Cool Down: Stretching & SMR

Building an effective cool down routine and the fitness benefits of self-myofascial release and static stretching.

Sam Stephens

Updated July 2019

TLDR

The Fitstra cool down routine only includes self-myofascial release and static stretching.

Self-myofasical release (SMR) with a tool like the foam roller should be performed for 2 sets of 30-60 seconds with high levels of pressure. When performed correctly, SMR can acutely boost blood flow and change both the physical and neuromuscular properties of our muscles, leading to less soreness and an increased stretch potential.

Static stretching is recommended to be performed for 3 sets of 30 seconds immediately following SMR and should not induce any pain or discomfort. Static stretching can directly cause hypertrophy, improve our strength output by changing a muscle’s length-tension curve, and keep us safer under heavy loads.

SMR and static stretching can also be performed on off days, but the duration should be increased – 3 x 90 sec for SMR and 4 x 30-60 sec for static stretching.

If you want to replace static stretching with PNF, go for it. Do a hold-relax style with a 5 second isometric contraction at 40-90% of maximum force, followed by a 30 second stretch.

Chill Out

After lifting all the weights, running all the miles, and knocking out all the HIIT rounds in a day’s session, it’s really tempting to immediately grab our stuff and bounce the moment that last set is done. Really demanding workouts require so much physical and mental effort that we’re usually left feeling completely spent by the end and willing to skip the ‘cool down’ portion because it seems minimally beneficial compared to the more intense stuff that was just completed. It might only be 5% of our total workout time, but those few minutes spent stretching help with so much more than just range of motion.

An effective post workout cool down routine can directly improve hypertrophy, strength, flexibility, and recovery time while reducing soreness, future risk of injury, and joint imbalances. A few minutes spent stretching can drastically impact our exercise progress and session effectiveness.

In this guide, we’ll define what a ‘cool down’ is, look at some the benefits of various stretching techniques, and cover how to build an easy and effective cool down routine.

Staying Safe

This guide focuses on self-myofascial release and static stretching, which are both relatively safe activities regardless of a participant’s age, sex, or exercise experience. However, like other aspects of fitness, the risk of injury can be higher for certain populations.

If you’re pregnant, have osteopenia, varicose veins, scoliosis, have recently had surgery, or are just new to fitness, please take the time to meet with your doctor and make sure this cool down routine is right for you.

Safety is important. Don’t get hurt doing the stuff that’s meant to keep you safe.

Cool Down Definition & Benefits

The specific components and methods of cool downs vary among different programs and social circles, but they all have the same basic goals. Generally speaking, a cool down is a short period (5-15 minutes) of time that occurs immediately after a workout, while the body is still warm, and includes exercises/movements designed to improve flexibility, reduce soreness/inflammation, and give participants time to return to baseline heart rates and body temperatures. The term ‘cool down’ is used here because of its widespread familiarity, not due to any significant emphasis placed on temperature modification. 

The Fitstra cool down routine is intentionally really simple and only includes self-myofascial release and static stretching of the muscles worked that day.

When combined, self-myofascial release and static stretching take about 10-15 minutes to complete and can result in the following acute and chronic benefits:

  • Increased overall flexibility and range of motion
  • Increased hypertrophy (sarcomeres added in series)
  • Increased strength (altered length-tension relationship)
  • Increased quality of movement
  • Increased blood flow
  • Increased balance
  • Increased recovery
  • Increased ATP production
  • Decreased risk of injury
  • Decreased soreness (DOMS)
  • Decreased inflammation
  • Decreased joint imbalances

The expected increase in flexibility is great, but the other potential improvements in the list above make it obvious that stretching does more than simply affect range of motion. If we want to want to perform our best in and out of the gym, we need to be following a well designed cool down routine. 

Cool.

Components of the Cool Down

When looking at the complete structure of the Fitstra cool down, things are really simple – massage the muscles worked that day, then stretch them out. Research shows that both self-myofascial release and static stretching techniques can significantly increase a joint’s range of motion when performed independently, but results are even greater when these two post workout flexibility exercises are combined. So, let’s do both. 

As seen in the graphic above, the cool down process starts with self-myofascial release (SMR) and ends with static stretching. Super simple.

To make sure we’re all speaking the same language and understand what’s being discussed, let’s quickly unpack these terms.

