8 Keys to Safely Returning to the Gym After Taking Time Off (Like from COVID-19) - FITNESS PAIN FREE

8 Keys to Safely Returning to the Gym After Taking Time Off (Like from COVID-19)

Key Points:

  • Go slow when returning to the gym even if you feel good
  • Use a 4 week ramp up period to slowly increase intensity and volume as you return
  • Cut your sets down slightly from your normal program
  • Use more rate of perceived exertion (RPE) and reps in reserve (RIR) work in your training
  • Utilize TEMPO training in your sets
  • Progressively increase your volume week to week following the rule of 1.5
  • Listen to your body in order to catch the formation of new injuries
  • Perform extra warm-up sets prior to beginning working sets

1) Go Slow When Returning Even If You Feel Good

Oh deadlifts how I have missed thee...

I get it, when I'm forced to take time away from training all I can think about is kicking the door to the gym down and pounding through 100 sets of deadlifts and bench press until I can't move my arms and legs anymore.  It's certainly a natural feeling.  

The only trouble with this is that your body has probably withered to a slightly less formidable version of itself in the past few weeks to months and it isn't ready to tackle an iron standoff the size of world war 2.

We've got ample evidence (1) that a very fast increase in training exposure after being deconditioned is a great way to get hurt fast.  Remember, your goal is to tear a hole in the weight stack, not a hole in your rotator cuff.  For this reason we've got to take it slow. So ya, the rest of this article is going to show you how to do this.  

2) Use a 4 Week Ramp Up Period to Slowly Increase Intensity and Volume

After a period of time away from training you become deconditioned.  Your body hasn't been pounded with the hammer and chisel it's used to from hours of battle in the gym.  You've become a softer and more pillowy version of yourself.  

So unfortunately your body isn't as battle ready as it used to be and it's gonna take time to adapt to the stress we throw at it as we return to training.  Unfortunately we can't adapt back to 100% in just a few days or even weeks.  We even have research to show that when a newer meat head begins on their journey toward muscle excellence they're more at risk of injury then their iron veteran brethren for an entire year after starting their training. (2)  For this reason I recommend taking a full 4 weeks to slowly progress yourself back to your normal training intensity and volume.

There is always going to be more inherent risk of injury when starting up your training again but adding this ramp up period is a great start to doing it in a smarter way.

3) Cut Your Sets Down From Your Normal Program

I generally like to perform somewhere between 3 and 5 working sets for every movement I end up performing in the gym.  I'm assuming that you are probably on a similar plan.  

When you're returning from your muscle hiatus it's intelligent to start with a lower volume and slowly build up over time.  For this reason I generally perform somewhere between 1 and 2 working sets per movement.  I like to bolster these working sets with a few extra warm-up sets prior to the working sets (more on this later).

Manipulating the total number of sets performed in the gym is an easy way to safely build your way back up over time.

4) Use More Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) and Reps in Reserve (RIR) Work in Your Training

So, you know when you finish a set and feel like you had more reps in the tank?  Sure, we've all been there.  How about when you pop all of the blood vessels in your left eye trying to grind out that last set of deadlifts?  Ya, we've all probably been there too.  I mean we have to work hard to see progress.

However, the difference between stopping 1-2 reps shy of failure during a set and going until you see Jesus are two entirely different types of sets.  If you're going for a bloody eye on the first day back in the gym, you're probably destined for failure.  Trust me, you don't want to be the guy peeing coca-cola and heading to the hospital with a case of rhabdo the first day the gym opens back up.

One way we can slowly ramp back in some intensity in our training is through using RPE and RIR sets.  RPE is simply a scale from 0-10 to rate how intense your set was.  10/10 intensity is a mother lifting a car off her child and 1/10 is lifting approximately 4 feathers (super, super easy).

Reps in reserve simply is defined by how many reps you feel you left in the tank after a set is finished.  i.e. If you feel like you could have done 2 more reps when you set the bar down that was a 2 RIR set. 

When returning back to the gym after taking some time off, I recommend your sets all be around the 8 RPE or 2 RIR area for the first few weeks.

5) Utilize TEMPO training

Tempo training is basically using a prescribed tempo or speed of execution during your lift.  Let's use the bench press for example and a tempo of 30X0.  This refers to a "3" second lowering phase "0" seconds with the bar on your chest, an "X" explosive lifting phase and "0" second pause at the top of the lift.  

I used to absolutely hate performing these sets.  Why? because they force you to lift a little less weight then you normally can.  However, remember key number 1, "go slow".  We're not looking to max out on day 1.  This decrease in load is a great way to ramp back in more slowly.

Not only is using a tempo really helpful for reducing the stress on our joints but actually develops MORE time under tension for the muscle allowing for some more muscle growth.  Now, I like using a TEMPO on several movements each week during normal training times.  When you're getting back to training it's probably helpful to use tempo sets a little more then usual.  

One easy way to use a tempo is to perform your first movement of the day at a normal speed and then the rest of the movements for the day are performed with a 2-3 second lowering phase.   

6) Progressively Increase Your Volume Week to Week Following the Rule of 1.5

We're now becoming aware that one of the best predictors of injury are having "spikes" in training volume that your body wasn't prepared to handle. (3)  So if you really want to hurt yourself in the gym it's a good idea to do way more then you're used to doing.  I'm fairly certain even if you do very little on that first week there is a good chance you'll still be pretty sore just from a lack of training that went on in the weeks prior.  

Now, it probably isn't enough to just have a 1 week introductory period, especially if you really weren't able to have access to heavy barbells and dumbbells over the past few weeks.  Here's why...

