How to Get Back in the Gym Without Getting Injured

As gyms slowly reopen, three experts answer common questions on how to return to a regular routine safely.

With gyms closed during the coronavirus outbreak, we’ve all shifted to living room workouts, sweat sessions at the local park, or an extended rest period for the last few months. But as things begin to slowly reopen, that means your local gym will soon be open again if it is not already.

Though if you choose to go back to the gym, your workouts will probably look a little different and may include wearing a mask, reserving gym time, training outdoors, or wiping down equipment before and after use. You might also be worried about how this extended time away from access to gym equipment has affected your fitness, and what exactly you should do to resume strength training for the first time to avoid injury.

The key here is to keep working out safely. It’s important to exercise, even during a pandemic as it can help boost your immune system, but it’s also vital that you don’t overdo it, as too much exercise may actually compromise your immunities.

So, we tapped Tony Gentilcore, C.S.C.S., founder of Core in Brookline, Massachussetts, Kara Miklaus, NASM-certified trainer and co-owner of WORK Training Studio in Irvine, California, and Guillem Gonzalez-Lomas, M.D., Sports Orthopedic Surgeon at NYU Langone Health to find out exactly how you can safely ramp up your workouts as you get back into the gym or take your home training to the next level.

How many days a week should I go to the gym to start out?

As you head back to the gym, your new routine should be based on how much you worked out during quarantine. If you worked out five days a week, congratulations you are among the few! But if you didn’t exercise at all or performed one to two workouts per week, add in one extra workout per week for as many weeks as it takes to hit your goal.

For example, if you didn’t work out at all over the past few months, do just one workout your first week back. The next week try two, the third week try three, and so on until you meet your training frequency goal, suggests Miklaus.

If I was working out at home with body weight, how should I approach a return to strength training?

As a general rule of thumb, you should keep it easy. Gyms have been shut down for around three months, and it’s going to take you that long to get back to where you were before—it’s not going to take a week, says Gentilcore.

Doing too much too soon can easily lead to injury, Lomas says, even if you feel fresh and capable. A frenetic increase in activity can leave you with delayed onset muscle soreness, which may then incapacitate you for a few days, putting you right back to where you started.

“Instead of trying to stubbornly will yourself into fitness in record time, use the re-initiation as an opportunity. Start light and short. Focus on proper technique and gradually increase the intensity,” Lomas says.

For additional resistance, starting at about half the volume you were at when you were in the gym before is a good place to start, Gentilcore says. For example, if you were bench pressing 60 Kgs, start back with 30 Kgs and build from there.

He suggests selecting a weight which you can lift with 2 or 3 reps in reserve. That way, it’s heavy enough that you’re building strength but not so heavy that you lose your technique or compromise form. The weight should not be so light that you could perform 20 reps when the workout calls for 10 reps.

How do I properly scale up in weight to avoid injury?

You’ll know how to properly scale up in weight when you can go beyond your “failure point.” This means, for whatever rep count you’re doing (5, 10, 20, etc.), it should feel like you can’t do one more rep after that.

“For example, if you’re doing 15 bicep curls with 15 pounds and you get to rep 15 and feel like ‘I could do this forever!’ then it’s time to pick up those 20-pound dumbbells,” says Miklaus.

As a general rule of thumb, you can add 5 percent to the previous week’s load. For example, if you can barbell squat 100 kgs comfortably and with good form for a week, increase the weight to 105 the following week.

That’s a conservative, but safe progression, says Gentilcore. If you haven’t been doing much, your tendons and ligaments may be cranky and weak. Ramping up gradually will help you avoid run-sabotaging injuries such as torn ACLs, hamstrings, and ruptured Achilles tendons, Gentilcore says.

What else should I do to avoid injury?

A proper warmup is essential, says Lomas. Functional warmups involving light jogging, cycling, light plyometrics (such as skipping and dynamic stretching) are most beneficial before a workout. It will also prep your mind as well as your body.

“The idea is not just that your joints and muscles should get a healthy increase in blood flow before getting stressed. You also want your brain to be lasered in on your musculoskeletal system. Proprioception—the brain’s ability to locate its limbs in space—gets enhanced after warmups that stress coordination and flexibility. It’s that unconscious focus that will minimise your chance of planting your foot the wrong way, or doing that last awkward clean,” Lomas explains.

And, you should take time for recovery, too.

“I think going for a walk is the most underrated form of recovery. A lot of people think they have to do ice baths, break out the massage guns, etc., for great recovery,” Gentilcore says. “But in reality, just going for a walk will really aid muscle recovery and alleviate soreness.”

Is there anything beneficial about taking extended time off?

A massive hidden benefit of enforced rest is that it wipes the slate clean, Lomas suggests using this time to break your old patterns. If you didn’t do bodyweight exercises, try them. If you’ve never done yoga, do a class. Adding cross-training can help reduce injury risk and make you an overall better runner.

How long should you wait until you are strength training like you were precoronavirus?

If you haven’t trained at all in months, you should expect it to take the same amount of time to get back into your “precoronavirus” shape as it took to get out of that shape—meaning, if you didn’t workout for three months, you might have a three-month road ahead, says Miklaus.

In reality, most of us have been doing something at home. Within four weeks of regular and systematic training starting light and gradually increasing, you can expect to be close to your previous standards, Lomas says.

And, taking time for recovery is essential, says Gentilcore. He suggests setting up a simple mobility circuit using bands or body weight on your off days to give yourself a day of recovery while still working toward your goal. Even going for a brisk walk will be really beneficial.

Should you treat a return to strength training as if you’ve never strength trained before?

Here’s where you have to have an honest conversation with yourself, Gentilcore says. Have you done nothing? Have you been doing the best you can? If you’ve been doing anything, you shouldn’t need to treat your return to the gym like a total newbie. You’ll still want to be cautious and not go full-out right out of the gate.

But your return really depends on how intense your bodyweight workouts have been, Miklaus says. Your muscles won’t have completely atrophied during quarantine even if you didn’t work out. You just might have to go lighter in weight or lower your reps or sets, Miklaus says.

And, don’t be too hard on yourself. “Most people have taken some time away from the gym unless they have a really sweet home setup, and are probably in the same boat as you,” Miklaus says. “Don’t let perfection be the enemy of progress. Moving at all is better than moving not at all.”

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