Exercise performance can be improved by ensuring you are properly warmed up before beginning your workout and taking time to cool down and stretch afterward.

A warmup is a crucial piece of any workout – weight lifting included. Ultimately, warming up prepares the body for activity and lessens the risk for injury. Imagine taking a rubber band out of the freezer – it’s cold and brittle. If you pull it to its full stretch capacity, the rubber band will snap. However, if you begin with small movements and gradually increase the length of the stretch, the rubber band will thaw and reach its full stretch capacity without breaking. The same goes for our muscles: muscles are elastic – they stretch and shorten. If you exercise on a cold muscle, you run the risk of injury, but if you slowly ease your muscles into activity, you reduce that risk and prepare your body for optimal performance.

Warming up gradually increases the heart rate, which minimizes the stress of activity on the heart. A proper warmup also gradually raises body temperature, maximizing the flexibility and efficiency of the muscles – think back to the rubber band from before. Finally, warming up dilates blood vessels and increases blood flow to the muscles, optimizing oxygen delivery and CO2 disposal.

The warmup should take place in the first ten minutes of the workout. Begin with a cardiovascular warmup: row, ski erg, elliptical, walk, jog, bike, etc. Start at a low intensity with a slower pace and gradually increase to the intensity of your workout. You want to ease your body into the activity that you will be performing that day. Your warmup may produce mild sweating, but should not leave you fatigued. After the cardiovascular portion of the warmup, perform some dynamic stretching and mobility exercises. Focus first on large muscle groups (quadriceps, hamstrings, pectorals, etc.) and then move into sport or activity specific exercises. Dynamic exercises involve movement, such as PVC pipe passes, leg swings, or lightweight lifts. Avoid stretches that involve holding a position for an extended period of time – save this for after the workout as static stretches can temporarily reduce the force production of your muscles, thus reducing speed and power during your workout.

Cooling down is just as important as warming up, as it gradually returns the heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing rate to pre-exercise levels. Foregoing a cooldown can result in lightheadedness or fainting and increases the likelihood of muscle soreness.

A proper cooldown is done at a slower pace and reduced intensity than your workout, gradually decreasing intensity over the course of about five minutes. This gives your body the chance to ease back to baseline. Finish out the workout session with five to ten minutes of static stretching. Hold each stretch for at least 30 seconds and be sure to stretch both sides of the body evenly.

Warmups and cooldowns are important pieces of any workout session. Take extra time to ensure your body is properly cared for pre- and post-exercise – your body and your exercise performance will thank you!

RACHEL SCHNEIDER