It has now been almost four and a half months since Ontario residents began sheltering in place due to the Coronavirus pandemic. This, for a lot of us, has led to a large decrease in physical activity. As we enter phase 3 in Toronto, more gyms are beginning to re-open and many of us are excited to return to our regular exercise routines.
But, be warned, returning to our pre-COVID workout regimens too quickly can have some unpleasant consequences. Risk of injury is high if exercise intensity or frequency are increased too quickly and the body is not given enough time to recover between exercise bouts and adjust to new loads.
So how do you return to strength training at the gym safely after months of little to no exercise?
1. Read your Gym’s New Policies
New policies will be in place for all gyms, so be familiar with yours. Limited time slots will require some more planning on your part to ensure you get your desired workout in within the allotted time (keep reading for specific tips on how to do this). Masks may be mandatory inside the gym, even while working out. If this is the case in your region, you may want to consider doing your cardio outdoors, as wearing a mask can be quite uncomfortable when performing cardiovascular exercise (not dangerous, just unpleasant).
2. Do a Thorough Warm-Up
This is absolutely vital. Warm ups are necessary to prepare your joints and muscles for the exercises you’re about to put them through, decrease injury risk and increase your performance.
A good general warm-up will take your joints through full range of motion and activate the muscles you’re working on. See the videos below for a full upper body, and a full lower body warm-up.
Warm-up: Upper Body
Warm-up: Lower Body
To warm-up for specific exercises, you should always do at least one warm-up set (8-15 repetitions) with light weights or just the bar before moving up to your working weight. If you are lifting heavy, you may need several warm-up sets with progressively heavier weights before reaching your working weight. For specific advice on progressive warm ups for heavy lifts, speak to your rehab professional or trainer.
3. Plan Your Workouts
It is always important to have a plan when trying to get fit. A plan ensures you are targeting all major muscle groups with the right frequency, giving your body sufficient rest, and progressively increasing loads to maximize gains and minimize injury. This will be especially pertinent with new time limitations imposed by gyms all over the province.
How Often Should I Work Out?
If you have done little to no physical activity over the past few months, it’s best to start with 2-3 resistance workouts per week for 1-2 weeks, with rest days in between. This allows your body sufficient recovery time. You can then begin to increase your workout frequency slowly, adding in one resistance session per week up to 5 or 6 days per week. You absolutely need at least one day of rest. For the majority of the general population, 4 resistance workouts per week is definitely a sufficient amount; more is not always better!
How Should I Be Splitting My Workouts?
It all depends on the frequency of your strength training sessions. For best results, you should train every muscle group twice per week, so what you train each day will depend on the frequency of your gym sessions. Here are some examples of workout splits:
Two-three days/week: full body workout each day
Four days/week: upper body/lower body split
Five-six days/week: push/pull/legs split
Unless you are a body builder or otherwise working towards very specific athletic or aesthetic goals, it is not efficient or productive to train one body part per workout. For instance, avoid doing an “arms day”, “shoulder day”. You will have better strength and hypertrophy gains if you follow one of the splits suggested above. We will get into why this is in a bit more detail in the “Maximize your time” section below.
Be Prepared to Adjust Your Plan
Because of the time limitations, you may not want to stand around waiting for a piece of equipment to free up. So it will be very useful to have some substitutions in mind for each exercise. Think of some similar movements that target the same muscle group but require slightly different equipment. For example, if your plan was a bench press, you can substitute this for an incline bench press, a machine chest press, or a dumbbell press.
4. Start Slow and Focus on Progressive Overload
Your body needs time to adapt to new loads. Start with lower frequency and intensity, and ramp those up slowly as you begin to get stronger. You may want to start with higher repetitions for fewer sets at lower weights (i.e. 3×10-15) and progressively increase load while decreasing the number of repetitions and increasing number of sets (i.e. 4-5×6-8) over several weeks or months. You should always be able to complete movements with proper form. If your form breaks down, that means it’s time to stop and rest.
The most important thing here is to listen to your body! Trust yourself to know when something doesn’t feel right, and don’t push through pain.
5. Maximize Your Time
Do your general warm up at home so you do not have to spend any of your allotted gym time on it. This way, all you have to do once you’re at the gym is the specific warm up for each exercise. And if you’re able, walk or bike to the gym to keep your body warm and moving.
In order to maximize efficiency with weight training, it’s best to focus on compound movements. Compound movements are multi-joint, multi-muscle movements. These will target several large muscle groups at once, increase your heart rate for cardiovascular benefits, and burn more calories, all while saving time. Some examples of compound movements are: squats, lunges, dead-lifts, rows, and chest press.
If you like isolation exercises (single-joint, single muscle group movements such as leg curls, leg extensions, and bicep curls), then you can increase efficiency by doing super-sets. In a super-set, you would substitute the break usually taken between sets with an exercise targeting opposing muscle groups. For example: alternating between leg extensions and leg curls, with no breaks in between. Be mindful of other gym goers if you do this though, as this will take up more than with one machine!
6. Active Recovery
While rest days are absolutely necessary, complete rest is not the best at helping with muscle soreness, or DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness – that’s that muscle pain you feel a day or two after a heavy workout). Even though this may be somewhat counter-intuitive, the best way to recover from DOMS is by moving! Go for a brisk walk, a bike ride, or do some of those same movements that got you sore to begin with, but using just your body weight or a very light weight.
7. Set Realistic Expectations
Be kind to yourself throughout this process! You have likely been through some stressful times in the past few months and this, in combination with a more sedentary lifestyle, will have taken a toll on your body. Focus on what you can do, not what you can’t do, and give yourself time to adapt. Strength takes at least 8 weeks to really develop, that’s just physiology (which we cannot change), so be patient, be consistent (this is key!), and you will achieve your goals.
8. Other Things that Matter
There are a few other things to consider when going back to regular resistance training that will impact your performance and your ability to progress.
If you’re going from little to no exercise, to working out several times per week, you may need to increase your protein intake to give your muscles the building blocks necessary to grow. Speak to your nutritionist or dietitian for specific recommendations.
Toronto has been having a sweltering hot summer, which means you need to hydrate more than usual even without any exercise. But if you’re working out, this becomes even more important. Make sure you bring a water bottle, and refill it several times within your 60-90 minute gym session.
Sleep and Fatigue
If you’re not getting enough sleep, you are at a higher risk of injury. So if you’re having a particularly busy week, are feeling fatigued, and/or have not been sleeping well, opt for lighter weights and easier exercises. You will still maintain consistency in your routine, while lowering risk of injury. And sometimes it’s better to skip the gym altogether and opt for an extra few hours of rest instead. After all, nothing can replace a good night’s sleep!
If you’d like more specific recommendations, or are dealing with an acute or chronic injury, come see one of our physiotherapists or chiropractors for a personalized assessment or care plan. Click here to book online with our physiotherapist, Masha Yaitskov directly.