As gyms around the country begin to reopen, countless patrons will be clamoring to restart their normal fitness routines. One thing to be cognizant of though, is the danger in restarting an exercise program after an extended absence. Due to the layoff from resistance training, most individuals will be extremely susceptible to sustaining soft tissue injuries (muscle strains) as well as injuries surrounding joints. This is due to the likely atrophy of muscle fibers, in particular the small stabilizers surrounding joints. (Studies have shown that muscle atrophy, or the loss of muscle, can begin to occur after only 1 week of inactivity!)
Even if you did a great job of exercising during quarantine, more than likely you were not able to train with the same intensity or frequency that you would normally, in a gym setting. Therefore, it is imperative to be careful about the exercises you select, the intensity you use, as well as the frequency at which you attend the gym- minimally for the first 2-4 weeks- in order to avoid muscle strains or impact related injuries. While a return to the gym is so exciting for many, it should be made clear how physically vulnerable you are to an injury at this juncture. Enduring an injury now will only further delay your ability to be in the gym on a consistent basis.
Once your local gym reopens, I implore you to keep the following principles in mind to assist in keeping you free from potential injuries!
#1. You’re Not Going to Get It All Back in One Workout…or The First Week!
Unless you were fortunate enough to have a full home-gym set up with access to your normal equipment and weights, more than likely you’ve experienced some sort of regression in the last 8-10 weeks. Whether that has been strength loss, muscle loss or weight gain- it is imperative that you understand, you will not make up for 2 months-worth of missed or subpar workouts in your first session.
As difficult as this may be to accept, you’ve got to start back at square one with all aspects of your exercise program. IF you follow this principle, the strength/muscle gains and fat loss will happen before you know it. However, if you try to jump right back in where you left off, while also adding in 2 a-days for 6 days, you will more than likely be burned out or hurt after 2 weeks.
It is imperative you take it slow upon your gym return because when you perform resistance training, you are breaking down muscle fibers while also putting various levels of stress on joints, tendons and ligaments in your body as well. By taking a prolonged hiatus from resistance training, the small muscles surrounding your joints have most likely become weak and underactive. Therefore, it is imperative that you start slowly and give yourself plenty of recovery in between training sessions to allow for the body to begin the adaptation process again.
Strive initially to make small and sustainable changes to your fitness routine. If you were exercising 1-3 days per week during quarantine, don’t exceed 3 days per week at the gym initially- even if you were previously a 5 or 6 day per week gym-goer, I would highly recommend not jumping right back into that full schedule. Be sure to give yourself a full 24 hours between training sessions to allow for your body to properly heal and recover. In addition, you should also strive to make your workouts efficient and no more than 45 minutes. It doesn’t matter if before quarantine you spent 90 minutes-2 hours in the gym daily- by beginning with 45-minute workouts you will be able to focus on getting in high quality training sessions without having unnecessary amounts of volume.
Each week you continue going to the gym post-quarantine, you can add in a day of training or extend your workouts by a few minutes, but be sure to make your changes incrementally. Going from one extreme to another, will only cause a physical breakdown of your joints, tendons and ligaments that will eventually lead to a burned out feeling mentally as well.
#2. Don’t Forget What You Learned About Exercise During Quarantine
Just because you will once again have access to equipment you likely didn’t have in your homes, doesn’t mean you should immediately ditch the exercises that have gotten you through the last 2 months. The fundamental moves that you had to turn to during quarantine- such as squats, lunges, push-ups and planks- should not be discarded. These basic moves will provide you with foundational strength, expose mobility issues and provide a great metric for progress.
Your bodyweight squats will likely turn into resisted squats and your push-ups will transition into a multitude of press variations, however, don’t discard the value of keeping fundamental body weight moves within your workout (A great place to implement them would be an extension of your dynamic warm-up).
In addition, hopefully these last several weeks you’ve also incorporated a degree of mobility work to your routine as well. It would be remiss of you to let any mobility gains you’ve made, fall by the wayside, because mobilization will allow for better movement- which in turn will help keep you free of injury. (If you didn’t add in mobility work these last 2 months, I highly encourage you to do so upon returning to the gym, to further assist in injury prevention) You should make a concerted effort to implement mobility work during warm-ups, rest periods or cool-down stretching periods- every training session! (To read more about a simple yet effective mobility sequence, click here)
#3. Be Prudent with Your Exercise Selection
When restarting your fitness routine, the basics should be your central focus. If you’re performing a full body training split (which would be my recommendation initially), each session should have the following:
- Squat Variation (Back Squat, Front Squat, Goblet Squat, RFE Split Squat)
- Hinge Variation (RDL, Conventional Deadlift, Trap Bar Deadlift, Single Leg RDL)
- Horizontal Press (Flat Chest Press, Incline Chest Press)
- Horizontal Pull (BB Bent Over Row, Single Arm DB Row, Chest Supported DB Row)
- Vertical Press (BB Overhead Press, Split Stance DB Shoulder Press)
- Vertical Pull (NG Lat Pulldown, Pull-Up, Chin-Up)
- Bracing Core (Plank Variations)
- Rotational Core (Medicine Ball Slams, Rope Chops)
- Loaded Carry (DB Farmers Walk)
The above categories don’t necessarily need to be in that order, and they can also be supersetted to assist in the efficiency of the workout. These parameters will help form the perfect outline for an effective and safe, full-body workout.
When restarting a training program, I feel that a Full Body Training split is especially effective because you’re maximizing the metabolic benefit of the workout. Rather than spending time performing isolation moves, your focus should be on exercises that give you the most “bang for your buck.” In this case big, compound moves will be your best bet.
