Returning to the gym - Dan Osman

Lockdown has meant the highly adaptable beings we are have embraced home workouts, the use of outdoor space, invested in everything from bands and sandbags of cement for added resistance, to taking up paddle boarding as well as rediscovering the benefits of walking beyond getting from the car to the front door, just to move.

Lockdown is now easing, gyms are reopening, and these EXTRAORDINARY times are edging closer to a new normal even if it might/possibly/maybe/who actually knows, be temporary. One thing is for certain, none of us are going to take the gym for granted again!

What can we do to get us back to where we were and beyond?

Most of us would like to believe we can simply rush back to performing the personal bests and handling the training intensity levels we previously were, unfortunately this is highly unlikely and not entirely sensible for our first sessions back. Whatever that previous PB was, lets realistically graze 50% off that, strip that movement down to the simplest variation of it, and perform it in the most controlled manner possible, working through the greatest range feasible.

You don’t need to crawl out of your workout to make it an effective session. 

Focussing on form and quality of movement, slowly, will get you back to where you were without risk of injury from rushing to use as much load as you can manage right now. Just because you ‘can’ lift a certain weight, doesn’t mean you ‘should’, and this isn’t necessarily the smartest approach. You should leave the gym initially, upon returning feeling like you could have done a little more.

With a certain amount of unease as those doors re-open it’s going to take a collective, socially responsible and mutually respectful effort from the second we arrive to when we leave our leisure/sport/social (gyms and sport offer so much more than just a space to exercise!) destination to ensure we all move towards our previous best and beyond together.

Collective, careful considerations

Time will be short, frequency of sessions possibly less than before and our previous familiar fortitude of solace will be somewhat different, ‘new’ and unfamiliar with certain further measures. It makes sense that time spent there is efficient as possible which is why it might be firstly astute to pre-plan our training sessions, with added movement variations that are easily set up, requiring as little space as possible if our favourite pieces of training kit are being used, and prepare for alternatives.

For example, it’s likely typical beloved machines such as the leg press and bench press will not be vacant for very long so if you’re time constrained and limited on space due to social distancing suggestions, a quick and easy to set up goblet squat variation with a kettlebell, or a band resisted press-ups might be your alternatives to save you waiting around. Taking this into consideration, we can limit our equipment choice and plan sessions around limited space.

There’s a lot you can get done with a bar or dumbbells, minimal load and minimal space, and if your favourite bits of training equipment come up for grabs, it’s a bonus!

Most training bang for your buck

‘Bro’ splits (sessions dedicated to one muscle group, i.e. chest day) are becoming a thing of the past, which a weight of evidence now supports. No one really wants to be sore five days after training either, especially when you could have trained that muscle group another two times in that period. By not working to absolute failure and dedicating whole workouts to training one muscle group you instead have multiple opportunities for stimulus, feel better rested between workouts, with a lot less fatigue and the inevitable drops in performance.

Full body workouts are not only more favourable in terms of increasing the frequency of training muscle groups, but you will likely be able to train them harder over a fewer sets and less time (this unfortunately will be a factor to consider as everyone rushes back to the gym) but it also offers psychological advantage too!

Psychologically it’s much ‘easier’ to wrap your mind around and focus on achieving 2-3 really tough working sets for the same effect in terms of muscle stimulus, than over a 40 set workout in which the latter part of the session everything begins to mechanically breakdown a little, movement quality suffers, and your ability to exert yourself diminishes.

For example, a returning workout could consist of just 16 workings sets (rep ranges from 10-15 reps for each) – e.g. x 4 sets of DB goblet squats, x 3 sets of band resisted press-ups, x 3 sets single-arm DB row, x 3 sets of standing DB shoulder press, x 1 set bicep curls, 1 set skull crushers, x 2 sets, 45 second plank hold.

Another consideration…. ‘stuff’ inevitably crops up and if you have to sacrifice one full body workout that week over totally neglecting a whole muscle group it’s really no big deal. Missing leg day after leg day, week after week, doesn’t serve anyone long term……

Headphones on and turned up. Head down, and conversation levels turned down a notch

Social distancing measures aside your attention span, energy levels and motivation after a lay off will be limited (even if it’s just for now). Non-negotiable periods pre agreed with yourself and held accountable to others means we rely on the less tangible motivational variables in which we expect a fleeting feeling to arrive and carry us through whatever task we have set ourselves.

By all means we should go with these feelings when they arrive but what about the days they don’t? With non-negotiables focussed on the imperfect action of completing a task, at a set day and time, within an allocated time slot, it means we come to rely on how we feel less. We instead begin to understand the discipline that coincides with the need to get things done whether we feel like it or not because achieving our goals are important to us, and we’re the only ones in charge of actioning what’s needed. Motivation follows action.

Final thoughts

If you’re returning back this Saturday after relatively little lifting for the past four months the prospect of setting foot in a gym again will likely be a little daunting for most, so a few final thoughts.

1. Re-establish some new goals that parallel a new normal, with what you will be able to realistically, and consistently adhere to by setting yourself up for weekly wins. If it’s probable you will be able to complete four sessions, perhaps commit to three, thus guaranteeing you achieve your weekly target with a potential bonus if you’re able to complete an additional workout.

2. The same kindness, compassion and patience you will likely be offering to others (we are all still in the middle of a pandemic after all), offer yourself too. Facilities, trainers and other members will all be finding their feet with new processes so communicate if you have concerns and the same as you wouldn’t comment on anyone else’s lockdown ‘gains’ or losses of strength, try to apply the same thought process and offer yourself the same levels of compassion. Whilst you might be a few pounds heavier, not quite as happy aesthetically speaking at the moment, strong or fit as you were, that’s all changeable. Be patient and enjoy the process of getting back to the gym over focussing on the outcome of looking or performing a certain way.

3. It goes without saying, meet people where they’re at and respect where they are in terms of surviving this pandemic. Some people will be more comfortable than others so be courteous, keep your distance unless invited closer, frequently wash your hands, and keep the environment and equipment as clean for others after use, as you would expect it to be for you.

Dan Osman

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