Our muscles and all of their major internal longitudinal structures (fascicles, fibers, and myofibrils) are covered in a collagen sheath called fascia. Similar to how skin covers our body, fascia incases our muscles in a thin layer of connective tissue that aids in elasticity, nutrient delivery, and compartmental structure/organization. Fascia also surrounds internal organs, so the prefix ‘myo’ in ‘myofascial’ means that we’re specifically talking about muscle fascia.

When we apply pressure to our muscles with tools like foam rollers, we are ‘releasing’ tension and possibly breaking up fascial adhesions. So, the term self-myofascial release basically means that we’re giving ourselves a massage with a tool and releasing tension from soft tissues. Nothing too complicated.

For a helpful visual breakdown of muscle anatomy, check out the Strength and Hypertrophy guide.

On the other side of the cool down equation we have static stretching. A static stretch is a stretching technique where a muscle is lengthened until noticeable passive tension is present and then held in that ‘stretched’ state for specific amount of time. Unlike the dynamic stretching featured in the Warm Up guide, static stretching does not involve any movement once the stretch begins.

Both self-myofascial release and static stretching are probably not new concepts for most people, but it’s important that we’re all together.

Now that we’ve got the overall cool down structure and are on the same terminology page, let’s look at why each of these components are so beneficial.

Self-Myofascial Release: Why

There are quite a few really great performance benefits associated with self-myofasical release. Some enhancements are due to physical changes within the muscle and others alter neuromuscular behavior. When combined, the acute responses from massage result in two major training advantages – faster recovery times and more effective static stretching.

To start things off, let’s talk about DOMS and one of the largest contributors to recovery – blood flow.

The delayed onset of muscle soreness (DOMS) is the pain we feel in our muscles after a tough workout. The exact cause of DOMS is not fully understood, but it’s thought to stem from various types of muscular damage and tissue/structural disruption. Soreness is common, but it’s not a training symptom we want to experience at high levels very often. For this damage to be repaired, our muscles need to be taken care of properly.

A great diet, adequate hydration, and a healthy sleep schedule can help ensure our bodies are receiving and synthesizing the nutrients they need to recover. However, when our muscles are damaged, blood flow can be impeded due to inflammation and larger, more serious changes in tissue structure. Luckily, foam rolling and other self-myofascial release techniques can reduce soreness and speed up the recovery process by increasing blood flow.

When self-myofasical release techniques are performed correctly, connective tissues (primarily fascia), muscles, and arteries are made more elastic through massage. Decreased arterial stiffness and beneficial modifications to the viscoelastic properties of muscle tissue and fascia result in vasodilation and acute improvements to local blood circulation. Meaning, when we use a foam roller on a specific area, the targeted muscles and arteries experience better blood flow at higher total volumes because the tissues are more pliable. When damaged muscles receive more blood, they recover faster. Faster recovery reduces inflammation, increases growth speed, improves energy production, and benefits general performance in all future resistance training endeavors. Tons of great stuff from a simple massage.

The same underlying mechanisms and physiological changes that increase blood flow also improve a muscle’s longitudinal stretching potential. Muscles and fascia that are more elastic and less resistant to being lengthened can be stretched to a greater degree. Research suggests that self-myofascial release can increase heat, muscle plasticity/extensibility, and possibly break up fascial adhesions that may impede movement. These physical changes can result in greater ranges of motion during a static stretch due to more favorable viscoelastic muscular properties – SMR works to make rope more like rubber.

On the neuromuscular side of things, SMR appears to inhibit the reflex response of a muscle, making it more relaxed and susceptible to a stretch through a process called autogenic inhibition. The broad strokes of this theory state that when we apply pressure to a muscle through SMR, changes in tissue length, tension, and elevated levels of pain/discomfort are registered by local sensory receptors within a muscle. These signals are then sent to our central nervous system as a type of warning to reduce muscle contraction force and neuromuscular excitability. This warning signal relaxes muscle tissues and make them less reactive to minor changes in discomfort, allowing them to be stretched further than if they were behaving normally. To summarize a summary, self-myofascial release causes our bodies to sense a potential risk of injury and respond by relaxing muscles for a short period of time to keep them safe. The relaxed window is when we apply static stretching.

Now that we have a general understanding of a few self-myofasical release benefits, let’s shift the discussion to static stretching.

Static Stretching: Why

Similar to self-myofascial release, static stretching produces both neuromuscular and physiological changes that range from acute to chronic in their durations. Although the end result of a great static stretching routine is commonly assumed to be ‘just’ improved flexibility, there are actually quite a few other really significant benefits. When performed correctly, static stretching can directly induce hypertrophy, improve our strength output, and reduce the risk of injury under load. We can be bigger, stronger, and safer with a little stretching.