Work by Time Gabbett has shown that we don't want to jump total volume by more then 1.5x the amount we did on the week prior. (4)  If we violate this rule, our risk of injury goes up.  Although this isn't a perfect number, this is a helpful starting point for figuring out how much we should be increasing our volume from week to week. 

So what that means is that if we cut our sets down to 2 for the first week, we can't just jump right back to 5 sets the following week.  That violates the 1.5x rule.  (This represents a 2.5x jump in volume from week 1 to 2)

So how do we do this? Let's use the deadlift as an example.  Let's also say our goal is to work our way back up to 5 sets of 5 reps since that's your favorite set-up to get strong as an ox.  

Deadlift Goal: 5 sets x 5 reps

  • Week 1: 2 working sets
  • Week 2: 3 working sets (1.5x volume jump from last week)
  • Week 3: 4 working sets (<1.5x volume jump from last week)
  • Week 4: 5 working sets (<1.5x volume jump from last week)

As you can see in this example by simply increasing the amount of sets from week to week we can make sure we don't go above a 1.5x jump in volume and increase our injury risk.  We should use this strategy on all of the major movements in the gym.    

7) Listen to Your body

We all know that if you're a fan of going hard in the gym you've got some masochistic tendencies.  Who doesn't like doing bicep curls until you feel like your muscles are about to explode?  I mean, we're looking for a bountiful harvest from the arm farm this year.  It's the best feeling.

However, this desire to push to the limit usually comes along with ignoring aches and pains as they pop up during and after training.  Some aches and pains here and there are mostly normal for someone who pushes the envelope in the gym.  However, they can also be a sign of injuries to come.  I'm sure you've felt some aches and pains come and go as you push through the pain and continue on with training.  I'm also willing to guess you've experienced the opposite.  Sometimes pushing through pain just makes the area progressively worse and now you've got a more serious injury on your hands.

You want to know one of the best ways to lose progress and get weaker and smaller in the gym?  Get hurt.  Great for shriveling muscles.  Obviously we want to avoid this muscle pitfall...

So when you're returning back to the gym after time off your body is in a bit of a vulnerable state.  It's more important now then ever that we listen to these little nagging aches and pains and make smart decisions when they pop up during training.  There's no shame in lowering the weight on the bar slightly, modifying the exercise or straight up skipping a movement on one day just because your body isn't tolerating a given exercise.  

8) Perform Extra Warm-up Sets Prior to Working Sets

We all know you'll be a bit rusty with your technique when getting back to training.  There's no better way to kick the rust off and get your technique back then performing extra warm-up sets.  They also serve as a safe way to help build extra volume back into your program over time.  If you're only performing 1-2 working sets in a given session maybe that means you're adding 1-2 warm-up sets prior to the working sets to work on technique.

Here's an example.  Let's use the example from above with the deadlift.  Let's say we're on week 3 and the goal is 3 x 5 reps of deadlift at 315lbs.  Your warm-up sets may look like:

  • 135 x 5
  • 185 x 5
  • 225 x 5 (RPE 5)
  • 260 x 5 (RPE 6)
  • 290 x 5 (RPE 7)

Let's say you normally jump straight from 225 to 315.  You're actually getting 2 extra sets in above what you normally would during your warm-up.  It's a win-win.  More volume, more technique, less injury.  

The other reason why I like adding in more warm-up sets is because they serve as a good way to catch aches and pain before there's too much weight on the bar and more serious injury occurs.  

Sometimes you don't know that a given joint isn't going to handle the training for the day well until you start loading weight onto the bar.  Let's say your lower back isn't going to handle 315 on a given training day but you perform 0 warm-up sets and go straight to 315 and get injured trying to rip the weight off the floor.  

If you performed a few warm-up sets prior to 315 you'd realize that low back isn't feeling great today and you have to make a smarter decision to either train at a lighter load or choose a different movement for the day.   Either way you live to fight another day in the 2nd scenario.  

So there you have it!  8 ways you can return back to the gym in a more intelligent way.  If you're looking for more help on returning to the gym after time off you're in luck.  I'm currently running a sale on my Power Building Training Program which comes complete with a 4 week ramp up period following all of the principles I just outlined in this article.  

If you're looking for a smart way to return to gym training then this is a no brainer.  Plus it's only $1 for the first month.  You can't even buy coffee for that cheap.  Click HERE to learn more.

Can't stop the pump,

Dan Pope DPT, OCS, CSCS

References:

  1. Ball S, Halaki M, Orr R. Training volume and soft tissue injury in professional and non-professional rugby union players: a systematic review. Br J Sports Med. 2017;51(13):1012‐1020. doi:10.1136/bjsports-2015-095926
  2. Feito Y, Burrows EK, Tabb LP. A 4-Year Analysis of the Incidence of Injuries Among CrossFit-Trained Participants. Orthop J Sports Med. 2018;6(10):2325967118803100. Published 2018 Oct 24. doi:10.1177/2325967118803100
  3. Bowen L, Gross AS, Gimpel M, Bruce-Low S, Li FX. Spikes in acute:chronic workload ratio (ACWR) associated with a 5-7 times greater injury rate in English Premier League football players: a comprehensive 3-year study. Br J Sports Med. 2020;54(12):731‐738. doi:10.1136/bjsports-2018-099422
  4. Gabbett TJ. The training-injury prevention paradox: should athletes be training smarter and harder?. Br J Sports Med. 2016;50(5):273‐280. doi:10.1136/bjsports-2015-095788
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