10 Cool Down Exercises That Can Make Your Workout More Effective
When we finish a workout, our first instinct is to get out of the gym as quickly as humanly possible. But as much as we want to head straight to the shower, we know we should be doing some cool-down exercises. Why? Well, we can think of a few good reasons. Cooling down can be just as important—if not more important—than the actual workout. According to the American Heart Association, “After physical activity, your heart is still beating faster than normal, your body temperature is higher and your blood vessels are dilated. This means if you stop too fast, you could pass out or feel sick.”
Beyond that, cooling down via stretching can reduce the buildup of lactic acid, which can help prevent cramping and stiffness. These exercises can also prevent—or at least minimize—delayed onset muscle soreness, or DOMS, the pain and stiffness in the muscles you feel anywhere from 24 to 72 hours after exercise. “One of the biggest post-workout mistakes that I see people make is skipping a cool-down stretch or leaving before the end of a group fitness class,” says Jonathan Tylicki, certified personal trainer and director of education for AKT. “Stretching will help prevent soreness, relax the nervous system, promote mobility and flexibility and can even improve your next workout.”
Here are a bunch of cool-down exercises to try—along with a few other post-workout tips.
1. Seated Single-Leg Hamstring Stretch
How to do it: While sitting on the floor, place one leg straight out. Bend the other leg at the knee and position the sole of that foot against your opposite inner thigh (against the straight leg). Extend both arms and reach forward. You may only be able to touch your knee, but as time goes by, work toward your foot. Hold for 30 seconds and switch legs.
Why it works: “Hamstring tightness is one of the leading contributors to back pain, especially in the lower back,” says Callista Costopoulos Morris, DO, a sports orthopedic surgeon with the Geisinger Musculoskeletal Institute in Pennsylvania. This stretch also aids in hamstring flexibility. “You should include this move every time you stretch. Even if you don’t currently have back pain, it will help prevent issues down the road.”
2. Standing Quad Stretch
How to do it: Balancing on your right leg, grab your shoe with your left hand and pull your left ankle up to meet your butt. Hold for 30 seconds. You should feel the stretch in the front of your thigh. Focus on trying to extend your knee to get the maximum effect. Repeat on the right side.
Why it works: The primary function of the quads (that big, meaty muscle in the front of your thighs) is to help control knee motion, so keeping the muscles loose and lengthened is key to avoiding injuries. This is especially true for runners, who can experience pain if there is an uneven pulling on the knee cap due quad tightness.
3. Lunging Calf Stretch
How to do it: Step into a lunge, keeping your back knee off the ground. Ease into the stretch with a small bounce to feel it in your back calf. Hold for 30 seconds and repeat on the other side.
Why it works: People often forget about the calves when cooling down, and the best part about this stretch is that it works your calves, hip flexors, glutes and hamstrings. It doubles as a great warm-up but is ideal for lengthening your lower body after a long run or intense HIIT class.
4. CORE ABDOMINAL STRETCH
How to do it: Lie flat on your stomach. Then, press up on your elbows or all the way to your palms with your elbows slightly bent. You may only be able to go as high as your elbows, but that’s OK. Stretch your head and neck back so that you're looking at the ceiling.
Why it works: “This move stretches your core muscles including your rectus abdominus and obliques,” per Costopoulos Morris. “These muscles are key to good workouts and the health of your lower back.”
5. CHILD'S POSE
How to do it: Kneel on the floor. Then, with your knees and legs together, transition to sitting on the back of your calves with the knees bent. If you can’t lower all the way to your calves, place a pillow between the back of your thighs and calves to lessen the pressure on your knees. Next, fold yourself over the front of your thighs, reaching out with your arms, lowering your head and keeping contact between your calves and thighs. The farther you reach, the more stretch you will feel.
Why it works: “This is a great way to stretch the small muscles in your back that connect your vertebral bodies (the larger bones that make up your spine),” Costopoulos Morris told us. “It also stretches out the space between the bones (facet joints or articulations) and allows your nerves to breathe.” Heads up, though: If you have a herniated disc, you’re going to want to avoid this stretch unless your doctor says it’s OK. “[This] can cause the disc to push farther onto your affected nerves,” she notes.