To start things off, let’s talk about muscle growth.

In a weight training setting, our muscles contract against resistance and cause active tension to build up relative to the weight being moved. This tension loads our muscle fibers with mechanical stress and ultimately causes the sensory receptors in the tissue to stimulate myofibrillar protein synthesis. This overly simplified summary of mechanical loading and protein synthesis is how we increase the size of a muscle (hypertrophy) when we lift.

When static stretching is performed correctly, our muscles relax and don’t generate any active tension. However, they do generate passive (relaxed and not contracting) tension at longer lengths and this form of loading can also cause muscle protein synthesis to be triggered.

Static stretching mimics the mechanical stress of an eccentric contraction by lengthening sarcomeres beyond their resting size and loading muscle fibers (and their internal contractile elements) with enough force to generate a growth response. The elastic nature of muscle tissue is what limits our range of motion and builds passive tension in the tissue. Like eccentric contractions, this style of mechanical loading primarily results in new sarcomeres being added in series to the ends of myofibrils. Static stretching alone isn’t going to blow up our hypertrophy gains and probably won’t lead to any visible difference in overall size, but stretching can add new tissue that boosts our functional capabilities and that’s a growth opportunity worth taking advantage of.

As we continue to increase the length of muscle fibers and improve joint flexibility through stretching, the length-tension relationship of our muscles can also change, leading to improved strength.

The force a muscle generates is partially dependent on its length. Both extra long and super short sarcomere lengths don’t allow for an optimal number of actin/myosin cross-bridges, leading to a loss in strength. This means that we’re weaker at the ‘top’ and ‘bottom’ of a contraction and produce peak force somewhere in the middle. But by increasing the flexibility and functional range of motion of a muscle, we can alter the length-tension relationship, creating a larger ‘middle’ section of the force production curve.

As seen in the graph above, muscles that are lengthened through static stretching don’t produce more peak force than their tight counterparts. Instead, they have the ability to maintain maximum strength output at longer lengths. Longer fibers and more uniform sarcomere shapes shift the length-tension curve to the right and allow us to work within the optimal strength zone for a greater percentage of a joint’s range of motion. Applied practically, this change in physiology can translate to more control and force production at the ‘bottom’ of a heavy lift, like a squat, allowing us to get out of the hole with less strain.

Like the hypertrophy gains mentioned earlier, changes in strength due to muscle lengthening are modest, but it would be dumb to pass on the easily attainable benefits static stretching offers.

Along with improved strength, altering a muscle’s length-tension relationship can also reduce the risk of injury.

Take a second and look back at the length-tension graphs above. Wider peak force plateaus signify that maximum muscle tension is being distributed more evenly throughout a joint’s range of motion. In tighter muscles, that plateau resembles something closer to a narrow point, meaning that the greatest forces are experienced suddenly during one small segment of a contraction. By extending a muscle’s optimal force output length, we’re able to control heavier weight at longer fiber lengths and can minimize acute, intense spikes in tension. These two factors can help minimize the chance of strains and sprains.

When combined with appropriate corrective exercises, static stretching can also be an effective method for treating joint imbalances. The likelihood of knee, low back, shoulder, and other common injuries can be decreased when joints are aligned properly. The application of static stretching to tight, overworked muscles can improve the activation of their weak, underworked antagonists, helping with the overall corrective exercise process.

Muscle growth, improved strength output consistency, and fewer injuries make static stretching a worthwhile addition to any post workout routine.

With a few of the benefits of self-myofasical release and static stretching covered, we can now shift our focus from theory to application. Let’s talk about how to perform both of these useful cool down components well.

How to SMR

Self-myofascial release can be accomplished with a quite a few different tools, but I recommend that you limit your toolkit to firm foam rollers, massage balls, barbells, and mobility sticks. These items can be very useful in your recovery/cool down routine and they all rely on the same general methods of application, making proper use pretty easy to learn.

The basic plan of attack here is really simple – we want to apply high levels pressure to the entire length of a muscle by using a slow and controlled sweeping motion for a 30 to 60 seconds. Because that one line of direction isn’t too helpful, let’s dive into the specifics of pressure, movement, and duration.

Regarding pressure, we want it – lots of it. While SMR studies vary quite a bit in experiment design and tool application, there’s a significant link between pressure levels and results. Meaning, the more force we can place on a tissue, the better – up to a point. Self-myofascial release should cause mild discomfort and possibly even very low levels of pain when done correctly, but the sensation should be far from unbearable. Using a 10 point pain scale, the SMR ouch-factor should peak at ~7/10 but not exceed it. If you have experience with deep tissue massage, the feeling should be similar – simultaneously relaxing and a little uncomfortable.

