At Complete Physio we are committed to getting you back to the gym and exercising safely. Many exercise habits have changed significantly during the COVID-19 lockdown. In this blog, our physiotherapist, Reece Noble, who specialises in Strength & Conditioning, lays out his 7 tips for a successful return to the gym.
Many gyms across the country have reopened and people returning to their previous exercise regimes. Others may be adapting to the ‘new normal’ such as working and exercising from home. Either way, the principles discussed in this blog should help you adapt safely to your new exercise program.
Hopefully, many out there have managed to stay active over the lockdown. For many home training has replaced their previous gym and exercise classes. However, data from sources such as Fitbit, shows that overall there has been an average 12% drop in activity levels by their users over the lockdown period .
In addition many have struggled to exercise to the same intensity they normally would in the gym through a lack of access to resistance training equipment, there is potential for overload injuries when returning to the gym.
The extent to which muscle strength decreases over the course of a number of months (such as the current lockdown period) is not fully understood, particularly in recreational trained athletes/gym-goers.
One 2013 Meta-Analysis by McMaster & colleagues  looked at the effects of long detraining periods in elite rugby and American Football athletes and found the following:
- 19% decrease in overall strength in breaks between 10-16 weeks
- 40% reduction in shoulder strength
In this review, other training continued which may have blunted the full detraining effects somewhat. Adding this to the 300% greater injury rate seen in the opening round of the German Bundesliga in late May  and the warning signs are there for a steady return to exercise, particularly at high intensity.
Further to just looking at muscular health, our tendons and bone change via exposure to loading, both increased and decreased. Research shows us that these tissues take around 48-72 hours to recover from a bout of heavy loading, particularly plyometric loading (i.e. jumping) , so respect must be given to this when planning for a return to a full gym program.
So, where does this leave you in planning for a return to the gym?
Overall, the main message is to set a solid foundation for yourself to get back to training. Don’t just jump straight back in where you left off, that is a guaranteed recipe for injury!
Here are 7 basic guidelines to stick to, to maximise your chances of a safe and effective return to the gym.
1. Give yourself at least 48hours between sessions.
Or more basically – limit yourself to 3 days a week for the first 2 weeks. This will give all of your tissues time to adapt to the higher load you are placing on them.
2. Drop your weights to 50% of what you were doing (pre lockdown) and increase by a set percentage each week.
Your early focus should be on form, not high loading/intensity. If you have remained somewhat active during the lockdown, a 15% increase per week should be achievable, meaning you will be back to your full weights at week 4.
If you have been sedentary during the lockdown, stick to a 10% increase per week, meaning week 6 should be the first week you are anywhere near your pre-lock down weights.
3. Gauge your number of reps by intensity levels, rather than numbers.
If 10/10 is full intensity, meaning failure, then start at 6/10 intensity and increase by no more than 1/10 per week, as a guide.
– 10/10 = failure
– 9/10 = 1 more rep could be performed
– 8/10 = 2 more reps could be performed
– 7/10 = 4 more reps
– 6/10 = 6 more reps
4. A targeted warm-up focused on mobility and activation.
My Instagram live video that I did for Complete Pilates shows a common warm-up I would perform at the start of a gym session. It focuses on mobility and activation of key joints and muscle groups.
This style of warm-up can be used before any session, but it is particularly important in periods such as this when activity levels have dropped off and we have often been sedentary (i.e sitting a lot).
5. Be very considerate with re-starting plyometrics.
Any jumping, hopping or skipping tasks should be re-added cautiously. By far the biggest loads on tendons and bones are through plyometric exercises and as outlined above, these can take 72 hours to recover from.
If you have stayed active but not doing plyometric exercise through lockdown, limit these activities to twice a week and limit foot contacts (i.e. how many times your foot hits the ground) to 40 each foot, then increase by no more than 10% weekly. If you have been inactive over lockdown, wait until week 3 of your gym return and follow the guidelines above.
6. Sleep and eat well.
Sleep is by far the best recovery tool known to man, it’s also free and enjoyable! Getting your 7-9 hours in is important at all times but especially when exercising.
Further to this, if your calorie output through exercise goes up, you need to give your body the nutrients to recover from the higher level of exercise. Of course, if over lockdown you may have gained a few pounds, a responsible calorie deficit is the best way to safely take them off.
7. Respect any niggles and see your physio if any pain persists. If you start to feel any pain on your return to the gym, see a professional ASAP to get it sorted and get you back on track.
Hopefully, these tips will guide you through a safe and injury-free return to the gym. If a physiotherapy assessment is required, Reece works from our clinics on Fulham Road (Chelsea clinic) and the city (Broadgate clinic).
For more information or to book a physiotherapy appointment please call 020 7482 3875 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tardioli, A., P. Malliaras, and N. Maffulli, Immediate and short-term effects of exercise on tendon structure: biochemical, biomechanical and imaging responses. British medical bulletin, 2012. 103(1): p. 169-202.