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Since physical distancing guidelines were first put into place in 2020, gym goers have been asking “When are the gyms going to reopen?”
But now that more gyms are starting to open their doors and welcome people back, there’s another question that needs answering: “How do I go back to gym life without injuring myself?”
Lucky for you, this guide is geared toward answering that very Q.
“The truth is that whether you took 6 or 12 or more months off, you’re not going to be as strong, as fast, or as fit as you were before your break,” says physical therapist Grayson Wickham, founder of Movement Vault, a digital movement education platform. #ToughLove
“Assuming you haven’t been working out at home during the pause, you’ve become deconditioned, your body awareness has decreased, your cardiovascular fitness has decreased, your balance has become worse, and your ligaments/tendons/joints and muscles have become less resilient,” he adds.
Here’s the thing: That’s A-OK — you’ll get back there eventually!
But if you try to i-m-m-e-d-i-a-t-e-l-y jump back into your previous workout level, you’re putting yourself at risk.
“When you try to get your body to accept a stressor that it’s no longer prepared for, well, that’s the exact very definition of an injury,” says Wickham.
Common injuries that occur when prematurely resuming intense exercise
- ligament tears
- muscle tweaks
- joint stress
“Rhabdomyolsis (Rhabdo) is a condition caused when, during exercise, the muscle tissues break down too much. So much that a protein called myoglobin and enzyme called creatine kinase get released into the bloodstream,” explains Wickham.
Your kidneys can’t properly filter large amounts of these compounds, so they can start to build up in your body, damaging your kidneys or even killing you. Yeah, yikes.
“Former college athletes and elite athletes who [try to resume physical activity] after a time off are most at risk, because they remember how to go really hard and therefore [risk] pushing themselves too far,” he says.
If you’re experiencing symptoms of rhabdo — cola-colored urine, inability to move muscles, EXTREME fatigue and sores, or a fever — head to the emergency room ASAP.
Luckily, avoiding injury is easy as long as you keep these tips in mind.
1. Set some goals!
Think about it: Your workout plan of action is gonna be wayyy different if you wanna run a marathon than if you wanna deadlift 2x your body weight.
And that’s exactly why Wickham says step one is to think about what your goals are. “Your workout goals are ultimately going to dictate what you do at the gym, so spend some time narrowing your focus,” he says.
Need some inspo? Here are some possible workout goals:
- Score in the top 10,000 women during the CrossFit 2021 Open.
- Run a 10K in under an hour.
- Squat snatch your body weight.
- Do an arm balance in yoga.
- Be able to do 1 strict pull-up.
2. Make a plan
Admittedly, unless you’re a certified personal trainer or you have a degree in exercise science, you might not have the experience required to make a smart training plan.
That’s why Wickham recommends hiring a fitness expert or professional trainer to make a program specific to your current fitness level, training age, and goals.
3. Always warm up!
“Warming up prepares your joints, muscles, and mind for what you’re about to do,” says Wickham.
It increases blood flow to your muscles, helps your muscles “turn on,” preps your nervous system, and gets your head in the game. *Cue Zac Efron*
4. Start slow!
Your fitness level before you took time off, exactly how much time you took off, and what you did (if anything) in the interim will determine how hard you can hit it when you return.
But as a general rule, Wickham says, “Over the first 2 weeks, you should be at about 50 percent (or less!) of the volume and intensity that you left off at.”
Volume = reps x weight.
So you can reduce the volume by doing fewer sets or reps, lowering the weight, or working out for less time or distance.
“After 2 weeks, so long as you’re maintaining sound form, you can slowly ramp it back up,” he says. Key word: Slowly.
5. Don’t (re)test your 1RM right away
Yes, weightlifters, CrossFitters, and Olympic lifters, we’re talking to you.
What is a 1-rep max?
This is the maximum amount of weight a person can lift in one repetition with correct technique.
“A 1-rep max is a great way to measure progress and is an essential part of a progressive overload program,” says Wickham. “But (and this is a major but!) it shouldn’t be on your to-lift list the first month back. Your body just isn’t ready for it.”
Your move: Wait at least 2 to 6 weeks to test your 1-rep max. Wait longer if your break was longer than 6 months. “It depends on your previous fitness level as well as how long of a break you took, but this is a good general guideline,” Wickham notes.
6. Listen to your body
Yes, having a plan going in is good. But listening to your body along the way is best.
“Maybe 50 percent volume was too much and you need to go down to 30 percent,” says Wickham. “Your body will let you know.”
A big sign that you need to dial back the workout volume and intensity is muscle soreness that lasts longer than 72 hours after a workout.
7. Cool down
Most people hit it hard and then hop right into their cars. Wickham advises against this.
“After a workout your cortisol levels and central nervous system are super jacked up,” he says. “So, you want to do some gentle breath work and movement to bring your central nervous system back to baseline.”
Will you get injured if you don’t cool down? Eh, probably not. But you just won’t feel as good later in the day, or even the next day.
Spending that extra 5 minutes at the end of your workout is worth it.
8. Prioritize recovery
You might think prioritizing recovery means sitting on your bum and watching Netflix instead of going to the gym.
*Buzzer noise* Wrong.
Recovery, says Rawlins, is actually a combination of:
- adequate fuel and hydration
- sleep quality and quantity
- stress management
- mobility work and therapeutic muscle care
“When you return to the gym, your body will become extremely tight and inflamed due to the exercise stress it is under again,” says Athayde. “Prioritizing recovery is essential when getting back into the swing of working out with weights to help counteract this inflammation and stress.”
Maybe you live with an immunocompromised person. Maybe you’re a doctor who doesn’t want to put your patients’ health at risk. Or maybe you lost your job and can no longer afford a gym membership.
Whatever your reasons for leaving the gym, know this: It is 100 percent possible to maintain or improve (!) your health and fitness markers without the gym. Really!
There are p-l-e-n-t-y of digital exercise options (apps, YouTube vids, IG Lives, etc.) that don’t require much, if any, equipment.
“These options will minimize your expenses if you can’t afford a gym membership or personal trainer, can be completed from the comfort of your own home, and will still help you get fit,” says Rawlins. *Claps*
For many of us, it’s very exciting that gyms are slowly reopening! But don’t let your excitement overshadow the importance of easing back in slowly.
As the proverb goes, slow and steady wins the race (and gets the gains).
Gabrielle Kassel (she/her) is a queer sex educator and wellness journalist who is committed to helping people feel the best they can in their bodies. In addition to Healthline, her work has appeared in publications such as Shape, Cosmopolitan, Well+Good, Health, Self, Women’s Health, Greatist, and more! In her free time, Gabrielle can be found coaching CrossFit, reviewing pleasure products, hiking with her border collie, or recording episodes of the podcast she co-hosts called Bad In Bed. Follow her on Instagram @Gabriellekassel.