Exercise warm-ups and cool downs

What to Know

  • Warm-ups and cool-downs are essential to any workout
  • Learn specific stretches to support your lifetime health

Stretching before and after any exercise is a must. Too often we focus on aerobic exercise and strengthening but forget the importance of stretching and flexibility to our overall health. Adequate stretching before and after physical activity will warm up the muscles, increase flexibility, help decrease muscle aches and joint stress, help you avoid injury, and promote overall wellness in your day-to-day life.

Group of pregnant woman stretching arms to a side

For example, runner’s stretch, pelvic tilts, lunges, squats, quad stretches, piriformis stretch and forward bends will prepare the lower body for exercise and are also great post-exercise cool-downs to increase flexibility. Elbow bends, side stretches, shoulder rolls, and neck rolls are excellent upper body stretches for pre- and post- workout. See the What to Do section for specific guidance and instructions.

Stretching during warm-ups and cool-downs will help you preserve musculo-skeletal function during the childbearing years and will support your lifetime health and fitness. But always listen to your body whenever you stretch!

If you notice that a particular muscle group is weak or prone to injury, check with your healthcare provider or a fitness expert for special instructions before engaging in exercise. If you have any muscle or joint issues such as knee problems, a groin pull, or sciatica, you should also check with your healthcare provider. You may need a referral to a physical therapist to learn how to modify your exercise regimen, including your pre- and post- workout stretching, or if you need a device to help support your joints such as a knee brace or a pelvic support belt.

What to Do

Practice dynamic pre-exercise warm up stretching

Dynamic stretching, or repeating a stretch multiple times for a short period of time, helps to deepen the stretch when your muscles are tight. Dynamic stretching pre-workout is less likely to overextend your muscles and joints and cause injury.

Here are some generally safe and effective warm-up stretches for you to practice prior to any type of physical activity. Before engaging in the stretches, warm up your large muscle groups for a few minutes, such as by taking a 3-5 minute walk or going up and down stairs several times, as this will reduce the risks for injury:

  • Toe flex and point: Alternate between flexing and pointing your toes on each foot to increase circulation and flexibility in the lower legs and feet.
  • Side stretch: Inhale and bring your right arm up and over to the left as you exhale; Do the same on the left side. Repeat several times.
  • Elbow bends: Extend your right arm straight up above your head and then bend the right elbow. With your left hand press down gently on the right elbow to increase the stretch. Hold for 10 seconds and then repeat on the other side.
  • Neck rolls: Gently roll the neck in each direction to release tension and maintain range of motion.
  • Shoulder rolls: Roll your shoulders forward in three rotations and then back in 3 rotations to release muscle tightness.
  • Piriformis stretch: From a standing position, place your right ankle over your bent left knee and lean your torso forward toward your knee while balancing or holding onto a wall for 10 seconds; Do the same with the left ankle over the right knee.
  • Forward bend: Take a deep breath in a standing position as you reach your arms up above your head, then exhale and reach for your toes. Inhale and return to standing then exhale back down to a forward bend. Repeat several times.
  • Wrist and ankle rotations: Extend your right arm and left leg and rotate your right wrist and left ankle for 10 seconds to increase circulation. Repeat with left arm and right leg.
  • Quad stretch: Bend your right knee and grab your right ankle to stretch your right quad. Hold for 10 seconds. Repeat with the opposite leg.
  • Lunges: Stand with your feet wider than your hips. Bend your right knee to lunge right as you exhale. Inhale back to starting position. Exhale and lunge left. When in the side lunge position, send your hips back so that your knee does not bend too far beyond your foot. Repeat this dynamic stretch for 30 seconds.
  • Butterfly stretch: Sit on the floor with the heels of your feet together and knees down towards the floor. Hold for 30 seconds.
  • Runner’s stretch: Place your hands against the wall about shoulder width apart. Keep your elbows straight. Place your left foot is about 18 inches from the wall with knee bent and right leg extended back with the knee straight. Lean forward for a great calf stretch. Hold for 10 seconds. Do the same with the right foot forward and left leg back. Repeat again on each side.
  • Pelvic tilt: From a standing position with your feet wider than your hips, place your hands on your thighs and curl your pelvis forward and chin down as you exhale. Inhale and tilt your head up and pelvis back while your hands remain on our thighs. Continue this dynamic exercise for 30 seconds.
  • Chest opener: Clasp your fingers behind you, squeeze your shoulder blades together, and lift your arms up behind you as much as you comfortably can. Hold for 10 seconds.

Include a recovery period followed by deeper and longer stretching in your cool-down session as compared to your pre-exercise warm up

After more vigorous exercise, walk around until your heart rate comes back toward your baseline before taking some time to stretch. Post exercise is the perfect time to take advantage of your warmed-up muscles and increase your flexibility. Repeat the stretches you did during the warm up but this time hold the stretches for at least 30 seconds per each side. Again, listen to your body and don’t take a “one size fits all” approach. Everyone has a different level of flexibility to start with and pushing yourself into a deeper stretch before you’re ready can have detrimental effects.

Remember that hydration is another piece of the cool down routine. Be certain to drink plenty of fluids especially if you’re expecting or breastfeeding. A general recommendation is to drink at least 8 oz of water per 15 minutes of exercise. So if you exercised for 45 minutes, hydration would include drinking 24 oz of water (you can drink some of this during and some after your exercise).

Build up your prenatal exercise slowly over time, especially if you did not work out much prior to pregnancy

Pregnancy is not the time to start a brand new sport. Stick with exercise that is familiar to you. If you are a “non-exerciser” consider taking classes geared toward pregnancy such as prenatal yoga or prenatal Pilates and make sure the instructor is certified to teach pregnant women (and see Exercise for non-exercisers for more tips). Yoga positions involve stretching, strengthening and dynamic movement for a balanced workout, and prenatal yoga exercises are specifically modified to accommodate a pregnant belly.

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