Returning to the Gym Safely After COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted us all in some pretty crazy ways. One of the biggest industries affected is the fitness industry. Gyms were forced to shut down across the country, leaving gym owners in an unfortunate position and making it nearly impossible for many people to continue with resistance training. Not everyone was lucky enough to have equipment at home, especially not everything they were used to using in the gym. Read on to learn some keys to returning to the gym safely after taking time off (either not training at all or not training at your previous level).


7 keys to reduce your risk of injury as you get back into the gym:

  • Go easy at first

  • Progress slowly

  • Make time for a proper warm-up

  • Reduce your training volume

  • Listen to your body

  • Introduce some variety to your training

  • Address your limitations

1. Go Easy at First


This sounds like common sense, but it is worth mentioning and is likely the most important thing to consider when getting back in the gym. If you’re like me, you were missing some heavy lifts while forced to train at home. It is tempting to bust through the gym doors and go all out, trying to figure out what you can still lift.


Don’t give into the temptation! Yes, you do want to challenge your body and give your muscles the stimulus they have been missing, but a huge spike in your training intensity can leave you sidelined with an injury. There’s plenty of research out there showing the high likelihood of getting injured with rapid changes in your training intensity.


2. Progress Slowly


This is pretty much an extension of the last bullet point. Gains in the gym do not happen overnight. Think about how long it took you before. Rapid change in training intensity or volume is a huge predictor of injury risk.


To make things simple, break it down over a 4-week or 6-week period. If you want to get back to your prior level, you want to get there in 4 to 6 weeks (depending on how much you trained during the pandemic). Reverse engineer your workouts so that you are progressing by a similar intensity each week. You could do this by a percentage (up to 10% increase each week) or by the rule of 1.5 (up to 1.5 x increase each week). You can increase your resistance and/or your number of sets/reps each week, but your overall volume should still abide by the 10% or 1.5 x rule.


Using the 10% Rule for Weight

Goal: Squat 225# for 5 sets of 5 (this should be a weight you have done before)

Week 1: Squat 185# for 5 sets of 5

Week 2: Squat 200# for 5 sets of 5 (8.1% increase)

Week 3: Squat 215# for 5 sets of 5 (7.5% increase)

Week 4: Squat 225# for 5 sets of 5 (4.7% increase)


Using the 1.5 x Rule for Sets/Reps

Goal: Squat for 5 sets of 5

Week 1: Squat for 2 sets of 5

Week 2: Squat for 3 sets of 5 (1.5 x increase)

Week 3: Squat for 4 sets of 5 (1.33 x increase)

Week 4: Squat for 5 sets of 5 (1.25 x increase)


3. Make Time for a Proper Warm-Up


Put in some extra time for specific warm-up drills as well as warm-up sets for your lifts. If you plan to press overhead, you should spend some time moving your shoulders into an overhead position with and without weights. If you plan on squatting, you should work your hips, knees, and ankles into flexion. Not only should you be prepping for the specific movement, but you should take extra time to build up to your working sets.


If you plan to have 5 working sets (using the squat example again), you shouldn’t just jump to your working weight. If you used to start at 135#, then jump to 185#, then to 225#, then you may want to take a few extra steps along the way. You could add smaller jumps so that you start at 135#, jump to 155#, then 185#, then 205#, then finally to 225#. Get your body used to the heavier weight as you go.


4. Reduce Your Training Volume


If you were used to a certain amount of training volume, you should have that as a goal and start smaller. This could be done by modifying your number of sets, number of exercises, time in the gym, or days in the gym. Figure out what works best for you, but don’t expect to be able to jump back in at the volume you used to do but haven’t for months.


If you have been working out at home, maybe you were doing 5-6 days per week. However, these 5-6 workouts may have been at a much lower intensity due to limitations in equipment, space, or anything else. Keep that in mind. Even though you were doing 5-6 lower-intensity (lower than pre-COVID) workouts at home, you may want to scale back to 3-4 higher-intensity workouts or alternate between high and low intensity.


5. Listen to Your Body


Our bodies actually do a good job at telling us when we’ve done too much. There’s a fine line between the aches and pains associated with gains and the discomfort that can lead to an injury. A lot of us have had some pains along the way with training, but learned (or haven’t learned) when it’s okay to push through.


What I’m saying here is that you should be cautious with pushing through pain when getting back into the gym. Use your brain and if you are not sure if it’s smart to push through the pain, then don’t! If it feels like muscular fatigue or failure, move forward with caution. You will start communicating more effectively with your body as you get a few weeks back in the gym under your belt.


6. Introduce Some Variety to Your Training


Get creative with your workouts at the gym. I’m sure you had to find new ways to lift at home. Ask your coaches, trainers, and friends for some new exercises or variations of your favorites. Use that piece of equipment that you’ve always stared at but never touched. Work in some eccentrics (negatives) and isometrics. The body likes variety and it is less likely to feel overwhelmed when it is not doing the same thing over and over.


7. Address Your Limitations


The majority of this article has been focusing on not going too hard when you get back into the gym. Well, that means that you have more time to get into good habits. If you are aware of your limitations, now is the time to give them attention. Some common ones are poor ankle mobility, poor shoulder mobility, poor squat form, and the inability to perform a pull-up to name a few. Take some of your extra time in the gym that you gained from not going as hard as possible all the time, and work on the things that need to be worked on. It’s common to ignore these issues as it will put you a little outside of your comfort zone and it’s not as glamorous as slaying weights. You will feel better for it and become a more well-rounded athlete.

Let’s get after it!


Corey Hall, PT, DPT

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