6. SINGLE KNEE-TO-CHEST STRETCH
How to do it: Lie on your back with your legs straight and bend one knee. Pull the bent knee toward your chest and stomach. Hold your leg with both hands on your shin or the back of your thigh, whatever position is more comfortable, and continue to hold until you feel the stretch in your back. Hold for 30 seconds, then switch legs.
Why it works: While child’s pose focuses on the back’s small muscles, this move isolates the larger muscles in your lower back. “It also helps stretch out your sacroiliac joint, located where your sacrum, or sit bone, connects with your pelvis,” adds Costopoulos Morris. “This joint, which connects your spine and back to your lower body, can become ‘stuck’ and cause low back pain.”
7. BENT KNEE CROSS-BODY STRETCH
How to do it: Lie on your back and swing one leg over the other, rotating through your lower back. Place both arms out to the side for balance. Try to keep your shoulder blades on the floor as much as you can. Your upper torso should be resisting the rotation in the opposite direction. Hold for 30 seconds, then switch sides.
Why it works: This move helps stretch the muscles in your lower back and obliques. “Strengthening your core musculature is important to having a healthy back, while the move also helps stretch the bones in the lower back as well as your sacroiliac joint,” Costopoulos Morris stressed.
8. Seated Pigeon
How to do it: Sitting on a bench or chair, rest your right ankle on your left knee and gently push your right knee toward the ground. Hold for 30 seconds and repeat with the other leg. This will help prevent your inner thighs from getting tight.
Why it works: Like a standing figure four stretch, seated pigeon is perfect for targeting your glutes and allows you to hold the pose for as long as you need without having to balance on one foot. It also helps to improve hip mobility as well as your posture and alignment by relieving tightness in the lower back.
9. Piriformis Stretch
How to do it: Sit down on the floor with both legs extended out in front of you. Cross your right leg over your left and place your right foot firmly on the ground next to your left knee. Twist your upper body to the right and place your right hand behind you. Place your left elbow on your right knee and press outward to deepen the stretch as you continue to twist. Hold for 30 seconds then switch sides and repeat.
Why it works: Ever experience shooting pain down your lower back and legs? That would be your sciatica nerve. The sciatica nerve runs through the piriformis (the flat muscle located on your bum near the top of your hip joint). When that nerve gets inflamed, your piriformis compresses it causing pain. Stretching (and strengthening) that muscle, especially after a workout, will help increase mobility and avoid painful flare-ups.
10. Lunge with a spinal twist
How to do it: From a standing position, take a big step forward with your left foot as if you were doing an extended lunge. Plant your left foot firmly on the ground. Place your right hand on the floor next to your left foot and twist your upper body to the left as you extend your left arm toward the ceiling. Hold for 30 seconds then switch sides and repeat.
Why it works: Again with the mobility (but it's important!). This stretch is great for improving your thoracic or mid-back mobility, which is often ignored. It can also easily be modified, to accommodate your current flexibility and is ideal for opening up the hips and lengthening out the hip flexors. A sped-up version of this is often used as a warm-up, so slow it down and give yourself time to really melt into each movement.
Additional Ways to Recover After a Workout
1. Eat and Drink Properly
Look, we’ve all gone to a Sunday morning boot-camp class and then rewarded ourselves by ordering pancakes, eggs and two mimosas at brunch. But if you want to help your body recover faster, personal trainer Lisa Reed recommends refueling soon after working out with a small amount of carbohydrates and protein. Here are six of the best foods and drinks to have after working out.
2. Try Foam Rolling
You don’t need to be an elite athlete to take advantage of foam rolling—in fact, all you need is $15 and a little know-how. By applying pressure on sore spots, foam rolling helps release tension and tightness in muscles after they’ve been overworked. Here’s how to use a foam roller for the best (read: most pain-relieving) results.
3. Consider Cryotherapy—or an Ice Bath
Warning: This one’s not for the faint of heart. Whole body cryotherapy (WBC) is the cold treatment celebrities love. With temperatures as low as -270 degrees Fahrenheit, proponents say that stepping into the chilly walk-in chamber for a few minutes will speed up recovery, reduce inflammation and boost circulation. But research on WBC is mixed. While one small German study found that athletes recovered faster (and performed better) with the cold treatment, a review of four previous studies concluded that there wasn’t enough evidence to support using WBC for muscle soreness. If you’re not interested in paying someone to feel the chill, you can reap similar effects by stepping into an ice bath—here’s how to do it and what to expect.