Kick-Start Your Recovery With These 8 Cooldown Exercises
Of all the items on the workout menu, the most often ignored is probably the cooldown. And it’s understandable: You’ve warmed up, stretched, done some strength work, and cranked out the cardio. Following all that work up with more cooldown exercises, no matter how easy or pleasant, can seem excessive. Why is cooling down after exercise important? And what’s the best way to do it? From lowering your heart rate to oxygenating your body, there are many reasons why you should try these moves after every workout.
1. Light, Low-Impact Cardio
This is the simplest cooldown of all. After your workout, perform three to five minutes of walking, rowing, cycling, or jogging on an elliptical trainer. If possible, try to avoid high-impact exercise like running or jogging as a cooldown: The impact places a strain on your joints that tends to rev you up rather than cool you down.
2. Yoga Plex
- Assume a push-up position: hands and the balls of your feet on the floor — both at shoulder width — body straight from your heels to the crown of your head.
- Keeping your back flat and your arms and legs straight, lift your hips as high as possible, assuming the downward dog posture. Hold for two deep breaths.
- Step your right foot forward, placing it on the floor just to the right of your right hand. Your knee should be above your ankle. If hip mobility gets in the way, simply grab your leg with your hand and bring it forward.
- Straighten your left leg and sink your hips to the floor as much as possible, and hold for two deep breaths.
- Lift your right hand off the floor, extend it up and back, and reach for the ceiling. Pull your right shoulder blade onto your back. Lengthen your spine, straighten your back leg, and hold for two deep breaths.
- Return your right hand to the floor and step back to downward dog. Hold for two deep breaths.
- Repeat the sequence above, this time stepping your left foot forward and rotating your left arm back, breathing deeply in each posture. After you have completed the whole series on both sides, return to a standing position, then repeat, running through the entire yoga plex — both sides — a total of 4–5 times.
3. Lunge and Twist
- From a push-up position, step your right foot forward and place it on the floor to the right of your right hand (your right knee should be near your right shoulder).
- Straighten your left leg as much as possible and keep it there throughout the move. Contract your right glute muscles.
- Reach your right hand under your body as if trying to touch something on the floor near your left hip.
- Reach your right hand up and back behind you, extending your fingertips toward the ceiling. Pull your right shoulder blade back toward your spine.
- Perform 10 reps, switch sides, and repeat.
4. Static Stretching
Hold any — or all — of the positions in the yoga plex sequence (lunge, downdog, forward bend) for 30–60 seconds. These moves can be some of the most effective cooldown exercises if you breathe fully while attempting to deepen into the stretch on each exhale.
5. Inverted Hamstring and Groin Stretch Variations
- Place a mat on the floor with one of its edges touching the foot of a wall.
- Sit on the mat with your right shoulder near the wall.
- Lie back on the mat, raising your legs so that the backs of your calves, thighs, and heels are pressed against the wall (it will look as though you are “sitting” on the wall with your back on the floor).
- Keeping your head, upper back, and sacrum in contact with the floor, and your legs and butt against the wall, straighten your knees and flex your feet as much as possible. (If you can’t keep your butt against the wall with the sacrum on the floor, slide a few inches away from the wall.)
- Hold for up to three minutes, then spread your legs into a straddle (as wide as possible) and repeat.
6. Wall Knee Rocks
- Slide backward from the position described above so you can place the soles of your feet on the wall with your knees and hips both bent 90 degrees.
- Slowly rock your knees left and right, stretching the lower back and hips. Continue, slowly going side to side, for up to three minutes.
- Lie flat on your back in a quiet place and close your eyes.
- Focus on your breathing, observing the speed and depth of each breath without altering it in any way.
- On each exhale, relax more deeply into the floor.
- If your mind wanders, refocus on your breath.
- Continue for up to 10 minutes.
8. Egoscue Static Back Pullovers
- Lie on your back with your lower legs elevated on a chair, couch, ottoman, or aerobic step. There should be 90-degree angles between your hips and spine, and between your lower and upper legs.
- While in the static back position, extend and interlace your hands over the center of your chest.
- Keeping your elbows straight, lower your arms overhead, attempting to touch the floor with the thumb sides of your hands.
- Reverse the move and repeat for 2–3 sets of 20–30 reps.
- After you have completed the pullovers, remain in the static back position for 5–7 more minutes.
Why Cooldown Exercises Are Important
Cooling down may not burn many calories or build much muscle, but that doesn’t mean you should skip it. Here’s what effective cooldowns get you:
1. They oxygenate your body
As we’ve heard since elementary school, intense exercise increases muscles’ demand for oxygen. As you exercise, freshly oxygenated blood, carried by the force of your beating heart, rushes into your muscles. For the return trip, it’s the repeated pumping of your muscles that drives the de-oxygenated blood back toward your heart and lungs.
When you skip your post-workout cooldown exercises, you shut down the muscular pump. This causes blood to pool in your extremities, and may even deprive your brain of oxygen, leading to lightheadedness and, in extreme cases, loss of consciousness (if you’ve ever felt dizzy in the shower after a workout, this is probably why).
Cooling down extends the duration of the muscular pump, pushing blood back toward the brain, and allowing freshly oxygenated blood to return to your muscles.
2. They jump-start recovery
Working out doesn’t make you stronger — recovering after a workout does. Put in a tough strength or cardio session and your muscles, tendons, and connective tissues incur minor damage — microscopic tears — which your body then scrambles to repair. Getting fresh blood into damaged muscles after a hard workout helps start this process faster, so you’re ready for your next workout.
3. They provide an optimal window for stretching
Ever notice how quickly morning creakiness dissipates after an easy walk or a couple of light stretches? Movement brings heat and fluid into muscles and connective tissue, making them longer, softer, and more pliable. This is doubly true after an intense workout.
So there’s no better time to stretch your muscles than after a hard exercise session. The range of motion in your joints is at its peak, so you’ll probably be able to stretch further in tough stretches, with minimal risk of injury.
4. They relieve stress
Chronic work, family, and life stress often put us in a near-continuous “fight or flight” state: pounding heart, sweaty palms, shallow breath. Reducing your effort level, focusing on breathing deeply, slowing your heart rate, even closing your eyes and clearing your mind after a challenging workout all stimulate the opposite, parasympathetic, “rest, repair, and digest” response from your nervous system, a deeply calm state which helps us find greater clarity and peace.
What Cooldown Exercises Don’t Do
Though cooling down has many advantages, there’s one thing it doesn’t do, and that’s prevent DOMS — delayed onset muscle soreness — that ache in your muscles you feel in the hours and days after a tough workout. Some exercisers believe that failure to cool down causes lactate (often misidentified as “lactic acid”) to remain in the muscles for hours or days.
It doesn’t. Assuming you’re healthy, you’ll pump any post-workout metabolites out of your muscles by the time you’ve showered and walked to your car. Research shows no difference in DOMS with post-workout stretching, though you may get some temporary relief in DOMS through light stretching and movement the day after a workout.