Warm-up and cool-down exercises help prepare muscles for a more intense workout.

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Warm-up and Cool-down Exercises

Warm-up and cool-down exercises, or stretching, are essential to any exercise program. The warm-up prepares your body for exercise and plays an important role in helping to prevent injury. Also, it mentally prepares and motivates you for the workout to come.

Before beginning every exercise session, do an eight- to ten-minute warm-up. The warm-up exercises for the home workout program, which are linked from the last page of this article, provide a great rhythmic limbering warm-up for the strengthening exercises in this program. (For aerobic exercise sessions, this warm-up should be supplemented with mild, static stretches that stretch the muscles you'll be using. If you plan to walk or jog, for example, lower body stretches would be appropriate.)

The warm-up should be intense enough to increase your body temperature but not strenuous enough to cause fatigue. A rule of thumb might be to work hard enough to break a mild sweat, although room temperature and humidity can affect this.

Every exercise session should also be followed by a cool-down that gradually decreases your heart rate and stretches all the muscles worked in the exercise session.

During the cool-down, stretching has the greatest potential to increase your range of motion and enhance your overall flexibility, because the muscles are warm and thus more pliable. "Cool-down" provides the balanced cool-down you'll need for the exercises in this program. (As a cool-down for your aerobic exercise, first slow the pace of your activity for a few minutes, then top off the workout with stretching.)

Stretch down the length of the muscle, especially in the lower leg and back area, which are often tight. Stretch to a point of slight tension, never pain. Keep your joints in alignment and follow the guidelines for proper exercise form during both the warm-up and cool-down. Stretch slowly and gently. Bouncing or stretching too fast can lead to muscle and tendon injuries. Gentle, slow stretching, on the other hand, will actually help prevent injury and decrease muscle soreness. Stretching slowly also gives you time to relax and concentrate on your exercise form, and it allows you to unwind psychologically.

Inhale as you get into your stretch position, then exhale as you relax into the stretch. Exhaling as you relax into the stretch allows you to further lengthen the connective tissue-as tension is released, the stretch increases. Hold each stretch for 30 to 60 seconds. Concentrate on how you feel throughout these movements.

A BODY IN MOTION STAYS IN MOTION! So, pour yourself a glass of water, play your favorite music, and get moving! Use the links on the next page to learn all the exercises in this program.

For more great exercises to improve your strength and fitness, check these out: