I read a great piece by Tony Gentilcore on warm-up fundamentals about a month ago (you can read the article here) in which Tony correctly states, at least in my opinion, that athletes often either don’t appreciate the importance of a warmup or don’t know how to do it properly. This got me thinking about other things that frequently get overlooked in a training program. To me, just as important to the health and quality of movement of an athlete and probably even more frequently overlooked is the cool-down. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen an athlete finish a workout, do a half-ass stretch or two, and then take off to play Call of Duty and take a nap (or whatever else the kids are doing these days). Hell, I do it myself from time to time when I’m pressed for time or just feeling lazy. But if you are truly invested in optimizing your performance on the field of play, the cool-down is a critical piece of the training program that should not be overlooked.
So what’s the point of a cool-down after a lift? The cool-down serves a purpose similar to the warm-up: to improve the posture and quality of movement of an athlete, thereby (hopefully) reducing the athlete’s risk of injury while on the field of play. Generally speaking, the slight difference between the two is that the warm-up primarily functions to reduce risk of injury during the lift by inducing physiological changes that prepare an athlete for the impending workload, while a cool-down is intended to “undo the damage” (to quote Mike Cantrell, a PRI pro) that the lift may do and reinforce proper posture and movement patterns for after the lift, when the athlete is actually participating in their sport. I added the qualifier “generally speaking” because the warm-up does contribute to improvements in mobility, posture, and overall quality of movement. Despite the best efforts of a strength coach to avoid certain movement patterns, however, via cuing or avoiding certain exercises altogether, many heavy lifts unavoidably reinforce these patterns.
If you are to perform a proper squat, for example, by sitting your butt back and moving primarily with the hips, it’s nearly impossible not to go into some degree of lumbar extension. Many Olympic lifts, overhead presses, and exercises involving hip extension also fall under this category. We don’t necessarily need to avoid these exercises (as long as they are not contraindicated for the athlete), because they usually do offer many benefits. But we do have to address the negative effects that they have. Reinforcing proper movement patterns and trying to inhibit or facilitate certain muscle groups after a training session can help undo these negative effects.
In addition, it is important to consider that, outside of the 1-2 hours that an athlete spends with you in the gym, he or she spends the other 22-23 hours of the day reinforcing those postural patterns that we don’t want, whether it be due to playing their sport or simply the inherent asymmetrical nature of the human body. Thus, getting them to take those extra 10-15 minutes to get them back to or at least closer to neutral can go a long way. Encouraging the athletes to do some of the exercises in the warm-up/cool-down outside of the gym is also a great idea. I work primarily with hockey players, and in-season I have them do some version of their warm-up/cool-down four to six times a day–in the morning, before and after a lift (if they have one), before and after practices and games, and before bed. This may seem like overkill, but again, they’re spending the majority of their time reinforcing patterns that we don’t want. Anecdotally speaking, I’ve seen great results with my guys: recurring groin issues have all but disappeared, and a few with chronic back pain have reported great improvement upon introduction of these exercises. I’m not going to say the exercises are the sole reason their symptoms have subsided; there are way too many uncontrolled variables that could have an affect. However, I am confident in my belief that they played a large role.
That’s enough for today. I’ll make this into a two-part series; part deux will go into how I design a cool-down, how it differs from my warm-up, and will include an actual example I use with my hockey players.