Consider implementing as much unilateral work as possible initially as well. (Just a review- unilateral exercises are those that are performed either on one leg or with one arm) Unilateral work is superior to bilateral work when restarting your exercise routine for one main reason: unilateral work is less compressive, and you can easily put joints in safer positions.
(For a complete breakdown on the benefits of unilateral training, click here)
If you’ve been largely sedentary for the last 2 months, jumping right into Back Squats, RDL’s and BB Bent Over Rows, is a recipe for a tight lower back that could impact your next training session. Instead, choose the unilateral moves which have less compression through the spine- such as a Rear Foot Elevated Split Squat, Single Arm Single Leg RDL and a Single Arm DB Row. You’re still hitting a variation of each category, however, it’s a more structurally safe option- to start! (Just because I recommend beginning unilaterally, doesn’t mean you should never Back Squat again)
A Single Arm DB Chest Press, or Half Kneeling DB Shoulder Press will also allow you to press from a neutral grip position- which puts your shoulder at an anatomically more favorable position than with a barbell. When restarting your gym exercise routine, having joint integrity while pressing is crucial because of the potential loss in strength of the shoulder stabilizers during the last 2 months. Again, not to say you should never do a Barbell Bench Press again, however, taking the first 4 weeks back in the gym to press unilaterally from a neutral grip position will pay massive dividends in the long run for your shoulder health.
#4. Be Cautious with Volume and Intensity
This principle is an extension of small, sustainable changes. When you go from doing little to no resistance training to an excessive amount, you will undoubtedly set yourself up for injury. When you initially return to the gym, 3-4 working sets of each exercise will be plenty to get a high-quality workout, but also avoid traumatizing your body. If you normally train with high volume, you could certainly add a set or two in each week you continue your gym routine. The key is not jumping into a high-volume training program after you’ve been away from resistance training for 2 months.
The same caution should be used when considering what intensity you should be training at initially as well. If you haven’t been resistance training with your normal weights, you shouldn’t be anywhere near the 85-90% of a max at any rep scheme the first month or two. Even if you’re usually a “max strength” trainee, who spends most of their workouts in that percentage range, you should consider dropping down into more of a hypertrophy range of 65-80% to safeguard yourself against injury.
Considering your strength numbers are most likely completely different now, a better way to think about training percentages currently is- you should be able to perform at least 2 additional reps for each set. This is considered sub-maximal training and certainly is not conducive for long-term strength gains. However, in terms of a safe reintroduction to resistance training, this is your best bet. Not so much for your muscles- which would be able to handle the load, and would adapt relatively quickly- the concern should be more about the health of your joints, tendons and ligaments. It is these areas that will bark and break down and lead to an even longer time away from the gym. Training sub-maximally at first will allow for you to ease back into lifting your normal weights- in time!
#5. Don’t Forget the Value of Exercising Outdoors
One of the most beautiful silver linings to CO-VID 19 is the amount of appreciation “being outdoors” has garnished. Whether you’re dragging your yoga mat and dumbbells outside and doing your workout in the backyard, or you go for a post-dinner walk to get some fresh air- outdoor activity is being yearned for across the country.
Just because your local gym reopens, I urge you to not forget the benefit of being outside. Physically, being outdoors and absorbing the sun’s UVB rays will enhance your body’s Vitamin D production, but it also helps you mentally as well. Getting lungs full of fresh air, hearing birds chirping, seeing neighbors (albeit from a distance) are all ‘normal’ aspects of life that you can maintain. The most common question on the tip of everyone’s tongue is “when will society return to normal?” The answer to that is so unclear, that you’d be best served mentally to instead look for aspects of life that ‘normal’ still does exist. Thankfully, this virus hasn’t altered our natural surroundings. Get in nature and revel in the normalcy and beauty of spring and summertime.
With the outline I’ve provided, I’m recommending maximally only working out the number of days per week that you exercised during quarantine. This will most likely leave a few days per week that would require some non-exercise active rest. These days would be your best opportunity to continue your commitment to being outside. Whether it’s a bike ride, walk, light jog or some stretching outside- do yourself a favor, both mentally and physically, stay committed to spending time outdoors, even when your normal gym routine resumes.
The reopening of gyms across the country is a great first step in a return to normalcy for many of us. Unless you’ve been injured before, many of the most ardent gym-rats have never been away from a gym setting for this long. Therefore, from novices to the most experienced weight lifters, returning to the gym after this 8-10-week layoff, should be treated as a very delicate process.
In order to remain injury-free, you must have patience regarding the results, persistence with consistently getting to the gym and hammering basic movement patterns, as well as prudence with your judgement on exercise selection, volume and intensity. The first month back into your gym routine will be the most arduous as your body readapts to the demands placed upon it. While the injuries you may be exposing yourself to are not overly “serious” (muscle/ligament strains and acute joint pain) they will hamper your return by potentially forcing you to miss training sessions, or alter your exercise technique to avoid pain- which will ultimately lead to more injuries down the road.
One of the best ways to be successful in almost any aspect of fitness is to “leave your ego at the door.” This will be especially true upon your return to the gym- if you get caught up in what weights you’re lifting, or how quickly you fatigue, you’ll most likely get frustrated and try to prematurely speed up the process. Understand that almost everyone is in the same boat- embrace the challenge of starting at square one, and rebuild yourself from the ground up!
Stay Safe and Be Smart!
Yours in Fitness and Health,
Your Final Reward Will Be Heartache and Tears, If You’ve Cheated the Guy in the Glass.