To ensure the whole muscle is being hit evenly, the pressure applied with a roller/stick/ball needs to be constantly moving longitudinally and slightly laterally. Studies show that SMR can be effective with a variety of different movement patterns as long as certain pressure and time guidelines are met. To keep SMR as uncomplicated as possible, I recommend that you roll at a steady speed of 1-3 inches per second, work along the entire length of a muscle by sweeping back and forth in both directions (proximal to distal, distal to proximal, proximal to distal, etc) while slowly working side to side to ensure the entire surface area is covered.

For example, if you were rolling out your quads with a barbell while seated on the floor, you could start at the hip, work to the knee, reverse the direction of movement back to the hip, and then keep that pattern going until the desired duration is reached. While the barbell is traveling back and forth along the length of your thigh, minor internal and external rotation of the femur would make it easy to equally target the central, medial, and laterally located muscles in the quad. Basically, just make sure that the whole surface area of a muscle group is being treated.

In spots that are more sore, slow down your rolling speed and work carefully over the muscle to keep discomfort levels in check. Reducing your speed as pain increases helps to minimize the risk of further tissue inflammation and also gives sensitive areas a bit more massage time. If you’re unsure about how much pressure to use, start on the lower side and work your way up as you become more experienced with the tool you’re using.

Finally, SMR time and frequency. Using the pressure and movement outlines, work back and forth over the targeted muscle for 30-60 seconds, performed for 2 sets, with a 5-10 second break between SMR rounds. Both sets of SMR should be performed consecutively for a single muscle before moving onto the next. Meaning, if you just worked legs, do all of the SMR sets on your quads before switching to glutes.

Pretty easy, right?

Now that our muscles are primed and ready to be lengthened, let’s move on to static stretching.

How to Static Stretch

Static stretching isn’t super complicated, but it’s easy to screw up if not done correctly. When muscles are stretched too aggressively, they can become inflamed and fibers can be damaged. Luckily, a few simple rules help keep us flexible and safe. When stretching, we want to apply purely passive tension for 30 seconds while avoiding pain.

Unlike SMR, static stretching should not cause any discomfort. For a muscle to be lengthened safely and efficiently, it needs to be relaxed so that passive tension can build. When we stretch too ‘hard’ and cause pain/discomfort in the muscle, fibers have a difficult time relaxing and wind up fighting the lengthening process with an isometric contraction. If passive tension is the goal, we can’t be actively contracting. Keep the intensity of your static stretching high enough to build noticeable tension, but far from pain. Just like every other aspect of fitness, we don’t accomplish our goals in a single session. Flexibility improvements take time – stretch to a comfortable range of motion and then slowly work to increase it over the course of the upcoming days, weeks, and months.

Based on a number of the available studies that investigate static stretching times and volume, I recommend that you stick to a hold time of 30 seconds per stretch, perform 3 total sets per muscle, and take a 5-10 second break between bouts. Like the SMR routine, complete all stretches for a single muscle before moving onto the next.

Finally, just how much range of motion should a joint have? And the potentially frustrating answer is, it depends.

Age, sex, muscle mass, and the specific demands of your individual hobby/sport/lifestyle will determine how much flexibility you need as well as the upper limit of your range of motion. With that said, stiff/short muscles need to be stretched and lengthened to promote longer lasting adaptations that allow for optimal joint movement and function. If something is overly tight and impeding your ability to move through a specific exercise, work on it. In contrast, flexible tissues and joints that move well and have great ranges of motion should still be stretched post workout, but their flexibility priority should be maintenance rather than continued improvement.

With the how-to’s covered for both SMR and static stretching, let’s look at a full post workout example.

Cool Down Example

The following setup is a simplified cool down routine that would follow a lower body workout. Because post workout stretching only targets the muscles we worked that day, the included stretches isolate the quadriceps, hamstrings, and glutes.

As seen above, the self-myofascial release section targets each muscle individually, in a unilateral fashion, for 2 sets of 30 seconds. While anywhere within the range of 30-60 seconds can be effective, longer durations are suggested if you have the time. The same unilateral approach is also applied to static stretching. A wall supported standing quad stretch starts things out, followed by a band assisted supine hamstring stretch, and pigeon pose targets the glutes to wrap everything up.

