back to homeostasis is incredibly important for your overall health and performance.

To explain why we need warmups and cool-downs (and give us her recs for what to do), we asked NYC-based, NASM-certified personal trainer Lauren Kanski to shed some light on the subject. Here's what she said.

Why do we need to warm up before a workout? What does it do?

"So my general philosophy behind a warmup and cool-down is all about preparing the body to 1) leave its desired internal temperature, and 2) return to its desired internal temperature. For most people, that temperature is 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit—we can call this the optimal homeostasis range for the body to keep itself alive and functioning well. All chemical reactions, blood pH levels, sweating, and lymphatic drainage are regulated best at homeostasis. When we place the stress of physical exercise on the body, we want the body to be prepared for the changes.

"I like to keep my warmups slow and gradual. As we begin to move, the neurological feedback systems from the sensors in our muscles, bones, joints, and cardiovascular system all work together to send specific instructions to the brain to help your body function above its desired equilibrium. The brain reacts faster to new stimuli; the heart pumps more blood to the muscles; you start sweating to regulate your increase in temperature. If this switch happens too fast, we are at a higher risk for injury simply because the body isn't prepared."

Why should we cool down after a workout?

"Same idea with a cool-down—you're preparing the body to return to the equilibrium it prefers. I explain it to my clients like a car on a highway going 100 mph. If the engine just shuts off rapidly and unannounced, we lose a lot of control of the car. We want to slowly start to direct neurological feedback to down-regulate our system—slow the heart rate, which decreases blood pressure and directs blood back toward other vital organs, which were deprived of oxygen during activity."

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What risks do we run by not warming up or cooling down?

"When we don't warm up or cool down, we risk 'shock to the system.' The body is a huge chain of reactions that work simultaneously and directly together for us to function well. As we start to warm up or cool down, the shift in regulation must occur in a balanced manner across all systems; otherwise, we risk factors like a heart attack, fainting, pulling a muscle, etc.

"I use this example with clients—think of your muscles as either a raw steak or beef jerky. Which one do you think would react the best to a workout right off the bat? Everyone says the raw steak, of course! Because its hydrated, fluid, and extensible. The jerky is on the verge of breaking in half and is completely incapable of movement."

What do you recommend people do to warm up and cool down?

"For a warmup: Always start with your breathing. I have people do two minutes of breathwork. Deep inhales and exhales in a relaxed position, eyes closed. Then I have them warm up every joint in the body. We usually start from the ground up, ending with neck rolls. Then we go after the cardiovascular system and start doing dynamic stretching in all planes of motion. I like to mimic these stretches with movements that are programmed in the workout—like walking lunges with a thoracic twist, side lunges, bear crawls, hip bridges, and shoulder retractions. You need to prepare yourself for your specific workout!

"Cool-down is the same thing except reversed. Slowly return your body back to homeostasis and get control of your breath back."

There you have it—warming up and cooling down is without a doubt the best way to maximize your workout and keep your body functioning at an optimal level. Need some warmup inspo? Try this five-minute jump-rope circuit, or this five-minute warmup, which is perfect for those times when your gym is packed.

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