How many times have you finished that last rep of a workout, exhausted and sweaty, only to skip off to your next activity or the shower without cooling down or giving your muscles a nice stretch? All the time? Well, you’re not alone. Adding a cool-down stretch to the end of a tough workout can seem pointless. You’ve already dedicated a good 45 minutes to an hour of sweating, spending an extra five minutes in the gym seems tortuous. Sure, you’ve heard you should never skip cool-down stretches, but that seems a little dramatic, right?
As a certified personal trainer, I get it. We all want to be efficient and get the results we want, but skipping stretching and a proper cool-down can flush all your hard work right down the drain. Cool-down stretches will give your body the best chance to properly recover and reap all the rewards of your hard work. Plus, a proper post-workout stretch will make you feel better and avoid all the aches and pains that come with feeling super super sore. Yes, it adds five extra minutes to your workout. But, you’re already committed — five more minutes is doable and worth it for your long-term physical wellness. Here are three reasons that prove why you should never skip cool-down stretches:
If you’ve ever winced getting out of bed the day after a strenuous workout, it probably means you should’ve stretched. While feeling sore can be a satisfying feeling, it’s not exactly the most practical when you need to be on your feet all day. When we work our bodies, we put force on our muscles, causing the muscle fiber to tear. As muscles tear, they create what’s called lactic acid. When lactic builds up, it causes that icky, uncomfortable tenderness that we refer to as being sore.
When you smash a hard workout and don’t stretch, the lactic acid that builds up just sits around the areas you recently worked. Static stretching — gently extending the joints to their full range of motion and holding for a period of time — after a workout, helps the lactic acid disperse meaning no pain the next morning.
When you’re crushing an intense workout, your muscles aren’t the only things working hard. Your nervous system is also hard at work allowing your body to adapt to strain. Whether you’re pushing your body through high intensity intervals or working in a steady state, you want to gradually let the body cool down to help recovery, giving your nervous system a chance to catch up.
As you stretch, focus on intentional breathing. Nothing fancy — just breathe deeply into a certain part of your body (like your lower abdomen) and exhale slowly. This focus will allow your heart rate to come down smoothly and help your body transition to your next activity. This also helps you become more in-tune with your body and how the workout you just did has impacted certain areas.
No matter if you’re a professional athlete or a desk warrior, your muscles can get “stuck” in whatever position you spend the most time in. For example, if most of your day is spent sitting, your hamstrings — the muscles in the back of your thighs — will become tight. Overtime, tightness shortens our muscle fibers and can decrease our range of motion through the joint. When your range of motion is limited, your power is limited.
Stretching after a workout is the ideal time to work on flexibility because your muscles are already warm and ready to move. Prioritizing flexibility in your routine is a great way to feel stronger, more mobile, and more powerful the next time you pick up weights, lace up your running shoes, or clip into your bike!
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About the author
Emi Gutgold is a PMA NCPT and NASM CPT based in New York City. Just like Elle Woods, she is also a gemini and vegan. When she's not teaching Pilates or lifting heavy weights, she's eating pita and hummus with her dog, Chickpea, and binging trash reality TV.