Updated: Nov 10
Gyms in England are reopening on 25th July, after four months of enforced closure due to COVID-19. However, before rushing back through the doors on Saturday morning, it’s a good idea to have a think about how you are going to approach your first few weeks of workouts. You need to be kind to your body, and if like most people you’ve not lifted more than a resistance band or kettlebell since March, take your time to get back to the strength and fitness levels you may have had prior to lockdown. It also goes without saying that you must respect your gym’s new rules around social distancing and hygiene, taking particular care to wipe down your equipment after use.
Here is my advice for getting back to a gym routine:
1) Don’t neglect your warm up!
It’s important to warm up before exercising because it helps to prepare you both physically and mentally for what you’re about to do. Gentle movement before your main workout will help to slowly increase your heart rate and blood flow to your muscles and lubricate your joints. Warming up can also help to prepare you mentally for exercise by getting you into ‘the zone’ and allowing you to tune in with your body and your breathing.
The type of warm up you do will depend on the goal of your session, but if you are going to lift weights then I would strongly advise you to incorporate some mobility exercises into your warm up. This will put your muscles and joints through the movement patterns that you will be using during the session before adding load, which can help to prevent injury. It’s a good idea to move your body in different directions, rather than just cycling on a stationary bike or walking on a treadmill, which only works your legs, and in only one direction. Some of my favourite mobility exercises are variations on the world’s greatest stretch, shoulder rotations, hamstring walkouts and a deep squat and sit. This routine wakes up my whole body and gets my mind focused. Spend 5-10 minutes at the start of your session doing a few exercises like these and you should feel ready to lift some weights.
2) Focus on multi-joint movements
Multi-joint (also known as compound) exercises are those which use several joints and muscles at once. For example, squats, deadlifts, lunges, shoulder presses, bench presses, rows, pull ups and pull downs. The opposite of this is single joint (or isolation) exercises such as bicep curls, tricep extensions and lateral raises, which primarily work one muscle. There’s nothing wrong with the these kind of exercises, but in order to get the most out of your precious one hour in the gym it’s a good idea to focus on the exercises that will stimulate as much muscle as possible, and just add in isolation exercises at the end if you want/ have time/have energy.
On this topic, please don’t try to do loads of exercises every session! I would recommend choosing four or five exercises, and trying to do them with excellent technique. So you might go for a deadlift, shoulder press, lunge, single arm row and a plank - that would be a fantastic and achievable one hour workout. Then next session, you can choose a different five exercises, to keep it varied and interesting.
3) Reduce your previous load
You may have been back squatting 50kg and bench pressing 30kg before the gyms closed, but please do not touch anywhere close to that weight when you first go back. If you, like most people, have spent the past four months doing home workouts with maybe a resistance band or a kettlebell (if you were lucky enough to find one online), you must not rush back to your previous weights. It will hurt, a lot, and you will be putting yourself at risk of injury because your muscles, tendons and ligaments may no longer be strong enough to take that weight. You will get back there, but it’s going to take a little bit of time (but nowhere near as long as it took you to get there originally, because of muscle memory 😊). I would recommend starting out with 50% of the maximum weights you used to lift. Maybe do some exercises with just the bar, to get your body used to those movements again. Then next time you could add a little bit of weight (but I mean a little, say 5-10kg). It would also be sensible to reduce the number of sets of each exercise from what you were doing pre-lockdown. Maybe start with two sets of your main exercises and slowly build up to three or four sets over the next few weeks. You will fatigue more quickly than you used to, so keep your training volume low to begin with to avoid over-doing it.
Please DO NOT listen to those people in the gym or on Instagram saying that you need to ‘beast yourself’ and that the goal is to be unable to walk out of the gym. This is downright stupid and dangerous. If your PT has this attitude, sack them. Pain is NOT the sign of a good workout – focus on enjoyment, refreshing your skills and slowly increasing your strength and fitness over these next few weeks.
4) Consider full-body workouts
Perhaps before lockdown you were doing an upper/lower split (e.g. Monday and Thursday: Lower body, Tuesday and Friday: Upper body), or maybe even a body part split (e.g. Monday: Legs, Tuesday: Back, Wednesday: Core, Thursday: Shoulders, Friday: Glutes, Saturday: Chest). However, now may be a time to reconsider your training split, particularly if your gym is limiting the number of times you can visit per week. Full body training means that you are hitting most of your body parts in every session, which although sounds tough, I think is actually a nice way to structure your training. In my experience, it often means you suffer less DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness, i.e. the ache in your muscles a day or two after training), because you are never fully exhausting one muscle group in a session. As a result, this means you can work those muscles again in your next session, rather than hobbling around being unable to walk up stairs for a week because your legs are so beat up from a big leg day. And so because you are able to train your muscles with more frequency over the course of a week, this leads to more stimulation and muscle growth, so you will get stronger (because it’s the number of sets per muscle group per week that determines muscle growth, not the sets per muscle group per session). So even if you’re just doing two or three full body sessions per week (which should be an achievable amount for most people), you will be hitting your legs, back, chest, shoulders, core and arms several times each week, which is typically more than you would do in a body part split.
Another benefit of full body training, in my opinion, is that it is easier mentally. I don’t know about you, but when I’m doing an upper/lower split I almost always get ‘the fear’ before a heavy leg day. Don’t get me wrong, often this fear is productive as I channel it into an amazing workout, but sometimes it’s a bit overwhelming. Conversely, I find it’s much easier to talk myself into doing just one or two leg exercises per session, knowing that my legs can rest for the rest of the session whilst I’m doing upper body exercises. It doesn’t feel as mentally taxing!
5) Be patient!
My last piece of advice is simple but I get it, it can feel frustrating. We want to get back to lifting the weights we were using before lockdown. But we have to be patient and trust the process that we will get back there, it just won’t happen overnight. You may have spent years getting to where you are now in your lifting journey, and the good news is it will not take anywhere near as long as that to rebuild your strength. Research shows that it’s much easier to regain muscle mass if you’ve had it before than if you are starting from scratch. One study found that men who stopped training completely for 12 weeks were able to regain their previous strength in 8 weeks. Which in the grand scheme of life, is really a very short amount of time! What’s more, the men in this study were elderly, and stopped training completely, so if you’re younger and you’ve been doing some kind of exercise over the past few months, even if it’s just been bodyweight workouts, it’s likely that your strength will return even more quickly than this. Just be patient and consistent, and you will get there 😊
Good luck! M x