You just finished a killer full-body workout, and you’re exhausted. What do you do next?
Most people would say, “Cool down.” The goal is pretty straightforward: relax the body, slow the heart rate, and physically cool off. The current literature does not support a need to do anything post-exercise other than ceasing moving (1). However, most people engage in static stretching to cool down because it’s supposed to reduce muscle soreness and improve flexibility. But does it?
Static Stretching: No Bang For Its Buck?
Static stretching is a routine protocol for warming up and cooling down, which is why you see it done so often. A classic example of static stretching is reaching down to touch the toes while the lumbar spine and posterior hip muscles lengthen.
Unfortunately, the research on traditional static stretching is mixed, leaning more toward static stretching being a poor use of time. This is especially the case if you’re trying to cool down and reduce post-exercise muscle soreness/stiffness. (1,2)
It’s not that static stretching is inherently bad; it’s that it’s generally poorly executed or not utilized for a long enough duration to elicit any actual benefits outside of you feeling more at ease or relaxed. For instance, it generally takes multiple bouts per day of 10-15 minutes of static stretching for you to increase the stretch tolerance or range of motion of a given muscle/joint. (3)
I haven’t seen many people in the gym spend that much time stretching one joint, let alone exercising one joint for that long of a duration during the entire bout of a workout.
Dynamic Stretching: A Step In The Right Direction?
Dynamic stretching has multiple meanings in the fitness world. Some coaches consider arm circles dynamic stretching, while others consider “functional movements” dynamic stretching (e.g., squats, lunges, planks.)
Dynamic stretching is a gray area that encompasses all movements as long as the movement explores a joint’s range of motion, which all exercises do by definition.
More recently, researchers have defined dynamic stretching as the moving of a limb through its active range of motion (ROM) by contracting the muscle group antagonist to the target muscle group without bouncing. (4) For example, if you were to lengthen your upper arm to stretch your tricep, you would actively engage your bicep to dynamically stretch the tricep.
If you just crushed your quads and want to put them through a dynamic stretch post-exercise, you could do so with the understanding that it may improve your quad’s range of motion (4), but it won’t actually improve recovery or soreness.
Your Nervous System Responds To Inputs, So Give It Input.
If you want your results to “stick,” you need your nervous system to adapt to the demands you put on it. This is the law of specificity in action.
If you squat, you’ll get better at squatting. If you move your hip through a full range of motion, it will get better at moving through a full range of motion. The problem is, we tend to ignore our joints and focus more on movements. For example, you’re more likely to see someone work on their squat mechanics by squatting as opposed to working on their full hip mechanics (i.e., hip flexion, extension, rotation, abduction, etc.)
Most exercises you do in the gym don’t explore a joint’s full range of motion in one sweeping action.
Yet Again, Controlled Articular Rotations (CARs) Are The Answer.
If you read our previous article on warming up, you know we’re a fan of controlled articular rotations (CARs) for just about anything, from warming up to utilizing it as a tool to train your joints.
And, you guessed it, CARs are the perfect way to cool down your joints. Here’s why:
- CARs explore a given joint’s full range of motion. For instance, when you do a cervical spine (neck) CAR, like the video below, you explore your ability to flex, extend, laterally flex, and rotate your cervical spine. You can and should use CARs post-exercise as a diagnostic to check-in with your joints to see how you feel.
- Neural grooving. You just spent the entirety of your workout routine trying to induce adaptation. Let’s make sure those efforts stick. CARs give thorough input into a joint’s workspace so that your nervous system continues to allow motion to occur at that joint.
Make Your Results Stick. Recover Later.
If you walk out of the gym as soon as you finish your last set of squats, you would probably be fine (caveat here for people with medical conditions—always listen to your doctor). You don’t need to static or dynamically stretch anything to recover or improve long-term recoverability.
But you could make better use of your time by initiating your exit strategy with CARs. We recommend you do CARs for every joint every day, but you can do them post-exercise for the joints you spent the most time working. For instance, if you did a lower body workout, you could do CARs for your hips, knees, and ankles.
Give your body the feedback it needs. Do your CARs.
Brian Murray, FRSC, FRA
Founder of Motive Training
Fight Pain. Gain Strength. Get Results.
Personal Training and Online Coaching in Grand Rapids, MI, and Austin, TX.
Editor’s Note: We released a full-body CARs routine on YouTube. Subscribe to our YouTube channel to stay up to date!
- Do We Need a Cool-Down After Exercise? A Narrative Review of the Psychophysiological Effects and the Effects on Performance, Injuries and the Long-Term Adaptive Response
- CURRENT CONCEPTS IN MUSCLE STRETCHING FOR EXERCISE AND REHABILITATION
- Factors That Influence the Efficacy of Stretching Programs for Patients With Hypomobility
- Dynamic Stretching Has Sustained Effects on Range of Motion and Passive Stiffness of the Hamstring Muscles
- An Evidence-Based Approach for Choosing Post-exercise Recovery Techniques to Reduce Markers of Muscle Damage, Soreness, Fatigue, and Inflammation: A Systematic Review With Meta-Analysis