If possible, take the time to isolate each muscle in a unilateral (one side) fashion as performed above. This approach takes a bit longer than a bilateral (both/two sides) method, but it helps us identify imbalances much easier.

For both SMR and static stretching, be sure to breathe ‘normally’ while under tension – don’t hold your breath or hyperventilate.

It’s important to note that because we want to stretch all of the primary movers used in a workout, tissues that carry you through any cardiovascular conditioning need love too. For example, if your workout focused on upper body push with a few rounds of sprint/jog intervals at the end, you’ll want to stretch out your chest, shoulders, as well as your glutes, quads, hamstrings, and calves. If you work a muscle during a session, just make sure it gets some attention at the end.

Because our bodies use so many different muscles and joint angles to move, I can’t possibly cover every single stretch you might need depending on your program and the exercises you use – there are just too many. But I can suggest a few that cover some of the most basic movement patterns.

The stretches featured above should serve as a helpful introduction to static stretching and target some of the most necessary areas, but it’s a very bare bones list. You will most likely need to incorporate a few extras for your individual needs/potential imbalances.

If you have the ability to supplement your weight training routine with regular yoga classes, do them. Focus on building stable flexibility, get out of the weightroom, and learn something new – incorporate a variety of fitness styles into your week. 

Static stretching and self-myofascial release aren’t incredibly complicated topics compared to other aspects of fitness, but some questions are expected. If you need help with stretch selection or anything else, please don’t hesitate to send me an email. I’d be happy to help.

SMR & Static Stretching For Off Days

Self-myofascial release and static stretching can and should also be performed on non-training days, depending on your goals and recovery needs. Research suggests that to increase flexibility, reduce soreness, and create more chronic physiological adaptations, stretching and SMR need to be performed at regular intervals throughout the week. However, it’s not always necessary or smart to include both cool down components.

To reduce soreness and inflammation, incorporate SMR into your off days to promote blood flow and general recovery, but leave static stretching out. Static stretching has little to no benefit on DOMS and can potentially exacerbate muscle damage. If you’re flexible but really sore, save static stretching for the cool down. Off day SMR uses the same massage technique covered earlier, but the duration is a bit longer. I recommend that you increase the total set count to 3 and bump up the rolling time to 90 seconds per round. These sessions can be performed at any time during the day, but they may be most effective if added into your morning routine or knocked out before bed. Feel free to SMR daily, but treat this recovery tool like a workout and limit its application to 1-2 times per day.

If flexibility is your goal, both SMR and static stretching should be utilized. Tighter muscles require more frequent attention and may need to be massaged and stretched 4-6 times (including cool down stretching sessions) per week until their desired range of motion is met. Like off day SMR, static stretching for non-training days uses the same application style as described earlier, but the total time is increased. After completing the non-negotiable, off day SMR protocol (3×90 sec), stretch each muscle 4 times for 30-60 seconds while staying far away from muscular pain and discomfort. Seriously, don’t skip SMR on off days if you’re going to stretch. 

Once you’ve achieved your flexibility goals, static stretching volume can be reduced to a maintenance frequency of 2-3 times per week. With a great resistance training program, this threshold can theoretically be met within the cool down alone.

PNF vs Static Stretching

Proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF) stretching is another extremely effective stretching method that can replace or supplement static stretching. PNF stretching utilizes the same autogenic inhibition response as self-myofascial release, but is performed during the stretch.

I’m not going to dive into the details and science behind PNF stretching here, but I can still give some recommendations to those that want to incorporate it into their cool down routine.

I suggest a hold-relax approach that uses a 5 second isometric contraction at 40-90% of maximum force, followed by a 30 second stretch, performed 2-4 times (sets), with a 5-10 second break between rounds. Feel free to mix PNF in with your current static stretching sets or eliminate static stretching completely and perform PNF exclusively.

If you have no idea what this section is talking about but want to learn, shoot me a message – it’s always great to learn new things.

Wrapping It Up

Lift all the weights, run all the miles, and stretch all the muscles.

Regardless of the program you follow or what your long term goals might be, make sure your routine includes a post workout cool down section. Just a few minutes of work can make a massive difference in your exercise progress.

We covered a decent amount of content here, but hopefully the overall message is very clear – after you’re done working out, perform self-myofascial release with a tool of your choice and then do some static stretching. Nothing too complicated or crazy.

If you have questions about anything mentioned in this guide or would like to chat with me about building your cool down, please let me know. I’d love to work with you.

Experiment by manipulating different variables. Find out what works best for you. Share what you discover. Have fun.

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